Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook chief operating officer, is known for being bold. In her book, Lean In, Sandberg provided a prescription for success in the workplace. Now, Sandberg is on a campaign to ban the word “bossy.”
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The word has a great personal connotation for Sandberg. As she explained in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Sandberg was stung when a junior high school teacher told her best friend, “Nobody likes a bossy girl. You should find a new friend who will be a better influence on you.”
She also spoke about her campaign to NPR, saying, “This isn’t a word we should use. Let’s start encouraging girls to lead.”
Nowadays, you can bet that parents would beat an outraged path to the principal’s door, and demand an apology from the teacher. That painful memory has stayed with Sandberg, so much that she calls bossy the “other b-word” and has launched a social media campaign to #banbossy.
Sandberg is convinced that to be called bossy is a “very negative experience for girls” and by extension, for women. She’s projecting her experience onto her gender. She’s convinced that men are called leaders, and women are called bossy.
I’ve got news for her: there are far worse things for women than being called bossy. And, I don’t think banning bossy does much to help young girls, either.
For one, bossy isn’t only a word that applies to women. It’s gender neutral. There are plenty of bossy men out there, too. Bossy is bossy — dictatorial, unyielding, telling people what to do and expecting them to do it without any input.
Bossy is not the same thing as being a leader, even though Sandberg might view it that way. Leadership is an entirely different category. There are bosses who are leaders, and bosses who are bossy. We’ve all worked for them. We know the difference.
I’m not sure what’s moved Sandberg to want to ban bossy at this moment in time, but given the nastiness that many women face on a daily basis, being called bossy is the least of our problems.
Women in public life are regularly subject to far more vile and graphic abuse, on message boards, in social media, and in emails. They’re called things that never used to be said in polite society, and still aren’t, by those with manners.
Beyond that, women at all levels of society face discrimination. They face the threat of abuse. Their economic power still sadly trails that of men, despite the efforts by Sandberg and others to increase women’s authority. Those are far greater issues than a word that may or may not be hurtful.
Long ago, as I was preparing for the working world, my mom gave me some valuable advice. You have to have a thick skin to compete, she said. Don’t let what any one says change your opinion of yourself. Keep your head up and move forward.
Through the years, I’ve been called assertive and ambitious and probably other things behind my back, but I can’t recall an instance when someone called me bossy. If they did so, I probably would have laughed.
I wish someone had sat down the young Sandberg and said, “That word reflects more about the person who said it than it does about you. Don’t take it personally.” I hope that her best friend remained her friend. Clearly, Sandberg didn’t let it stop her, since she’s a billionaire and a best-selling author. Maybe, the deeply felt wound was a driving force.
But, we don’t have to ban words to make young girls feel better. Instead, teach them to believe in possibilities, no matter what anyone says about them, and keep finding ways to move forward.