Why I am okay with being called the “B” Word

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The recent retirement of a friend led me back to this discussion. After 37 years of service to her community, my friend Catherine’s passion for bringing historic preservation opportunities to the forefront had an undeniable impact.

I will never forget the first time I met Catherine. I was executive director of a housing agency and the two of us were seated across the table from each other for a discussion about the Erlanger community revitalization project. I was the new face on the project team and admittedly had my questions on how “her” historic preservation component would impact “my” affordable housing. I came to the table ready to defend “my” aspects of the project and, quite frankly, had been warned I was up against a “tough” (for lack of a better word) opponent.

I left that meeting with two impressions of Catherine. First, I could only wish to be that knowledgeable and professionally dedicated — in my lifetime. Second, that she was not and would never be my “opponent.” Over the years, our shared experiences (and my amateur historical research) allowed us to get to know each other personally. As a young woman in “leadership,” I came to lean on women like Catherine for wisdom and support through some professional challenges. Somehow women like Hoffmann made what I called “Bumping my head on the local glass ceiling” a little more bearable.  

But the most unusual thing I gained from Catherine’s style of leadership was learning to be comfortable being called the “B” word. Some women would say that “Bossy” is a term that should be avoided. Sheryl Sandberg’s popular “Lean In” movement affirms that “passionate” women are more likely to be called the “B” word, while their assertive male counterparts are more likely to be promoted. Sandberg takes the notion further and suggest that calling little girls “bossy” discourages them from wanting to lead.

That was not the case for me. Much like the women in my life, I’ve learned to embrace the distinction. Perhaps it began with a summer on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh, where my auntie worked her way up the tenured ladder of academia to become the chair of the English department. I volunteered that summer, cataloguing books in the library and helping customers at the university book store. I learned a lot about the “B” word—since my auntie had developed the reputation of being one of the “hardest” professors.

As a young girl, I admired my auntie’s passion for education. This was decades before the system of ratemyprofessors.com arrived; however, I can imagine how her ratings would read considering that everyone seemed to have an opinion. I knew that as a single mother, she had dedicated long hours completing her undergraduate, graduate, and finally her Ph.D. at Howard University. I also understood that higher education wasn’t always welcoming to ambitious women. Even on the campuses of historically Black colleges, there seemed to be a never-ending power struggle for tenure and positions of prominence and power.

A recent article highlighted data used to describe professors in more than 14 million teacher ratings. You can plug words like “rude” or “brilliant” into an interactive chart created by Benjamin Schmidt and see how often students used negative words to describe female teachers. Women were more likely to be described as “disorganized” whereas men were more likely to be called “knowledgeable.”

Salon.com stated that, “Schmidt confirms a lot of what we already know about unconscious bias. Namely, that it’s real. As Claire Cain Miller noted last week at the Upshot, a recent report on performance reviews for nearly 250 tech company employees found that ‘women are much more likely to receive critical feedback than men, and women who are leaders are more likely to be described as abrasive, aggressive, and emotional.”

Over the years I’ve relied on what I first saw it modeled by my auntie when I would share my interactions with her students on campus. The perception didn’t keep her from challenging students inside and outside the classroom. There were those that loved her no-holds-barred standards and high expectations. Others made snide and uninformed comments like, “She needs to get a man.”

My respect for what I knew she went through inspired me at an early age. I knew how much she endured in her desire to influence advancements in education. She and others along the way have challenged me to be committed to continuously learning about my craft, to be unapologetically knowledgeable, and to be always ready to fight for a seat at the table. I was surprised that my auntie was still experiencing this in the early 90s, and decades later,

I too busy leading to worry about what it will take to stop calling women like her the other “B” word.

 




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