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Gail Federici Headshot

Ban the 'Ban Wagon'

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I don't get it. Lately, I seem to be having a lot of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments. The most recent affront is Sheryl Sandberg's bewildering "Ban Bossy" campaign. That's the new battle cry? Replace "bossy" with the word "leader"? Why? Is this for real? With so many people on the "ban" wagon (Beyonce, Condaleeza Rice), it sure looks like it. Sandberg is incredibly accomplished. She is aspirational. She's a boss. Many girls would want to be her. But this campaign strikes me as being misguided and without merit.

Sandberg contends that "by middle school, more boys than girls want to lead and if you ask girls why they don't want to lead, whether it's the school project all the way on to running for office, they don't want to be called bossy, and they don't want to be disliked." Yet, when a classroom of young girls was asked if they had ever been called bossy, most of them answered in the affirmative. Clearly the "bossy" label is a fairly common term. Since this group of girls has already been called bossy, it shouldn't be a deterrent for future endeavors. There are many reasons why there are fewer girls in leadership positions, but it is a specious suggestion to allege that it is caused by a fear of the word bossy.

These same girls were also asked if they would rather be liked than be leaders. The flaw in that question is that these qualities are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it often takes a "likeability" factor to be elected or to become a leader unless of course you run your own business. Sandberg recounts a story of an experience in ninth grade wherein a friend of hers was told by their teacher to no longer be friends with her because she was "bossy." The problem there is the teacher, not the character trait. If kids weren't friends with other kids because they were bossy, there would be a lot of solitary souls.

I've never considered "bossy" an offensive term. Being the oldest of four siblings, I was naturally the boss. This is typical behavior for the eldest child. But this bossiness did not mean I was a leader. I knew many kids that were bossy that didn't have the qualities required of a leader. "Bossiness" and "leadership" are not one in the same.

Today many girls feel being "bossy" is a badge of honor, or at the very least are unfazed by the word. R&B artist Kelis had a hit song called "Bossy." She was proudly claiming the title for herself. It's something that can be said to your face. It doesn't need to be said behind your back. That to me is the criterion for an offensive word... whether or not it can be easily said in front of you. If the word "bossy" is crippling to a young girls' psyche, we are inadequately preparing our youth for the real world.

There are so many serious issues that face women today. There is a worldwide epidemic of abuse, trafficking, oppression on a grand scale. Being called "bossy," in my opinion, is not one of them. Would I like to see more women as leaders in government and business? Of course, but I do not think the way forward is to ban the word "bossy" or any other word. There may never be an equal number of women in leadership roles. The issues are complex, but the reason will never be because women are afraid of such an innocuous word.

The argument Sandberg is trying to make is built on such an implausible premise, that I think it's time to jump off this "ban-wagon."