Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Sheryl Sandberg wrong on 'bossy' ban

By Peggy Drexler
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Sheryl Sandberg is Facebook's chief operating officer, overseeing the social media mammoth's business operations -- which includes sales, marketing, business development, human resources, public policy and communications. Sheryl Sandberg is Facebook's chief operating officer, overseeing the social media mammoth's business operations -- which includes sales, marketing, business development, human resources, public policy and communications.
HIDE CAPTION
Women tech leaders: Sheryl Sandberg
Women tech leaders: Marissa Mayer
Women tech leaders: Ursula Burns
Women tech leaders: Cher Wang
Women tech leaders: Virginia M. Rometty
Women tech leaders: Meg Whitman
Women tech leaders: Safra Catz
Women tech leaders: Susan Wojcicki
Women tech leaders: Sandy Carter
Women tech leaders: Angela Ahrendts
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is launching a "Ban Bossy" campaign
  • Peggy Drexler: Abolishing the word is pointless; other words will take its place
  • She says banning the word seems to say bossy qualities are bad when they're not
  • Drexler: There is pride in being opinionated and motivated -- that is to say, bossy

Editor's note: Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler.

(CNN) -- Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's latest headline-making action is a new "Ban Bossy" campaign, which aims at getting rid of the word "bossy." Her nonprofit group, LeanIn.org, has even teamed up with big names like Beyonce and Condoleezza Rice to produce a public service announcement to stop using the word "bossy."

In a weekend op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, co-written with Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez, Sandberg put the word at the center of the problem of unequal treatment of girls and boys, noting that girls who lead are more often described as "bossy" and "overly ambitious" while boys who lead are described as "strong" and "determined."

Sandberg raises valid points, and as a powerful woman her voice adds much to the ongoing conversation about why it's important to insist on equal treatment of, and expectations for, boys and girls, and men and women.

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

But while Sandberg isn't wrong that "bossy" is disproportionately directed at girls and women, and usually with negative connotations, the problem isn't the word itself, but how and when the word is used. Ban "bossy" and other words will spring up in its place: "Bitchy," "cold" and "aggressive" come to mind.

Instead, the focus should be on how to reclaim the positive and indispensable nature of "bossiness," turning it from a word used to describe the domineering and unlikable to one used to describe those very necessary qualities for those who lead.

Sheryl Sandberg is bossy, and it's a quality that likely played a pretty key role in helping her become one of the technology industry's most successful women. So, how about an initiative to reclaim bossiness as a point of pride?

Bosses are bossy, plain and simple. As Sandberg even notes: "...if you look at my childhood, if you look at the childhood of most of the leaders we talked to, they lived through being told they were bossy." And, well, look where they are now.

In fact, moving to abolish the word "bossy" risks sending the message that there's something wrong with those characteristics associated with bossiness: taking charge and speaking your mind. Again, the problem isn't the word, or the behavior, but the reaction to the behavior, and the acceptance among women of the word as a disparaging one.

There's also the very important fact that by focusing on how to foster those girls who, like Sandberg, grow up inclined to lead rather than follow—to boss—a message emerges that leadership is the only road to success. And that's just not true.

Initiatives are commendable, as is any opening of dialogue. But it's hard not to interpret "Ban Bossy" as a reaction to the tepid response Sandberg received to her last initiative, "Lean In," through which she was criticized as being too privileged to be a valid motivator.

With "Ban Bossy," she certainly makes an effort to position herself as among the downtrodden, one among many who've been victimized by "the other B-word." But there's some overreaching going on here.

Let's not forget: There is evidence that girls and women aren't in fact being overlooked, or discouraged into meekness. Girls are outperforming boys in schools. More women than men are graduating college and going on to earn as much, if not more, than their male partners. Fortune's latest ranking of America's 500 largest corporations includes more female CEOs than ever.

Things aren't perfect, of course, but they're getting there, as women—and men—embrace not only their bossiness, but all those other qualities that lead them to live lives that are fulfilling in any number of ways.

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.

There is also pride in being not-so-bossy, and in recognizing whatever other specific traits make them special, whether they go on to become leaders or not. There's a word to describe that, too: individuality.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy Drexler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
updated 2:32 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
updated 5:03 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
updated 5:25 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT