Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, appears to be one such person. The response to her March 8, 2014 Wall Street Journal Op Ed co-authored with Anna Maria Chavez, Girls Scouts USA, CEO has been vigorous. Ms. Chavez and Ms. Sandberg advocate banning the word “bossy” as applied to girls through a pledge campaign and to engage in other activities explained on a website banbossy.com. These leaders reach into their own history and into the etymology and semantics of the word bossy. Their conclusion is that this “B” word heard so often on the childhood play yard, in the classroom, and even in the Boardroom, Courtroom, or Senate Chamber is a social signifier. It is a word which connotes deeply rooted negative gender stereotypes of women who exhibit competent leadership skills. A bossy man is to be admired as a leader. A bossy woman, no matter how successful, is somehow unlikable. A boy or man in charge is acceptable. A girl or woman who is not kind and nurturing is deficient. Girls suffer, we are told, from these stereotypes, lose confidence, and fail to thrive in the race to the top.
I have no reason to disagree.
In my once male dominated profession of law, it was a good day if the “B” word directed toward me or a female colleague was “bossy.” Each of us have reached into our childhoods and told tales of how we were discouraged by the language of gender stereotypes. Each of us observed that a male lawyer who was a vigorous advocate was “able counsel” or something more superlative. A woman conducting herself in an identical fashion was likely to be many things, perhaps “bossy” would again be the kindest.
Nor do I diminish the significance of the observations and goals of banbossy.com. Reinforcing a child’s self esteem is crucial .
Chavez and Sandberg suggest that being bossy can help us live fulfilled lives:” The lesson to children, and to the parents and teachers who raise and nurture them, should be that there is pride in being opinionated, motivated and motivating—that is, bossy.” (March 8, 2014 Wall Street Journal Op Ed).
My question is more basic. Why do we need anyone to be bossy? Motivated, Motivating, Opinionated…..
The starting point in the argument of “Ban Bossy” (the website indicates that this is not a first amendment issue: there is no literal request to abolish a word) accepts the current definitions of “success” of the upper middle class (or higher), highly and well-educated, corporate, largely white, world. The little girl labeled bossy raises her hand too much, tells her friends how to complete the project, seeks out the highest class office. She is the kid who joins all the clubs, has more time for events than for friends, she gets the best grades, and often she is “good” at everything, from music to sports. She grows up to be Margaret Thatcher or Hillary Clinton. When she is a known world leader, she is not called bossy; she is called cold, unfeeling or mean, and nasty.
What if we changed not merely the word, we changed the narrative. The child who gets the highest score on the math test or read the most books over the summer is a success. But the child who exhibits such emotional intelligence that at lunch she sits next to the little boy who doesn’t speak much English is also a success. The girl who stands next to the child whom the class bully just disparaged is a success too. And the one who built a bird house from twigs in the yard is counted among the winners.
If the narrative is altered to include a more diverse vision of “success,” diversity in “motivation” and in methods to motivate others might readily follow. An Ivy League level education is no longer the pre-requisite to being a “success” in the chosen profession. Columbia does not even have a Carpentry Department! When the narrative changes and the means to motivate change, perhaps, the dialogue can also be altered. “Being opinionated” might no longer be of such high value. Listening skills, engaging in a meaningful dialogue which moves participants forward might become paramount.
Maybe I am an idealist. I remind myself of a young woman I knew well when she was me in Women Studies Classes in the 70’s.I thought by now an equal society would have evolved. Banning words was not a strategy I recall considering.
We anticipated a future wherein boardrooms, courtrooms and senate chambers were open to us. We even believed a woman would be elected US president. We considered a future wherein the choice to become a cook or a weaver or a teacher would command financial and social respect. We read the futuristic novels of feminism’s “first wave” and believed that under our watch child care providers would garner wages which truly reflect the importance of the work performed, the provision of healthy food would be honored, the work of the homemaker would be valid.
Most critically, as our political consciousness grew, many of us began to prefer the attribution “feminist humanist.” We professed freedom for women necessarily required the same for men. The evisceration of gender stereotypes, or so the argument proceeded, would mean that women could embrace power and men could embrace emotion. In a practical fashion, we sought equal work and life partnerships. We marched into parenthood armed with the determination that we would talk with our sons about their dreams and feelings and bring our daughters to sports events and political rallies. Even better, we would seek out the individuality in each of our children and cultivate that precious gift as best we could regardless of gender.
Decades on, the world is much changed, in many respects to the detriment of the economic, social and political status of women in the US. The ban bossy campaign is started.
Perhaps, the study of conflict resolution and bully prevention strategies has led me to hopes which amplify earlier ideas as to how to reach a more equal society in terms of gender. Banning words is still not a strategy.
Achieving social justice on a real level for women, girls, men or boys demands more than caution with words.
If we continue drowning our daughters from the earliest stages in marketed images of “perfection,” the anorexic, sexualized teen, the air-brushed, perfectly coiffed Kate-Middleton clone mom, words, no matter how pernicious, count little in the construction of gendered stereotypes. If our films persist in featuring suicidal astronauts or depressive narcissists as leading role models for women even when women of wealth are acquiring a greater voice in what movies are being produced, we must look to new forums.
If these same vehicles persuade our boys that violence and vulgarity are hallmarks of manhood, youth will be trapped in an endless cycle of diminished fulfillment. If our role models for male success continue to be styled as “tough on the outside, tough on the inside,” men will struggle within roles which inhibit most, limit many and completey exclude more than a few.
So long as we persist in defining our world as full of “winners” and “losers”, our schools will instill confidence in some and a sense of inferiority in others. So long as we accept a society in which it is a norm that some children will go to bed hungry and some seniors will freeze to death impoverished on city streets, intolerance is almost a necessary aspect of our culture. If we equate being “opinionated” with leadership we are failing to teach essential listening skills which alone offer us access to understanding. Understanding the point of view of the other is the only true benchmark of the kind of growth which allows for leadership. As we see in the world around us, one can easily bark at and boss the converted and lead them into an impasse. Progress and growth demand more.
Chavez and Sandberg must be applauded for identifying issues which must be addressed. They may be commended for developing a strategy. If they are the leaders they contend they are they must continue thinking.
Initially posted at BeaconResolution.com