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Sheryl Sandberg says we should ban ‘bossy.’ I’ll pass.

Taking issue with the Facebook COO’s new well-meaning initiative.

Craig Phillips

As a woman and mother caught in the cross hairs of the Sheryl Sandberg generation, I am exhausted by manifestoes of pursuit. I’ve been told to Lean In (Facebook COO Sandberg), Marry Smart (Princeton mom Susan Patton), and now the latest: Ban Bossy (Sandberg yet again). It’s a lot of bossiness. I feel like I’m in a boot camp for perpetually striving women.

Ban Bossy, if you somehow haven’t heard, is the new initiative by Sandberg’s and Girl Scouts of the USA to encourage girls to lead. They have enlisted an army of female icons like Beyonce, Victoria Beckham, and Condoleezza Rice to promote the campaign through a website, Twitter hashtags, videos, and educational downloads.


The spirit of the movement has great merit. Assertive women tend to be derided as bossy (read: obnoxious), while assertive men are hailed as ambitious and decisive. On the other hand, passive women don’t get ahead. This is unfair and, as women outnumber men in the workforce, unsustainable.

The problem is that an important message — ambition should be genderless — is tainted by a culture of exclusion, false equivalents, and hypersensitivity.

Ban Bossy overlooks boys and men almost completely. The site asks viewers to watch a video and see “what happens when we encourage our girls to raise their hands, sit at the table, and lean in.” Every directive is geared toward females. Why should boys remain asterisks in this agenda? For ideas like Ban Bossy to gain traction, we need buy-in from brothers, dads, and male colleagues.

Another goal of the campaign is to examine the ways girls are “discouraged” from leading, including by the use of language. Excluding men from the dialogue makes them the implicit culprit. As the mom of a boy and as someone who believes in gender equality, I’d like to see him addressed in the conversation. It’s also important to note that guys don’t have it easy, either: Plenty of outspoken boys are called aggressive, and some men who support their colleagues and wives are called worse.


Moreover, the movement conflates bossiness with leadership and leadership with happiness. A “bossy” person isn’t necessarily a fulfilled one, nor is a “bossy” person a good leader. I’m still awaiting the movement that applauds a happily ordinary woman who works a fulfilling but sometimes frustrating job, who has a sometimes uncooperative but generally supportive spouse, and who would rather watch True Detective than run a conference call. I am unconvinced that Beckham and Beyonce are models for this kind of life.

Instead, the goal should be to promote a middle ground using language that encompasses reality and role models who embrace it. Much as we’ve promoted women in fashion magazines who have “real” bodies, like Lena Dunham in Vogue, it would be helpful for this movement to reflect who we really are: Some women might actually be bossy. And that’s OK. And others might not have any desire to be bossy or to lead, and that’s fine, too. These women deserve a place at the table, even if they’d rather doodle in a notebook.

Most of all — and I might get heat here — it’s crucial to acknowledge, loudly, that the real world will be forever unfair. No matter how evolved we become, common sense dictates that the world is perpetually plagued by unsupportive back stabbers and condescending oafs. Movements like Ban Bossy run the risk of insulating girls and concocting false expectations that will never align with inevitable hurts. More realistic is teaching kids that name-calling doesn’t matter to begin with. Someday, we should be able to say, “You think I’m bossy? So what!” This catchphrase doesn’t have quite the same viral sting, of course.


Therein lies the issue: Catchy messaging can’t capture the complexity of gender dynamics. Proponents of the Ban Bossy initiative argue that, even if the message is imprecise, the real point is to raise consciousness. It’s true: Every worthy movement relies on some degree of extremism to gain notice, from suffragette protests in the early 1900s to bra burning in the 1960s. The fact that we are debating the issue is an inherently positive thing, boosters say.

“It’s all about consciousness-raising for girls and the culture more broadly,” says Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely, senior associate dean for culture and community. “Any time you can bring to consciousness these negative stereotypes that are holding any group back, it’s a good thing.”

Fair enough. The conversation has started. But ultimately what will be helpful for boys and girls is not to receive commands like “lean” or “ban.” Both are synonyms for the most fraught command of all: Change! As time goes on, both genders should be empowered to do something far more authentic: Be Yourself.

Kara Baskin is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin. Send comments to