Stubborn, pushy, aggressive, know-it-all, bossy. Our culture uses these words to describe girls’ behavior more than boys’, according to Sheryl Sandburg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign. We prize leadership qualities in boys, but in the same breath we admonish girls for bossing their peers around. Sandburg argues bossiness is a trait we should cherish in a young girl who could grow up to become a CEO.
I know what you’re probably thinking. This story came out in March, so it’s old news, right? Well, not for everyone; if you’ve got a Girl Scout, the beat goes on. But I’m not here to rehash all the #BanBossy criticism or lay out a new argument against or for it. Plenty of eloquent writers have done so already (my personal fave is Ann Friedman for NY Mag). I would, however, like to dish on what it’s been making me think about lately. Be warned, I have more questions than answers. If you find such a scenario off-putting, skip down to “tl;dr.”
Here goes. While I don’t agree with all aspects of Ban Bossy, some elements ring true in my life. With a natural leader as a child, I do wonder how much I should be controlling her bossy behavior. Am I stamping out what I should be cultivating?
If I had to sum up last year’s kindergarten classroom using a fire metaphor, I would say the girls were stoking their leadership bonfires all on their own. They were on top of their game. Meanwhile, the boys didn’t do much of anything discernibly constructive at all. Rather, they seemed content to start tiny chaotic fires (yes, we’re still speaking in metaphors, thankfully), follow behind the girls adding randomly sized sticks and logs to their carefully-constructed fires, or ignore the girls completely and return to their discussion of which is the best shark (not a metaphor; that’s literally what they did 50% of the time). Perhaps it would be a good idea to consider using a different word than “bossy,” but I’m confident these girls won’t be easily deterred; if anything, they could stand to learn a thing or two about
fire safety being gracious.
Go ahead, call me old-fashioned, but I have some science on my side. Evidence shows women’s unique contributions in the boardroom—like empathy and a view of the big picture—are positive to the team. Thus, it stands to reason we should promote women in the boardroom to act like themselves, not like men. Assuming the data holds water, shouldn’t we continue with our womanly ways? Why must we encourage women to adopt the qualities of men? Wouldn’t we create a generation of women and men who both lack those unique and necessary qualities?
Ban Bossy also misses the point when it focuses on removing a word from the conversation instead of starting a new conversation. Telling people what they can and can’t say seems, dare I say, bossy? I do give the campaign credit for trying to start some new conversations, such as their suggestions not to interrupt girls as much and to encourage them to raise their hands more.
Here’s what I wonder, in a nutshell. Is there a way to encourage our daughters to lead and boost their self-esteem while still teaching them qualities like empathy and grace? Or am I just programmed to think of Sheryl Sandburg’s own leadership as bossy because she’s a woman and lean away from her because of it? If a man were the champion of this cause of improving girls’ self-esteem, would I be more likely to listen to him?