Sheryl 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.