Why Some Women Love the Ban Bossy Campaign

Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign to “Ban Bossy” when talking about girls, so that they’re less likely to be discouraged from being leaders, has generated some serious backlash.  Some have objected to the campaign by schooling us on the differences between being bossy and being a leader. Indeed, these words are not synonymous in the dictionary.  Some, especially parents of five-year olds, shudder at the thought of not correcting their bossy kindergartener’s behavior.  What kind of little tyrant (boy or girl) would that raise?  And yet others have objected because, in the world, there are issues that are far greater and of more concern to more people and women.  Being called “bossy”? How about addressing issues of domestic violence, rape, sex trafficking, or the income gap between men and women?  How about talking about poverty and world hunger first?  All important problems, and yes, far more important than being called bossy.  But if we can’t talk about the issues that concern us, yes, us, privileged women in advanced countries, then it also means we can’t talk about anything at all.

But other women love the campaign because it describes the type of sexism most of us face.  It’s not overt and it’s hard to describe it without sounding like you’re overreacting to some non-slight, or “getting your period.”  Finally, women at work can say, yes, I don’t like that I’m perceived as bossy (or worse!) for doing the same thing my colleagues are doing.  There is objective evidence to support that whether the actual behavior veers on the bossy or leadership spectrum, it is perceived more negatively (by both men and women) when exhibited by a woman.  In the ensuing discussion and countless op-eds on the subject (counting this as my second piece!), women can finally put a name on what it is that has been bothering them, finally it can come to light, and all of us, men and women, can re-examine our reaction to behavior for the signs of bias that is well described in everyone else.

A part of me wonders whether all the backlash against the Ban Bossy campaign proves Sandberg’s point.  I wonder whether Sheryl Sandberg would have gotten the same reception if she were Samuel Sandberg.  Perhaps, this kind of message from Samuel Sandberg would have resonated with all parents – a supportive dad trying to make sure his daughter had equal opportunities.  Perhaps many look at Sandberg and see what is too often seen in women in power – a bossy (or worse) woman.  We are not surprised that she was called bossy, in fact, we probably shudder at the thought of raising a daughter like her, and sympathize far more with the teacher and her friend.  We, too, would have advised our daughters to find a less bossy friend.  The most ridiculous critiques come from those lecturing about tougher skin.  I’ll venture to say that Sheryl Sandberg’s skin is tougher than that of most lecturers, and yet, words do sting.  Isn’t that what we are trying to teach our children with the anti-bullying campaign?  If someone who managed to rise to Sandberg’s level is still stung by the word bossy thrown at her in junior high, perhaps it’s worth considering what happened to the many more girls whose skin wasn’t quite that tough, who didn’t want success quite that much.  It is those girls that Sandberg is thinking of when she embarks on this campaign.

Does this mean we risk raising more obnoxious girls by not correcting them? Probably not.  Clearly we, as a society, are over-correcting them now, so it’s reasonable to agree that the pendulum should swing the other way.  No one will be correcting parents on how they raise their children, and parents of bossy toddlers will certainly be free to correct those behaviors in their children.  But perhaps the campaign will help us clarify our corrections better.  When we urge our daughters to not be bossy, we will be more apt to help them understand exactly what it is about their behavior we find objectionable and how we define its opposite – not as passive or submissive, but as a leader.

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