Sheryl Sandberg Embraced “the Bossy.” Shouldn’t Our Girls?

School girlsSheryl Sandberg hates “bossy.” She hates it so much, that she’s launched a new campaign, endorsed by Beyonce, Jane Lynch and many others, to convince the world that things would be better for our daughters if only people just stopped calling girls with leadership potential “bossy.”

Sandberg famously wrote in her book that a teacher stopped her best friend and told her, “Nobody likes a bossy girl. You should find a new friend who will be a better influence on you.”

Boys with leadership skills are praised, but girls who are smart and engaged get called bossy, says Sandberg, and that makes them shrink into the background, backing away from their potential. Who knows if Sandberg really was bossy in the dictionary sense of the word (given to ordering people about; overly authoritative; domineering; dictatorial) or whether she was leadership bossy. Either way, she’s done OK for herself. But it’s obviously stuck with her.

Now, I’m no fan of name calling (something I know a little bit about after the last time I ventured into the world of daring to disagree with the newly formed feminist that is Sandberg), but there are lots of worse things one can be called in life than bossy and if we’re going to promote female leadership through a word banning campaign, I’d start with another ‘b’ word, not to mention that infamous ‘c’ word.

Being called bossy is no fun.  And I’m all for people not using the word “bossy” as negative shorthand for girls trying to flex their burgeoning leadership skills. But as one friend mentioned to me, maybe a better approach is teaching our girls to “stand up,” rather than making them believe we can change the behavior of others.

I’m all about empowering girls to lead, but there’s a disconnect here with #BanBossy. Yes, it would be nice if we could do away with all the double standards we still deal with in the world when it comes to the behavior of men vs. women. But if the goal of this campaign is girl empowerment and promoting girls’ leadership abilities, the better approach would be to help our daughters learn that the world isn’t fair and help them build skills and confidence so that even when people knock them down with some middle-school name calling, they have the inner strength to move past a nasty word and stay focused on their belief in their own worth.

Trust me, I have an eighth grade daughter.  I understand the dynamic of middle school all too well, and we’ve also navigated things a lot worse than bossiness. So what if instead of focusing on a word, we give our girls the tools to respectfully challenge those who brandish this particular ‘b’ word? As our daughter moved into her middle school years, we talked a lot about finding ways to respectfully call out either kids or adults who did or said things that upset her, or that made her uncomfortable or caused her to question herself.  It’s taken a lot of work, but our girl has learned that it’s OK let a teacher know he or she said something that made her feel worse about herself, and that there’s power in her talking directly to a classmate who’s said or done something not so nice.

So is there traction in the #BanBossy effort?  It depends on your stage in life.  One teen I follow on social media is all for this campaign and is appalled that I’ve questioned it, and not so nicely asked what I’VE done to help girls, to which I politely replied — I’ve tried to raise a daughter to be as confident as possible, I support women candidates who focus on issues that impact girls like education and poverty, and promote others who do the same.  Some of those women had these remarks about this latest Sandberg effort:

“My 6-year-old has come home from school complaining that other kids have called her “bossy” – I tell her “that’s great! Bossy girls grow up to be bosses!”

So far, nothing Sheryl Sandberg has said has had any resonance for me. I’m going to categorically dismiss her on this too.”

“Pseudo ‘grrrl power’ stealth self-promotion campaign before she runs for Senate? I dismiss about 98% of what Sandberg says.”

I saw this campaign earlier today. I would rather be called bossy then other words. How about we work on kids being bullied, saying the R word or ‘that is so gay’ sayings. I dislike those words. I would correct my coworkers at my last job all the time. The R word or that is so gay or the N word should not be part of everyday conversation vocabulary.”

If she really wanted to help women and girls, she’d campaign to raise the minimum wage.”

If she really wanted to help working women, she’d insist that all neighborhood public schools be fully funded so that parents could send their kids to the local public school with confidence, instead of having to bet on winning a lottery to get into the charters she funds.”

Personally, I do not recall being called “bossy” as a kid, but if I had been, I would have taken it as a compliment.”

“As a shy high-schooler, I actually would have appreciated anyone noticing me enough to call me bossy.”

“Where a white woman will be seen as bossy, a woman of color is seen as aggressive and intimidating, so even then being called bossy is better than the alternative we are often handed. If anything, this whole campaign reinforces my disdain for Sandberg and what I view as the disconnect. No one has ever called me bossy for being assertive, but I have been called scary, fearless, aggressive. Being called “bossy”? Yeah. Big deal.”

One more note to Sandberg.  My 14-year-old daughter, who will be attending a high school that focuses on creating and shaping girls as leaders, has this to say to you — If someone calls me bossy because I want to take a leadership role in something, I’d laugh, because I know I’m not. And I know I am a leader.

