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Sorry Sheryl, But If The Shoe Fits . . .

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

“Bossy women make great leaders.”  So writes Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and the “Lean-In” gal.  Sandberg, along with Anna-Maria Chavez, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, wrote an article published in the March 8-9 Review section of the Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Call Us Bossy”, which has to do with their belief that calling a girl “bossy” can discourage her from reaching her full potential.  After listing several dictionary references associating bossiness with women, they say, “Calling a girl ‘bossy’ . . . undermines her ability to see herself as a leader . . .”   They refer to data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and “other studies” reflecting the tendency of parents to expect more in the way of leadership from their sons than from their daughters, and of teachers to call on boys or allow them to shout out answers more frequently,  then stating “It’s no surprise that by middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys are.”

I see.  The use of the word “bossy” causes girls to chuck their dreams of leadership around age 13, and (according to another study) decide it’s more important to be popular and well-liked.  I guess all those “deep-rooted stereotypes about gender” (boys are more competitive and aggressive, girls are more relational and nurturing) have no basis in the possible reality that girls might actually prefer being friends to being “the boss”.

I know there is controversy here, but aside from what you may believe about the existence of innate psychological differences between men and women (not to mention their physical differences regarding childbearing), the word “bossy” (which comes from “boss”, the word traditionally used to refer to the male head of an organization) has a negative connotation because of certain such males who behaved badly.  In other words, it isn’t the fact of being the boss that makes you “bossy”, it’s leading in a certain not-so-nice way.

It’s a bit of a generalization to say (as Sandberg and Chavez do) that boys and men who are powerful and successful are often well-liked, and that women who become powerful and successful are not.  (By the way–I just want to insert here that Ms. Sandberg’s use of the word “successful” only in reference to someone who has broken the glass ceiling, or is head of some kind of organization, reflects her own arrogance and disregard for women who have not pursued that route.)

Anyone–male or female– who throws around his/her authority, who is aggressive in gaining power by ruthless or inconsiderate means, uses others to gain personal advantage, engages in flattery or deception to get ahead, has no regard for the feelings of others, or any hesitation about turning his/her back on former colleagues if it will help him/her get ahead, will be disliked, and probably called names!  

Ditto people of either gender who are rude, harsh, angry, shrill, insulting, or condescending.  Girls (and women) who behave in this way are often called bossy (and other things) for these reasons–not simply because they are in a position of leadership.  Boys (and men) of this ilk are called jerks.

I am aware that there are people who genuinely look down on women pursuing higher education, working outside the home, or taking certain kinds of jobs.  There are genuine stereotypes about women, and I have personally experienced my opinions being discounted or disregarded by a male or males because of my having chosen not to be more assertive in a given moment.  I have heard jokes about women drivers, a woman’s “place”, etc., and have felt insulted and condescended to by men on several occasions.  I do not excuse this kind of behavior, and don’t appreciate it when it happens to me–it’s wrong.

On the other hand, I have worked as headmaster of a school, dealing with male school board members and parents, and with authority over staff of both genders; I have been assertive in stating my beliefs, in implementing policy, and in dealing with difficult and demanding situations. Opinions are not always agreed with, nor are decisions always popular, but I was always treated with great respect, and was never accused of being bossy.

It seems to me that what Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Chavez want is a free pass for girls to behave badly.  They seem to think that boys are routinely excused for bad behavior mislabeled “leadership qualities”, so why not girls?  FYI, the “deep-rooted stereotype” of  kind, loving, nurturing women is not a bad thing, and honestly, neither is the one concerning boys being leaders.  There’s nothing wrong with encouraging either of these things, just as it is not wrong to encourage girls to be confident and boys to be considerate.  Both boys and girls should be encouraged to reach their full potential.  But no one –male or female– should be excused from respectful behavior, or given permission to behave in a bossy or recklessly aggressive and inconsiderate manner.  

Good leadership, by either gender, should be achieved and maintained through the use of one’s abilities and skills, by means that are persuasive and respectful, not by being domineering–by being authoritative without being authoritarian.

Those who have the ability and proclivity to lead should be expected to do so with respect for those around them.  If they do, they, in turn, will be regarded with respect by all but the envious and mean-spirited.  If not, they can expect to be viewed by others as what they are–obnoxious, pushy, demanding, shrill–and yes–bossy.  But they shouldn’t expect to be viewed as great leaders.

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