“We need to move beyond the idea that girls can be leaders and create the expectation that they should be leaders.” – Condoleezza Rice.
It’s called “Ban Bossy” and it’s the latest women’s empowerment campaign from Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the bestselling Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Last year, Sandberg returned to Ted Women, where she launched the “Lean In” ethos in 2010, to take on the word “bossy,” a term almost exclusively applied to girls and women.
In our culture, men are encouraged to speak up and be strong and assertive, Sandberg said, while women who do the same are deemed “bossy.” This starts at a young age too when a girl’s self-esteem drops 3.5 times faster than that of a boy the same age. “It’s so hard to talk about gender. We shy away from ‘feminist,’ and it’s a word I think we have to embrace,” she said. “We need to get rid of the word ‘bossy’ and bring back the word ‘feminist.’”
On March 8, 2014, International Women’s Day, Sandberg announced her partnership with The Girl Scouts of America to create the Ban Bossy campaign. Their Ban Bossy launch campaign video features some of the most powerful and prominent women in business, politics, and pop culture today, including Beyonce, the above quoted former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, Jennifer Garner, fashion maven Diane von Furstenberg, and more. “Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up,” announces the Ban Bossy home page. “By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood.”
It’s a playground mentality that stretches into the family and, years later, the corporate setting. As children, socialization generally happens along gender divides. Girls are trained to be inclusive and use terms like “let’s” in group settings while encouraging a mentality that no one is better than the other. Meanwhile, boys in clusters jostle for dominance and boast of accomplishments to establish the individual as better than the group, as leader. Girls are conditioned from a young age that exhibiting leadership skills results in negative connotations of abrasive, bossy behavior. “Calling a girl "bossy" not only undermines her ability to see herself as a leader, but it also influences how others treat her,” wrote Sandberg with her Ban Bossy campaign partner, Girls Scouts of America CEO Anna Maria Chávez, in their Wall Street Journal announcement.
“Women at work are in a double bind,” says USA Today columnist and Georgetown professor of linguistics, Deborah Tannen. “If they talk in these ways, which are associated with and expected of women, they seem to lack confidence, or even competence. But if they talk in ways expected of someone in authority, they are seen as too aggressive. That's why ‘bossy’ is not just a word but a frame of mind.”
Yet women have been reclaiming the bossy moniker for years, as Joshunda Sanders points out at The Week. Sanders believes that, particularly among women of color, “bossy” is an anthem, not a pejorative. She goes on to argue that, being as she is a privileged white woman of means, Sandberg’s Bossy Ban campaign fails to encompass or acknowledge women of other cultural and economic brackets who have embraced “bossiness” for decades.
Sanders agrees with Sandberg’s assertion that real solutions to the overall issue need to be instigated when girls are young. “But it would make a greater difference if Sandberg used her enormous platform to send the message that it doesn't matter what anyone calls you—it's how you answer them.”
At Huff Post Living, Jody Steinhauer, President and CBO of the Bargains Group, argues that the self-esteem of young girls is too big a problem to blame on one word.
I appreciate Sanders calling out the undertones of “bitch” that permeate this conversation, but it sounds like the crux of her argument is we should just continue to turn the other cheek and let success be our best revenge. But given the gender wage disparity in the United States still weighs in at $.77 to the dollar, a figure that hasn’t changed since 2002, can women ever have enough success to change the overall corporate mentality? Or would it be better to also address the culture language and attitude that begins restricting girls’ impetus toward ambition all the way back in grammar school? From girlhood, women are admonished to play nice, to be supportive, to couch criticism with positive reinforcement, to be aware of their own faults when objecting to others. To step outside those parameters, to be aggressive, is to risk the overall goal, especially in a society where a woman’s attitude is given more credence than the content of her argument.
I make my living with language through the written word, so I keenly know the importance of terminology. Take a look at how quickly the lexicon of our society has changed with the advent of social media. Who could’ve imagined we’d ever use “favorite” as a verb? Words do matter and it’s crucial we recognize how girls are conditioned against leadership roles from an early age simply through negative, demeaning language. We should absolutely raise the conversation to encourage young girls and women to be assertive leaders and dismiss any accusations of bossy or bitchy meant to squash their advancement. And yet it’s equally important we not get so caught up in what we do or don’t say that we miss the chance to alter actual behavior—that we not care more about what we call it than that we do it. “There will always be people who try to put down powerful women,” Steinhauer writes,
What do you think?
Kiersten Hallie Krum writes smart, sharp & sexy romantic suspense. Find her snarking her way across social media as @kierstenkrum, here as Culture Toronto and at www.kierstenkrum.com.