What's Wrong with Being Bossy?
Sheryl Sandberg's latest initiative, the #banbossy campaign, has certainly received a lot of attention recently. With FLOTUS, Beyonce, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Garner, etc. all jumping on board, not to mention the partnership with the Girl Scouts of America, it is no wonder that there has been such a widespread awareness of the platform. The core of Sandberg's campaign, empowering girls to be leaders, is important as there is a rather large gender equality gap in this country - women still only make 81% of the median earnings of males according to the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics.
Unfortunately for those close to the initiative, there is a fundamental flaw - the messaging, which is the core of any public awareness campaign. A few alternative hashtags come to mind that seem to accurately describe the #banbossy campaign - #mixedmessage #feminismfailure #emptyplatform #counterproductive.
Too harsh? Not exactly. Without thoughtful and meaningful messaging, efforts dedicated toward generating awareness for any campaign is inconsequential. That is, of course, if the purpose of this campaign is to actually effectuate change and empower girls to want to take on leadership roles.
Let's define the word bossy. Merriam Webster defines bossy as "inclined to domineer." It is a word that suggests a degree of control, of authority and of respect. The "issue" with bossy isn't the word but the negativity people attach to it. Instead of of launching a campaign around the connotation of the word, substantial effort should be put towards empowering today's youth to embrace characteristics that have been considered "bossy."
Unfortunately, the world isn't fair. We all want to the make our children's lives easier, but by leveling the playing field for them and teaching them the rules can be bent, when they really can't, we are actually hurting them more than helping them and not preparing them for the real world, especially not emotionally. #BanBossy is bending the rules. Instead of putting tons of effort and millions of dollars toward banning a word, we should be teaching young women how to develop the skills needed to survive and ultimately thrive in this world.
What we're getting at is the core ethos of the feminist movement. Sandberg seems to believe that with #BanBossy, she is a part of this next wave of the feminist movement; however, #BanBossy is actually the antithesis of feminism. Can you imagine the luminaries of the 1960s wave - Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Jo Freeman, etc. - thinking this is the best way to empower young women? Didn't think so.
By banning the use of the word bossy not only are we doing girls a disservice because we are not preparing them for the realities of an unfair world, we are also not teaching them to embrace who they are and standup for themselves. Additionally, focusing this campaign solely on girls is counter-productive, furthering the division. A gender-neutral awareness campaign that sets out to empower kids, if they desire, to take on leadership roles as opposed to one focused on the special treatment of girls, is better aligned with a truly feminist approach.
Women have made strides over the past century but when it comes to leadership, women still only hold 16 percent of director roles at Fortune 500 companies, 4 percent of chief executive roles at Standard & Poor 500 companies, and 10 percent of chief financial roles at Standard & Poor 500 companies, according to The New York Times.
Harvard Business Review featured an interesting blog post recently on the importance of gender balance. The message conveyed by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of consultancy 20-first, is one that should resonate and that embodies true feminist principles. Rather than focusing on the negative issues (overall struggle and injustice), as women we need to be focusing on the positive (the untapped business opportunity of leveraging women in the C-suite).
The #banbossy campaign has sparked conversation recently about how for women, bossy translates to another less pleasant b-word later in life. To be successful in life and the workplace, you need to take charge, and we should be teaching young women how to develop and hone these skills, not focus our energy on banning a word. Girls need to learn to respect themselves and be proud of who they are. We should be showing them how to look past societal biases and embrace their unique characteristics, whatever they may be, including being bossy.
PR professionals understand that getting defensive is never a good offense - we like to get in front of issues. Words only have the power that we give them. The campaign should be focused on being bossy and encouraging women to embrace leadership characteristics. Let's re-brand the effort to "That's right, I'm bossy."