Banning “bossy”

As a young woman who is still relatively uncertain about the future I want for myself, I appreciate all Sheryl Sandberg’s vehement advocacy on the part of females in the business world.

I have admittedly not yet read her book Lean In, but I know that Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is known for speaking out against the apparent gender inequality in top leadership positions and suggesting ways to balance the scales. Undoubtedly, I want women to have the right to achieve the same roles as males. But at the same time, I’m not yet convinced that an equal distribution of men and women at the top should be the ultimate goal, either. The right to choose not to lead a high-powered and competitive career is just as important as the right to a fair chance at attaining one, if that’s what a woman desires.

Because I’m already a little tentative about Sandberg’s vehemence, I was skeptical when I heard of her new campaign, Ban Bossy. The site states:

When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.

I get the point, but I have to object to the suggestion that the use of the word “bossy” contributes (or even causes, as it sounds like she’s suggesting) middle school girls to be less interested in leading than boys. What if they’re less interested in leading because they have female brains? What if men, on the whole, just desire leadership positions more than women do? I acknowledge that not every man wants to be a leader (many don’t), and that many women do want to lead, but maybe if we averaged across all people, we’d find a gender difference in aspirations.

Anyway, my main issue with Ban Bossy is the power Sandberg attributes to the single word bossy. I’ll be one of the last people to deny that language can shape our thinking, but the claim that bossy (or even words like it) is largely responsible for disparities in leadership feels like a stretch. One observation that Franz Boas is known for is that that Eskimos have many words for snow. It must follow, he claimed, that they think more about snow than speakers of other languages. A radical version of this hypothesis is that they’re capable of snow-related thoughts that English speakers, for example, may not be. The “Eskimo words for snow” idea is now pretty much a joke among linguists and cognitive scientists. In fact, English speakers can and do think about snowmen, snowmobiles, and snowflakes; we can conceive of snow on the ground, in the air, and in paper cones… even though our language only gives us the one word: snow.

Ban Bossy has an undeniably positive and important message at its core: if women and men exhibit the same traits, they shouldn’t be referred to as bossy in one case and a leader in the other. I think it’s great that so many people are backing the sentiment. At the same time, though, I’m not willing to give a single word as much credit as Ban Bossy seems to do. Because after all, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

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