Sometimes a clever catchphrase can work too well. Backlash against the name of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign threatens to overwhelm its girl-empowering message.
At least Sandberg knows how to get people talking. A year ago she popularized “lean in” with a best-selling advice book – “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” – and a nonprofit national Lean In network to build women leaders.
Now she’s unveiled Ban Bossy, a campaign that enlists power women as diverse as Condoleezza Rice, Jennifer Garner, Beyoncé and the Girl Scouts to beat back the negative thinking that squelches budding take-charge attitudes in girls.
“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader,’ ” says the BanBossy.com website. “Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’ ”
So do bossy boys, of course. Even I, believe it or not, was called bossy on more than one occasion in my youth. Yet, I do not deny that women of all ages tend to be tagged with this particular B-word more often than men are. Overbearing males more often tend to be called “jerks” or perhaps some part of the male anatomy.
Either way, the double standard seems to deliver a subtly damaging message to girls: “Don’t raise your hand or speak up.” The website also cites widely publicized studies that show girls between grade school and high school becoming less interested in leadership than boys, a trend that continues into adulthood.
Unfortunately, most of the commentaries that have reacted in abundance to the Ban Bossy campaign seem to be focused less on the campaign’s goal of encouraging girls to lead than on the bossy tone of its title.
Some critics deplore any effort that relies too much on banning a word to solve complicated social problems like sexism. I appreciate that concern, but censorship isn’t the real goal of this effort. Intelligent people will change their own speech habits voluntarily, once they are presented with a reasonable argument. (Unintelligent people take longer, if ever.)
The New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot helpfully suggests “reclaiming” bossy in the way activists have reframed such pejoratives as “queer” and “slut” into labels of defiant pride. “Nerd” and “geek,” she notes, have become “words that lots of people are happy to identify with, humble-bragging about their obsessive expertise.” Indeed, the success of Geek Squad, the computer repair chain, helped that effort.
I would add such pejorative labels as “actin’ white” or “talkin’ white” among some African-American youths to the self-destructive labels that I, as an African-American parent, would like to ban.
But attempts to censor certain words only make the forbidden fruit more desirable. What works for kids of all races and genders are messages from older mentors and role models that brains and ambition can be cool, too.
That’s why I respectfully disagree with critics like the Daily Beast’s Keli Goff who dismiss Sandberg’s campaign as a bourgeois conceit by a corporate-class woman with misplaced priorities. “When I look at the laundry list of obstacles that women face, particularly those of us who do not come from privileged backgrounds,” Goff writes, “being called bossy doesn’t rank in the top 20.”
Fair enough. But never underestimate the power of self-defeating attitudes to steer lower-income youngsters away from promising success paths. Ban Bossy’s message is aimed not only at kids, but also at the adults who teach and influence them.
It’s a message too important to be aimed at girls alone. Raising a son during the past two decades has taught me not only that many girls should be more comfortably assertive, but also that more than a few boys should be less obnoxiously bossy.
Our modern conceptions of manhood and masculinity need to make room for the nurturing dad, for example, who blends work and home life in the way that more often falls on the shoulders of working moms. It’s OK for moms and dads to take turns being the boss – without being bossy.
– Chicago Tribune