Sheryl Sandberg wrong on 'bossy' ban

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

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.

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.

Peggy Drexler

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.

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