Why Sheryl Sandberg Wants Us To #BanBossy

4 years ago

Those of you reading this post who know me will be shocked -- SHOCKED! -- to know that I have been called 'bossy' in my lifetime. Like, maybe even yesterday. In fact, when I was running Redbook magazine, my semi-official nickname among the team was Miss Bossypants -- and this was six years before Tina Fey's book came out. I even tried to name my Redbook blog Little Miss Bossypants, but, alas, someone else had already claimed it.

Image: LeanIn.org

But at that point in my life, 34 years old and succeeding in my career, 'bossy' didn't mean anything negative to me. But at 6 years old, 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15 and 17? "Bossy" was a word that stung, that meant I was unlikable, that I was "too" something: too loud, too demanding, too... confident? secure? opinionated? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. All of those things. And the message was clear: I wasn't supposed to be any of those things. I was supposed to be quiet, respectful, docile. Convenient? Invisible?

Just: NO.

I have always known that my confident, take-charge personality doesn't make me an easy favorite for certain kinds of people. But I don't think I really understood that that was a gendered reaction -- i.e. a reaction caused by my gender, not the gender of the observer -- until Sheryl Sandberg spoke at BlogHer'13 last summer.

I'll quote myself, from that post, to set the full context:

...[then] Sheryl said the quote heard round the Twitter: "Next time you're about to call your daughter bossy, take a deep breath and say, 'My daughter has executive leadership skills.' "

The room broke out in cheers. And not just because it is a memorable line, but because it is a true one. After all, who among us would intentionally set our daughters back, by giving her messages that she must be docile, nice, and always work to serve others' happiness instead of thinking about her own? And yet, with that simple quote, you can see how easy it is to unintentionally teach our daughters to lean back. And to teach our sons that that is what girls -- and women -- are meant to do.

It was very powerful to be in that room at that moment. It was a collective "Aha!" from most of the 4,000 people in attendance. Something so many of us had felt, but had not yet been able to see clearly enough to define, was brought into full color.

So it was only a matter of time before Sheryl Sandberg and the great minds working with her at LeanIn.org made sure that the rest of us had that very same revelation.

That time is now. Today, Sheryl Sandberg and LeanIn.org, in partnership with #banbossy. And BlogHer is proud to be right there with them, supporting this simple, but so powerful message.

Image: LeanIn.org

Banning the word "bossy" as it applies to young girls isn't just about a single word. It's about an entire attitude toward young girls and what their supposed "place" is. Being called "bossy" isn't what hurt me the most. It was being judged, and made an example of, for being confident.

Ironically, the very teacher who was supposed to be enriching me is the one whose words hurt me the most. She was the head of my school's gifted-and-talented program, a program that was launched in my school, partly for me, or at least I was one of two students who started it. I remember being pulled out of class and being asked to take the tests when I was in second grade. I remember the plastic blocks and having to rearrange them. I remember thinking the test was fun. I was already pulled out of class a lot, because I went a grade ahead for reading. (And I still remember the horror of throwing up Sugar Corn Pops all over my red sweater vest when I was sitting in the second-grade classroom and wanting to die because I was in front of all the older kids, who already thought it was weird that I was in their room during reading.)

Me, confident, in third grade.

So in third grade, I was told that I, along with Michael Loesch, would be leaving our classroom to go upstairs! to something that the teacher called "gifted class." I had no idea what that meant. But apparently, I walked into the classroom, introduced myself to the teacher and said, "Hi, I'm Stacy and I'm gifted." And the teacher told that story over, and over, and over and over again in the next four years, as students were added to the class. And she always phrased it as, "Stacy was so..." [meaningful pause] "confident she walked right into this classroom and said, 'Hi, I'm Stacy, and I'm gifted.' " And I was always humiliated. It was clear—at least to me—that I hadn't meant anything by "gifted" except for being the reason I was in that room. And yet that teacher insisted on framing it that way, over and over again. The tone of her voice made it clear: My crime was confidence.

Why would confident be a negative? Why would she use that story to embarrass me? What lesson was I supposed to be learning from that, other than that there was something unnerving and inappropriate about my directness?

Image: LeanIn.org

Fortunately for me, I had a mother who ate fireballs for breakfast, and a father who thought that I had built the sun, so the affirming messages at home about my awesome kept those words from leading me to try to be a different girl, a quieter girl, a more invisible girl, a girl who would never say what she was good at, or say she was smart, or, god forbid, gifted.

So I am ON BOARD for #banbossy! And I know I am not alone. I felt those couple thousand women murmur and nod and say, "Me too" at BlogHer last summer.

So now is the time to tell those stories, to take those moments someone called your natural leadership skills into question, or tried to make you feel foolish for being confident, brave, sparkly, attention-getting, commanding, wise, bold, certain, in charge. We want to read those stories, and share them out to as many men and women as we can, to help change this largely unconscious damage that we do to girls' spirits. So please write and share your story! And spread the word far and wide with the hashtag #banbossy.

And if you tell you story, I beg you to please link to what you write here. It's important that we see and understand how accepted "small" behaviors can have such a huge, watershed impact on girls', and then later, women's identities. Seeing all these stories together is an amazing way to show the world—and each other—our strength both as individual women, and as a community.

But don't do it because I'm being bossy about it. Do it because I, and Sheryl Sandberg, and everyone at Girl Scouts of America and Lean In.org, believe in your power to lead the world and change it.

Image: LeanIn.org

We are here to support you, no matter your personality and leadership style. Because that's what real leaders do.