The white privilege behind Sheryl Sandberg's 'Ban Bossy' campaign
Among black women "bossy" is an anthem, not a pejorative
It has been a year since the publication of what is sure to be the defining biz-advice book for women of our generation, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. It has sold more than 1.5 million copies, spawned thousands of Lean In circles and probably as many think pieces and columns. I have contributed to the commentary in a couple of different places, lamenting that while Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has started the conversation regarding gender inequality in the workplace, it is important for us to keep as part of the discussion the privilege and entitlement that comes with being the chief operating officer at one of the wealthiest and most ubiquitous companies in the world. But Lean In's latest campaign, sadly, might be the worst instance of Sandberg's tendency to overemphasize personal experience at the expense of a more inclusive message.
On International Women's Day, The Wall Street Journal published an article Sandberg co-wrote with Girls Scouts CEO Anna Chávez called "Sheryl Sandberg and Anna Chávez on 'Bossy' the Other B-word." In it, both Sandberg and Chavez share stories of being discouraged from leadership at young ages — the word bossy was leveled against them in a mean way by teachers and boys. "Although the two of us come from different backgrounds," they write, "we both heard the same put-down. Call it the other B-word. Whether it is said directly or implied, girls get the message: Don't be bossy. Don't raise your hand too much. Keep your voice down. Don't lead."
Sandberg's real world efforts to slowly change an overarching cultural sentiment that informs all aspects of society are appreciated. They suggest that instead of, say, donating money to political endeavors that might close the wage gap between women and men, we should start with more obvious, superficial discussions that impact women on a more subtle level. I agree that we should start a conversation about the fact that little girls are often tagged with the label bossy when they are showing leadership skills. But is this campaign anything more than a symbolic gesture?
In fact, there are half a dozen examples of women who already have reclaimed the word bossy in popular culture, from Tina Fey with the wonderful Bossypants to the R&B singer Kelis who released a hit single, "Bossy" in 2006. Before either of them, the first African American woman to run for president in 1972, Shirley Chisholm, became synonymous with the phrase "Unbought and Unbossed." Clearly, not everyone believes that the power of this word is enough to keep a good woman down. Among black women, in fact, who don't have the racial privilege of blending in or adhering to "feminine characteristics" ascribed usually to white and Latina women in the workplace, bossy is an anthem, not a pejorative.
The fact is, white privilege is the invisible bossy bitch in the room. Sandberg wrote in Lean In that women should not be afraid to negotiate, or to take a seat at a table where men are. This is useful advice if you are already in the room, but less so if you can't even get a foot in the door. This where privilege comes in: African American women and Latinas are overrepresented in service industry and low-wage position and underrepresented in managerial or professional positions, according to the Center for American Progress' 2013 report on the State of Women of Color in the U.S. The main challenges that black women and other women of color face, to say nothing of working class white women, have to do with entering the proverbial room.
Research published in 2011 by the Girls Scouts of America, by the way, confirms that African American and Latina girls often have higher self-confidence and positive leadership experiences compared to their white counterparts, in part because of flexible gender roles in their respective communities.
Banning the word bossy skirts the true issues at the heart of women's inequality and our self-consciousness in the world of work: money and privilege. Only people with privilege have the time or the inclination to argue the semantics of whether a woman's feelings are hurt by being called bossy or bitchy. One of my favorite writers on this topic is the prolific Roxane Gay who, in a piece about unlikable female protagonists in literature, wrote:
I had so few friends it didn't really matter how I behaved. I had nothing to lose. I had no idea what it meant to be likable though I was surrounded by generally likable people, or I suppose, I was surrounded by people who were very invested in projecting a likable façade, people who were willing to play by the rules. I had likable parents and brothers. I was the anomaly as a social outcast, but even from a young age, I understood that when a girl is unlikable, a girl is a problem. I also understood that I wasn't being intentionally mean. I was being honest (admittedly, without tact), and I was being human. It is either a blessing or a curse that those are rarely likable qualities in a woman. [BuzzFeed]
It is not our problem, she says, if people don't like us or they call us names. I agree: The only women I knew growing up in the Bronx, including my mother, were mouthy, bossy, and unabashed leaders who didn't take any guff. If someone threatened to hurt me or my feelings, my mother would warn that I'd better hurt them right back or she'd hurt me.
That's not an approach I'd recommend, even as a childfree woman. But we might stand to gain more if we taught girls to stop caring about what people say to them and encourage them to barrel ahead anyway, because to get into the proverbial room where all the decisions are made requires disregarding what people say to you.
There is no nation in the world where women have wage parity with men, and globally women trail men on every economic measure, as Kathleen Geier at The Nation reports. Even when women do find themselves in leadership positions — bossy or not — they still make about 18 percent less than men. Is Sheryl Sandberg making sure women at Facebook are paid as much as men? I hope so. And she's right that real solutions to this conundrum begin when girls are young. But it would make a greater difference if Sandberg used her enormous platform to send the message that it doesn't matter what anyone calls you — it's how you answer them.