How far we have come as women…or not? Although we may no longer be marching in the streets, our collective voices are now exponentially louder, expansive and influential. Feminist conscious raising is now viral.
No doubt Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has been called “bossy” for being “assertive” in her commendable rise to leadership roles. In fact, as a young girl, she was called “bossy” by a teacher who discouraged her best friend from hanging out with her, saying disparaging things like, “people don’t like bossy girls.” Ouch!! Yet, “bossy” is only code, a euphemism for the incendiary connotations, derogatory, condescending and raunchy language all too often hurled at assertive, competent female leaders.
So it doesn’t surprise me that a feminist corporate leader like Sandberg would team with the Girl Scouts in a #banbossy campaign to bring awareness to the nefarious impact condescending word labeling can have at a very early age on quashing a young girl’s ambition and leadership potential, or worse, lead to lifetime self doubt and diminished confidence.
"Words like 'bossy' send a message: don't raise your hand or speak up," reads the introduction on the #banbossy campaign website. "By [the age of 12], girls are less interested in leading than boys – a trend that continues into adulthood."
Supported by Lifetime and a host of “boss ladies” from entertainment, public and private sectors, including Beyoncé, Condoleezza Rice, Jane Lynch, Diane van Furtenberg and Jennifer Garner and a host of other impressive women, Sandberg and her feminist leadership fostering organization, LeanIn, are no foes to controversy.
Last Spring, with the publication of her best-selling book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” Sandberg unleashed a bit of a firestorm with her erudite, well-documented treatise on what it takes for women to lead, notwithstanding gender biases all around, in a word: believe in yourself, step up, don’t demure to men in the boardroom, trust your inner strength. Remove all doubt. Trust your instinct. Practice and practice again. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Hillary Clinton practices this mantra, to be sure, as do all competent, assertive female leaders. Even President Obama’s major slip during the 2008 Presidential primaries, “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” could not derail her. But at the core of Obama’s slip is a subconscious cultural bias against women with fortitude, which has insinuated itself into our perception and language. Studies show that there is an inverse culturally engrained bias between strong women and likeability and strong likeable men. People like strong men, but demonize strong women.
While some critics find the #BanBossy campaign confusing, pathetic, inane or pointless, others applaud the activism, motivation and encouragement fostered in girls to lead, according to my NetBase social media analysis.
Culturally, the gender chasm is perpetuated by cognitive perceptions, which translate into our language, hardwiring and etching the bias into our thinking, until a generational pattern is perpetuated. The good news is that attitudes and language can be reprogrammed in our brains. It is up to women with grit to take the lead and encourage change.
The gender confidence gap on self and societal perception of leadership potential is real, as Sandberg points out. However, when it comes to how ambitious women are perceived and the words used to describe them, all bets are off when it comes to mincing words. For example, Margaret Thatcher was disdained as “Iron Lady,” “bossy,” and “busybody.” Hillary Clinton has also been scorned as “bossy” and a “meddler.” However, their male counterparts in leadership positions are lauded as “authoritative,” “commanding,” “committed,” “resolute,” “steadfast,” “stalwart,” etc.—hardly a disparaging moniker here.
So, why so much controversy over #BanBossy? Sandberg’s campaign strikes at the very heart of an insidious problem in America. There are not enough women leaders occupying the top ranks for which they are qualified. By launching #banbossy, Sandberg leans in to offer girls and women a powerful example of empowerment and self-confidence by telling her own story of overcoming self-doubt and waning confidence as climbed the ladder, always with wit, humor, generosity and a very likeable spirit.
Girl power is now viral and it’s awesome. Let the social debate continue.