Sheryl Sandberg Calls for Educators and Parents to #BanBossy


To celebrate the one-year anniversary of her popular book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has started a new campaign to ban what she calls “the other B-word”: bossy. In an editorial written for the Wall Street Journal, Sandberg explains how calling young girls “bossy” can undermine their desire to occupy leadership positions in the future, something that has caused the huge discrepancy between men and women in major leadership roles around the world.

In Lean In, which was spawned from a popular TED Talk Sandberg gave in 2010, she calls for women to embrace career ambition without fear. “The problem is this: Women are not making it to the top of any profession, anywhere in the world,” she says. Both the lecture and her book seek to figure out why this is and what women can do about it.

Sandberg’s philosophy encourages women to “own their own success” and stop being hesitant to ask for the things their male peers are accustomed to asking for. She simultaneously acknowledges her own self-doubts, recognizing that if successful women share that they too have insecurities and moments where they question their own abilities, other women will feel more capable of both pursuing success and taking credit for it when they get it.

Now Sandberg is turning her focus toward young girls with the hope that if girls aren’t punished for their ambitions from a young age, more will grow into women who are willing (or even encouraged) to pursue leadership positions. If girls who speak up, are assertive, or display other leadership qualities aren’t demeaned by being called “bossy,” then they may continue striving to be leaders rather than shrinking away from such roles under social pressure.

“The word ‘bossy’ has carried both a negative and a female connotation for more than a century,” Sandberg and her co-author, Girl Scouts of America CEO Anna Maria Chavez, say in the WSJ article. “Social scientists have long studied how language affects society, and they find that even subtle messages can have a big impact on girls’ goals and aspirations. Calling a girl ‘bossy’ not only undermines her ability to see herself as a leader, but it also influences how others treat her.” They call for the word “bossy” to become as taboo and social charged as that other B-word.

Sandberg also launched the website and has been promoting the hashtag #banbossy as a way to draw attention to the cause. “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’ Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys — a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead,” the site reads.

Sandberg herself has utilized her experiences in rising to the highest rungs of Silicon Valley’s notoriously male-dominated ladder to inform her philosophy. She recalls being called “bossy” by a teacher when she was a young student running for class vice president. “This is a very negative experience for girls. If you look at my childhood, if you look at the childhood of most of the leaders we talked to, they lived through being told they were bossy,” Sandberg said on NPR’s ”All Things Considered.” “And it has such a strongly female, and such a strongly negative connotation, that we thought the best way to raise awareness was to say, ‘This isn’t a word we should use. Let’s start encouraging girls to lead.’”

In January, Sandberg was named one of the youngest billionaires in the world when Facebook stock reached an all-time high. That seems to show the proof’s in the pudding regarding her message about not being afraid to take on more than you feel you can handle, as external social forces tell women that they can’t achieve those big goals for their entire lives. While Sandberg has referred to her book and the Lean In message as “a feminist manifesto,” she has been criticized by some for not acknowledging her privileged background enough when citing the reasons for her success.

In the editorial, Sandberg cites statistics to back up her claim that the connotations behind the word “bossy” inhibit girls and have dire consequences that can follow women throughout their lives. “A 2008 survey by the Girl Scouts of nearly 4,000 boys and girls found that girls between the ages of 8 and 17 avoid leadership roles for fear that they will be labeled ‘bossy’ or disliked by their peers. And ‘bossy’ is just the beginning. As girls mature, the words may change, but their meaning and impact remain the same,” she writes.

The campaign calls for anyone with the potential to affect a young girl’s life to refrain from using the word “bossy” to describe any ambitious or extroverted qualities she may possess, a small step that Sandberg believes can affect big change.

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet:

Follow Jacqueline on Twitter @Jacqui_WSCS