Sheryl Sandberg's Word Police: Have You Banned Bossy Yet?


Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the "sort of feminist manifesto" Lean In, is fighting the good fight once more with her campaign to "ban bossy" from our lexicon. Her campaign's website states:

"When a little boy asserts himself he's called a 'leader.' Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded 'bossy.' Words like bossy send a message: don't raise your hand or speak up. By middle school girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead."

I have mixed feelings on Sheryl Sandberg, and her recent feminist activism has surely stirred up controversy (see here, here, here). On the one hand, it's laudable that Sandberg has focused on changing culture through persuasion rather than petitioning Congress for another law. (For instance Norway's absurd and somewhat insulting law that requires 40 percent of a public limited company's board be comprised of women.) It's commendable that she focuses on the individual, as she encourages women to "lean in" to the workplace, take more risks, speak up, and take on leadership roles. These are praiseworthy goals.

However, Sandberg's latest idea may create more problems than it solves as she pivots from individual action to societal obligation. Beyond the general absurdity of trying to ban words, it also places extra emphasis on the role outside forces have on the individual. I'm not saying that outside forces don't matter, clearly they do, but accentuating them can be problematic.

The campaign to ban bossy is in a way telling women that they are dependent on the society around them for their achievements. It implicitly suggests that women can't be successful until society stops saying mean and hurtful things to them. Alexandra Petri provides a good analogy when she writes: "This is like dealing with the Sleeping Beauty curse by removing all the spindles from the land. The trick is not to remove all the spindles. The trick is to teach you how to handle a spindle safely so that it won't sting you."

Emphasizing external factors that impact a women's success can also encourage individuals to "externalize" what happens to them, which can be demotivating and frankly demoralizing. Social psychologists have identified this phenomenon called the locus of control, describing the extent to which individuals believe they influence what happens to them. Those who de-emphasize environmental factors, but instead believe they can control their lives are more likely to have higher expectations of themselves, perform better in school, have better health, and take action rather than wish for change.

Perhaps a better solution would be to treat boys and girls as individuals rather than members of groups in need of filtered language and gender-specific treatment in order to succeed. Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer's own success may be in part due to the fact that she was not hyper-focused on gender and the external and cultural barriers she faced.

Reflecting upon her computer science classes at Stanford, Mayer says her lack of gender awareness was "actually healthy." She goes on to say, "I think if I had felt more self-conscious about being the only woman along the way, I think it would have actually stifled me a lot more." Mayer also pointed out in 2012 when she was still at Google, "I'm not a woman at Google; I'm a geek at Google. If you can find something that you're really passionate about, whether you're a man or a woman comes a lot less into play. Passion is a gender-neutralizing force."

Most women don't want to feel like people are treating them with kid gloves or are in need of gender-specific treatment. Growing up it never occurred to me that I could accomplish anything less than men. I had assumed the time had long passed since society systematically held women down. It wasn't until recently when older feminist sages brought it to my attention that I began to notice some of the problems they mentioned still existed. However, noticing these things arguably made things worse, and I found it—like Mayer said—"stifling."

Check our Marissa Mayer's talk here: