By Linda Chavez
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer and feminist proselytizer, wants to ban the “b” word — bossy, that is. She has launched a campaign along with Girl Scouts of the USA CEO Anna Maria Chavez (no relation) to discourage using the word to describe girls or women who happen to show “leadership qualities.” Count me out.
Apparently, Sandberg felt the sting of the “b” word at some point in 9th grade when a teacher advised a student not to be friends with Sandberg because she was “bossy,” according to an interview she gave on ABC News. Now she believes the use of the word is one of the factors that leads girls to become less interested in pursuing leadership positions by middle school.
Citing studies that show that “between elementary school and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys” and that “girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles will make them seem ‘bossy,'” Sandberg’s Ban Bossy campaign has garnered more than 100,000 pledges in its first week.
I must have grown up on a different planet than Sandberg. Although I came of age in the pre-feminist 1960s, the girls I knew never hesitated to lead. We competed for class offices, ran organizations and were often the top students, and no one suggested we ought to do otherwise. As for Sandberg’s claim that girls are called on less in class and interrupted more, not in the inner-city Catholic school I attended.
Perhaps it was the influence of the nuns who taught us. Women ran parish schools in those days, with hardly a male authority figure in sight. It wasn’t the girls who had a hard time, as I recall, but the boys. They were the ones whose knuckles got rapped with rulers or, as happened when I was in 10th grade, who were thrown down a flight of stairs for playing a practical joke on one particularly humorless sister.
I don’t remember ever being called bossy — except by my children, with good reason — but I remember plenty of boys and girls whose behavior evoked the appellation. Being bossy means telling others what to do. Some bosses are bossy; others aren’t. And I would argue leadership doesn’t entail being bossy. In fact, true leaders inspire others to follow; they don’t simply order people about.
Clearly, being called bossy didn’t stop Sandberg from succeeding. She’s led a rather privileged life. She was born into a stable, professional family, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, and earned a Harvard MBA with distinction. She’s now in a highly paid, powerful position at one of the biggest corporations in America. Yet she still seems hurt by a word.
Get over it. Succeeding, as Sandberg certainly knows, entails defying others’ expectations that you might not have it in you. Successful people, men as well as women, care less about what others think of them than what they believe about themselves. The most successful people have to prove themselves over and over again. It’s what motivates them and keeps them going until they reach the top.
Living in a protected bubble is no way to succeed. Working your way up any occupational ladder requires acquiring a thick skin. Not everyone is going to love you, especially not those you beat out on your way up. And if you can’t deal with a few harsh words, what happens when you actually fail at something important, as most humans, even great leaders, do at some point in their lives? Learning to pick yourself up after you’ve tried and failed distinguishes the truly successful from the merely lucky.
Sandberg’s campaign, however well intended, has the effect of treating girls like delicate flowers who will wither at the faintest brush with real life. Protecting girls from words that might damage their fragile self-image isn’t going to produce more leaders — just the opposite. If you can’t take being called bossy, you’re not likely to become a boss.
Linda Chavez is the author of “An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal.” To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.