If Sandberg wants to get real about this whole bossy thing, I suggest she start with those of her followers who make no bones about name-calling when it comes to those who don’t buy in 100 percent to her ideas. Her fans have called her critics, among other things, vile, stupid haters who just aren’t smart enough to understand the nuances of the Sandberg way.  Maybe that’s not officially “bossy”, but that kind of name calling sure as hell isn’t advancing any conversation.

Sandberg didn’t become the COO of Facebook by wilting at that teacher’s comment to her high school friend so long ago.  Obviously, she ignored it and embraced those aspects of her personality to become uber-successful. A campaign built around that lesson is one I’d support.

Joanne Bamberger is an independent journalist who is also the author of the book Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America. She is also the publisher of the The Broad Side. You can find her on Twitter at @jlcbamberger.

Image via Wikimedia Commons


  • The debate over the Ban Bossy campaign seems a bit odd to me, and I wonder if someone other than Sheryl Sandberg spearheaded it the backlash would have been minimal to zero. Many of the responses, this one included, seem to focus on whether Sandberg could be doing something different or better with her influence. I have seen similar complaints in charity work, when people compare one cause with another (e.g. “They could have used that money for a new opera house to keep children from starving.”) This is a false choice. Different people can support different causes, and if everyone supported the same cause then many worthy ones would get no support at all.

    Sandberg’s goal is laudable. It does a number on a girl’s self esteem to be belittled for being a leader. Yes, we can (and should, and I do) teach our daughters to ignore those people and be who they are, but there’s nothing wrong with encouraging change from other side too. She might not affect the bullies, but very well may affect parents or teachers who, without thinking, refer to strong girls as bossy.

    The severe backlash appears more of a personality conflict with Sandberg than a problem with her proposal itself. If Random Woman #1 had started this campaign I suspect it would be either applauded or ignored, but not vilified. If people think that other problems are more important for women (of which I can personally think of many) then they should go work on those problems themselves rather than criticize Sandberg’s campaign.

    • Is it laudable to launch a campaign about banning a word in hopes that it will help improve girls’ leadership? For me, no matter who launched it, I would find it odd. I’m sure it would not get as much attention if someone with less of a profile than Sandberg started it. But if the goal, as she states, is to empower girls and help create more women leaders, there truly are much better ways to do that. As for a positive campaign, as I linked to in this post, this is one I find that is more constructive —

      http://shine.yahoo.com/shine-beauty/girls-cosmetics-ad-39-surprisingly-inspiring-191100448.html

  • #BanBossy seems surprisingly unambitious for a woman who could use her influence to effect real and substantial social change for girls. #BanBossy is something I might expect from a Disney character, not a woman who could get a Capitol Hill hearing any time she wants.

    • Shannon, I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s why it just feels like this is more about keeping her and her book in the spotlight for other purposes … like if she runs for office. I get criticized often for asking why people with incredible influence and contacts don’t do more than things that just seem like surface efforts — like we should be grateful that they’re doing anything. And my response is this — if women like her who can actually get that access don’t use it, what good is that power? No one is going to return my calls 🙂

      • Cara

        I suppose I’m less suspicious. I don’t know Sheryl Sandberg and can’t know what her motivations are, so my default is to assume that she really cares about this issue rather than that she is lying or dissembling.

  • I just wrote about this too. I’m with you, maybe the other b word or c word should be banned. anyway, i just keep coming back to the same thing…if you don’t like a word, don’t use it. This whole Ban Bossy thing is making me mad and I can’t put my finger on exactly why, aside from the fact that I just think it’s beyond ridiculous.

  • I find your ideas as thought-provoking as ever. But i will stand with the Girl Scouts on this one and go along with #banbossy as long as they explain it well. They do mention, when girls become teens and women, the b-word goes from bossy to b—-. So they want to start somewhere. Teaching leadership is a hallmark of Girl Scouts–long before Sheryl Sandberg was born. In Girl Scouts, “we lead to lead,” giving girls age appropriate skills. So #banbossy as a negative? — yes — and turn it into a positive?– YES.

  • Well, when so many women want to re-claim the word “slut,” why not re-claim “bossy”?? It’s a far less harsh word than “slut” and has a better connotation: bossy girls grow up to be bosses! I’m sure Sheryl Sandberg was called “bossy,” and her mom didn’t tell her not to be “bossy” so I do indeed see something wrong with #BanBossy. And, honestly, it’s not going to change girls from being bossy. Better to be called bossy, and learn how to win people over, than be told not to be bossy and never learn how to handle that part of yourself (IMO–as a girl who was told often by her mother “don’t be bossy” and “don’t be too smart.” a girl can’t be either too bossy or too smart!)

  • I wonder how much of problem it is, not discrimination against girls and discouragement of female leadership– obviously that’s still a problem, but the actual word. My rather assertive second grader has never been called bossy. On the other hand, my daughter is an admittedly small sample, and the campaign seems laudable enough, even if there are other more pressing problems facing girls. I never like it when someone is told they shouldn’t advocate for a cause because there are other, more important causes. There’s always going to be something more important.

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