Like many three-year-old girls, mine takes her fashion cues from Disney films. So when a family member recently gave her a dress that looked as though Snow White had had an unfortunate run-in with Tinkerbell, she insisted on wearing it immediately. Seconds after donning this fashion abomination, she started complaining that the dress wasn't working. She turned to look at her wings while jumping up and down, puzzled that she couldn't fly. Then it struck me: No one had ever told her that, even with the right outfit, flying just isn't an option.
Most children only know their limitations when the adults in their life set them. This may help to explain the popularity of the notion that the language we use around children, and girls in particular, needs to be carefully scripted in order to ensure they remain open to all the leadership possibilities available to boys, and later, men.
To that end, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Girl Scouts of the USA chief executive officer Anna Maria Chavez launched a campaign to ban the word "bossy." On one hand, these activists have a point: Language remains a powerful weapon that shapes the way we see each other and ourselves, and according to the Ban Bossy website, the term is rarely used to describe boys.
In a recent interview with Parade, Ms. Sandberg suggested that instead of describing assertive girls as bossy, parents should try saying they have "executive leadership skills."
The Ban Bossy campaign, unsurprisingly, spawned numerous reactions in the blogosphere, many by successful women who recall -- somewhat fondly -- being labelled as bossy in their youth. If we define bossy as being assertive and in control, rather than being a bully, then the behaviour has only served the girls and women I know well.
Jacqueline Baptist, a marketing executive in Toronto, said she was one of those little girls who took on a leadership role in every group and was shocked when in Grade 4 she overheard a classmate say "she's so bossy" in a less-than-admiring tone.
"Getting people organized, figuring out what everyone's best contribution could be -- how could that anything but good?" Ms. Baptist recalled thinking. While she agrees that society often deems certain attributes positive for men and negative for women, she coaches her nieces to embrace their bossy side and hopes her eight-year-old son finds a "bossy woman to fall in love with." Bossy, she explained, means being effective.
Although I admire the intent behind the Ban Bossy movement, there are two major flaws with the initiative. Most important, bossy, in the traditional negative sense, is no longer viewed as a leadership trait. The command-and-control approach to management faded away years ago in favour of one that relies more heavily on emotional intelligence.
The second issue comes down to this incredible burden we place on parents, who seem to be told that not following the correct script when raising their children can lead to irreparable damage. The list of harmful words out there that threaten to sting young girls and boys alike never ends, and adding another "B-word" to the banned list seems like another trap for parents already navigating a gender intelligence minefield. Common sense must prevail.
Despite the backlash to the Ban Bossy campaign -- Globe columnist Margaret Wente recently told girls to "suck it up" -- it's important to recognize that a dedicated camp applauds the initiative, including former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and a list of celebrities such as Beyoncé.
"I do see a value [in the Ban Bossy campaign], as simplistic as the concept may be," explained Annette Bergeron, president of the Toronto-based licensing body Professional Engineers Ontario. In a nod to Ms. Wente's column, Ms. Bergeron complained that she has been "sucking it up for 30 years" and wants a better environment for her daughter.
Ms. Bergeron kept the report card her kindergarten teacher wrote in 1969 that chided her for being "a bit bossy at times." She wonders how much she unconsciously toned down her leadership style after being labelled bossy as a child and compares the statement to one by her favourite boss, who last year described her as quiet, thoughtful, and strategic but not an A-type personality who pounds her fist on the table.
Language is powerful -- but banning another word from our lexicon is at best a token solution, and at worst misguided. I wish that banning the other B-word would result in improved self-worth for girls everywhere but that simply wouldn't be the case. Instead, let's celebrate fabulously bossy girls and the independent thinkers they turn into as young women. I, for one, plan on encouraging the bossy girls in my life, even if that means they wear ridiculous fairy outfits to school every day.
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Last week, Sheryl released her new book, “Lean In,” and it instantly shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list -- and landed her on the cover of Time magazine.
Sheryl had never spoken about women’s issues in public before her TED talk on “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” and she was advised against it by her peers, who claimed that it would draw attention to the fact that she is a woman. Sheryl laughed and said, “I think they know I’m a women.” The video of her TED talk instantly went viral. Overnight, Sheryl established herself as a leading advocate for women in the workplace.
The oldest of three children, Sheryl possessed undeniable leadership skills from an early age. But while young boys are often encouraged to lead, Sheryl was regularly referred to as “bossy.” Part of her mission today is to teach parents to encourage their young daughters to develop their leadership skills, instead of dismissing them as overly aggressive.
For her whole early life, Sheryl felt that she needed to hold herself back from being too successful or appearing too smart. In high school, she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by her peers, but was embarrassed by the recognition. She asked a friend on the yearbook staff to remove that title from her name.
After serving as Chief of Staff at the U.S. Treasury Department, Sheryl made her way to Silicon Valley, where she accepted a position as Vice President of Google’s Global Online Sales & Operations. At the time, Google was a small start-up, but during her stint with the company, it became an unprecedented success.
Sheryl met Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at a Christmas party held by Yahoo COO Dan Rosensweig in late 2007. Although he wasn’t actively looking for a new COO for Facebook, Mark knew that Sheryl would be perfect for the job. After several months of becoming acquainted with one another, Sheryl left her post at Google to become Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer.
In various interviews, Sheryl has stressed to women the importance of choosing a partner who supports their career and agrees to assist with housework and childcare. Her husband, SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, possesses these qualities, which allows the pair to operate as a team.
A graduate of Harvard College, Sheryl earned her A.B. in economics and went on to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School. In May 2011, she spoke at the commencement ceremony at Barnard College about achieving equality in the workplace and seeking ways to find work/life balance.
Sheryl is no stranger to economics. At Harvard, she met mentor Larry Summers, who later recruited her to serve as his research assistant at the World Bank. Here she appears on stage alongside Danielle Gray, deputy director of the National Economic Council; Mari Pangestu, Indonesia's trade minister; and moderator Chris Jansing at the APEC Women and the Economy Summit in September 2011.
After a stint as a business consultant, Sheryl served as the Chief of Staff for the United States Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 2001. Here, she joins the former president and Katie Couric at the Women for Women International Gala at the Museum of Modern Art in November 2011.
President Obama listens intently to Sheryl’s advice during a meeting of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. The council was established to promote growth in American business and equip American workers with the skills they need to succeed.
Arianna Huffington has been a strong supporter of Sheryl’s “Lean In” message, which calls for women to eliminate self-doubt and focus on their personal well-being. Here, Sheryl joins Arianna at the 2011 Matrix Awards, which honor women in communications and the arts.
Who has Sheryl referred to as her biggest personal role model? Her mother, of course! Here, she escorts her mom, Adele Sandberg, to the White House for the State Dinner for South Korea in October 2011.
In Sheryl’s current position at Facebook, she oversees business operations, which includes everything from marketing and sales to public policy and human resources. Here Sheryl speaks to an audience of marketing professionals at a Facebook event in February 2012.
Now a highly sought-after speaker on the world stage, Sheryl participated in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January 2013.
Sheryl spoke about women in business with Chelsea Clinton as part of the promotion for her new book, “Lean In” in March 2013.
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