Is Banning a Word Inherently Bossy?

bossyWhen Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) very publicly encouraged women everywhere to Lean In, and published subsequent book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, it was met by standing ovations, and then, naturally by a bit of backlash. Namely, that it was a pretty ass-backwards way to address the issues of gender equality in the workplace.

Sandberg is back at it, fresh off the success of Lean In, collaborating with Lifetime, Girl Scouts of America, and BBDO New York to Ban Bossy. A campaign and website that aims to bring awareness to the idea that women are treated differently in leadership positions then men are. That women are “bossy,” whereas men are the “boss.”

To explain the reasoning behind the campaign Sandberg has said:

“We know that by middle school, more boys than girls want to lead, and if you ask girls why they don’t want to lead, whether it’s the school project all the way on to running for office, they don’t want to be called bossy, and they don’t want to be disliked.” She continued:

“We call girls bossy on the playground. We call them too aggressive or other B-words in the workplace. They’re bossy as little girls, and then they’re aggressive, political, shrill, too ambitious as women.”

To ensure that folks were going pay attention, the campaign called on faux-fem Beyonce and other celebrities to help spread the word and get the hashtags flowing. After the launch “ban bossy” started trending on both Twitter and Facebook.

And then, like Lean In, the backlash started.  And, like Lean In, its tactics appear more than a little problematic.

Primarily, Ban Bossy strikes a rather discordant note with Sandberg’s own writings in Lean In. In the book Sandberg glorifies traditionally “male” characteristics— outspokenness, credit-taking, and a domineering presence in the work place. It presumes that in order to succeed women need to be more like men. This is obviously problematic for a couple of reasons: 1. It essential says that women should aspire to be “the boss” as dictated by the patriarchal powers-that-be, and 2. Totally ignores research like that conducted by Zenger Folkman (and as reported by Forbes), that women: “build better teams; they’re more liked and respected as managers; they tend to be able to combine intuitive and logical thinking more seamlessly; they’re more aware of the implications of their own and others’ actions; and they think more accurately about the resources needed to accomplish a given outcome.”

No where in the book does Sandberg suggest the idea that in order to get ahead or be taken seriously, assertive, career-minded men should ever attach themselves to a song and dance campaign that offers little more than offer vague platitudes as solutions. In fact, she would probably warn against such frivolity.

Banning a word also implies something inherently negative. We don’t need to publicly condemn a word because we don’t like its meaning. We should take its power away by changing the conversation and curriculum– not rewriting the dictionary.

We’re not claiming that words don’t have power, they do.  But if a young girl is afraid to raise her hand in the classroom, teach her to raise her hand. Show her the positive that can come from when she speaks up. Show her that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Make it mandatory that every child contribute in the classroom setting. Teach her never to apologize for her answers.

The only way we shift the patterns, break them even– is by changing the curriculum and classroom environment. And that takes money and power. Both of which Sandberg has readily at her disposal. So maybe should put her money where her mouth is currently banning words.

We need to to positively reinforce emboldened actions of young girls and women –whether that be in the classroom or on the playground. That work will carry into boardrooms.

Don’t teach them to tattle on Webster.

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