Dear Internet, media, humans and haters: Face it, Sheryl Sandberg is the boss of you. She just proved it. Again.
Let’s part the waves of the #BanBossy campaign — and backlash — for a few minutes to acknowledge a master at work. On the first anniversary of LeanIn.org, Sandberg again launched a widespread conversation about the status of females, and on her own terms. As with the launch of LeanIn, Sandberg and friends defined the topic, lined up pundits, presented infographics and kicked off the debate via a national media campaign.
In case you missed it, the campaign to ban the word “bossy” and its champions include women who, to be fair, also qualify as icons: Beyonce, Condoleezza Rice, Jane Lynch and Jennifer Garner on video, plus online quotes by First Lady Michelle Obama and Marlo Thomas. These leaders joined Sandberg, co-founder of LeanIn.org, and Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of the Girl Scouts, to launch banbossy.com and this mission: “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.”
This campaign is so smart that even the #BanBossy backlash, which started almost immediately, works for it. “It seems that women like to be bossy, but don’t you dare call them bossy. That’s war on women,” wrote Charlotte Allen on Opinion L.A. “Given the nastiness that many women face on a daily basis, being called bossy is the least of our problems,” blogged Micheline Maynard on Forbes.com. And online commenters like Dobes on IAmBossy.com chimed in: “Wow. Once again, we prove that, as women, we really are our own worst enemy. Ms. Sandberg et al. are just trying to make people think before they use negative terms to describe women or girls who are starting to take on leadership roles. Can’t we support the spirit of the thing, if not the way they’re going about it?”
To the critique that Sandberg bossily launched this campaign to ban the word bossy, I ask: Were you coerced into participating? Or were you inspired to join the conversation — and to raise your own opinionated voice in the process? Think about it. The whole exercise looks like leadership and leadership training to moi.
I’m a believer that the effects of bossy start little but balloon into big problems for women individually and as a species. I was one of those easily socialized and intimidated girls who would have loved to have been brave enough to order other kids around, but instead I hid behind my sisters, my computer and my hair. Sandberg writes in her mega-bestseller “Lean In” that when a girl internalizes the bossy label as a bad thing, she makes herself smaller, leading to self-fulfilling prophecies and diminishing her own expectations, from holding leadership positions (as few women do in most industries) to earning less pay than men do for the same jobs (ditto).
I was definitely on that track all the way through college and into my 20s. Then I learned in newsrooms that the only way to get the best stories and on the front page was to compete verbally and loudly with the other journalists. Thank goodness I did: I became a single mother in Silicon Valley and now am one of the 40% of women in the U.S. who qualify as head of household.
As an American woman with a four-year college degree, my transformation from under-confident to aggressive-as-I-need-to-be adult was a tiny, relatively risk-free step. Consider other women, trapped in dangerous and abusive homes, whose survival may depend on standing up for themselves, as shared in the blog Violence Unsilenced, started by Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz. The stakes are even higher globally, where the only things protecting females from violence and enslavement may be their own brains, courage and voices; that’s when teaching girls to sit quietly and accept what they’re given rather than be outspoken or demanding what they need — like legal protection or new legal systems — can and does have tragic consequences.
Doubt me? Read the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. These blogs are just two of the thousands created by women for women that I’ve discovered since co-founding BlogHer Inc., a company that pays women to raise their voices via blogs and social media.
And here’s where I just have to point out that LeanIn.org is a nonprofit. As a Silicon Valley billionaire who doesn’t have to have a boss, Sandberg could easily retire rather than suffer the snark and abuse of detractors. Instead, she is investing her personal time in a calm, even nice, yet unapologetic and unflinching criticism of society’s treatment of women and girls. Sun Tzu wrote that “one mark of a great soldier is that he fights on his own terms or fights not at all.” Underneath Sandberg’s glossy ’do and smile is a thick-skinned woman leaning in so hard on her belief that the world would be better if more women ran it that she’s declared war on our language.
That makes her, according to one definition in UrbanDictionary.com, a boss: “A person who is a leader, someone who runs sh-- in his/her hood or city.” So I say, go Sandberg. As a student of her technique and as the mother of two sons, I can only hope for its second anniversary that LeanIn.org and its masterful communicator in chief take on banning the word “sissy” or reclaiming it for boys and men everywhere. If Sheryl Sandberg’s this good at leading national conversations about human culture, the other half deserves her help too.
Lisa Stone is the CEO and Co-founder of BlogHer Inc., the leading network of women online influencers. Lean In lists BlogHer among its media partners for the #BanBossy campaign, meaning BlogHer has engaged its community in sharing stories about their experience with the word “bossy.”