It’s not easy to tell from Sheryl Sandberg’s celebrity-backed initiative to ban the word “bossy” whether she thinks that bossy girls don’t exist or just that the world will be a better place if we pretend they don’t.
In a Wall Street Journal piece last weekend, the Facebook executive described her experience as a girl who heard the dreaded “b word” applied to herself. “When my brother and sister describe our childhood,” she writes, “they will say that I never actually played as a child but instead just organized other kids’ play. At my wedding, they stood up and introduced themselves by explaining, ‘Hi, we’re Sheryl’s younger brother and sister . . . but we’re not really her younger brother and sister. We’re her first employees — employee No. 1 and employee No. 2.’”
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it sounds like Sandberg bossed her siblings around. Children tend not to like having their play “organized” imperiously by other children. Hence the age-old playground cry: “You’re not the boss of me!” — one that’s directed at girls and boys alike.
So Sheryl Sandberg was a bossy girl; she was called bossy; she grew up to become a fabulously wealthy executive of a Fortune 500 company. Therefore the future professional success of women in America depends on our banning the word “bossy.”
Even if it were true that a pervasive fear of being called bossy was discouraging girls from pursuing leadership roles as Sandberg contends, the idea that we could or should “ban” the appellation is bizarre. I assumed at first that she had elected to call her campaign “ban bossy” because it made for a nicely alliterative Twitter hashtag and that she did not intend for it to be understood in a literal way. But she seems to sort of mean it. “We are not just talking about getting rid of a word, even though we want to get rid of a word,” she told Good Morning America. “We’re talking about getting rid of the negative messages that hold our daughters back.”
Whether the target is a word or negative messages more generally, “mass semi-coerced self-censorship” would be a more accurate description of what she is calling for than “a ban,” since she has not yet proposed that any laws be passed prohibiting speech. (The widespread semantic confusion over the word “ban” and its constant misuse in public discourse is arguably a more pressing problem than young women in America being cowed by gender stereotypes.) Regardless, the point is that she thinks the way to help girls get ahead is to shield them from certain negative reactions to their behavior. This seems unlikely to thicken their skins, and anyone who wants to rise to the top generally needs a thick skin.
Another odd thing about latching onto the word “bossy” as a totem of sexism in need of vanquishing is that it ignores the fact that, whatever Sandberg had to contend with in her day, young women today are beginning to eclipse their male peers in school and in the work force. More Millennial women than men have bachelor’s degrees, and the young childless professional women among them are out-earning men in most major cities. Sandberg is actually aware of this: As Jonah Goldberg points out, she admits that some of the studies she cites are decades old, and concedes that yes, girls tend to be more academically successful than boys. But it’s the top echelons of power — the places (corporate boards, the U.S. Congress, etc.) that offer the most scope for bossing others around — where men still heavily outnumber women, and it is this that she finds unacceptable.
Sandberg told NPR that what she wants for a young girl growing up today is for her “not to be called bossy, but to be told she’s a leader and then have the confidence to pursue any dream she has and really believe in herself and her own achievements.”
But a mass campaign to affirm girls as nascent leaders isn’t going to bring about a world in which 50 percent of senators and CEOs are women. American education already fetishizes leadership too much. The idea that we should be encouraging all girls — or boys — to think of themselves as future leaders is misguided. Most girls will not grow up to be leaders, and this isn’t a bad thing: Leadership is the calling of a few, by definition. Acting as if it should be a universal aspiration will inevitably set some kids up for disappointment and failure, and it devalues the work of the vast majority of people who don’t wield great power or influence, and don’t want to.
As for the bossy girls, they can usually take care of themselves.
— Katherine Connell is an associate editor at National Review.