Banning Bossy has been making me uncomfortable for weeks, but I couldn't put my finger on why. Which made me even more uncomfortable. Why couldn't I support other women by getting excited about banning the word bossy?
The first hint came with this post, which pointed out that being bossy is not necessarily the same as being a leader. Nay, a bossy person may be no leader at all, and a skilled leader need not be bossy. I agreed wholeheartedly, but there was still something missing.
A friend pointed out that all of this seemed to stem from the likelihood that Sheryl Sandberg was called bossy as a child and still resents it. I suspect she's right, but does that mean Sheryl Sandberg is wrong? After all, racism, sexism, homophobia, and every other "ism" leaves us with people who have been subjected to them and resent it. If not, there would be no problem.
Slowly, it dawned on me that Sheryl Sandberg is not wrong about bossy at all. Women are judged more harshly than men are regarding almost everything, and there's no doubt that women in leadership positions are more likely to be met with resentment for not being "nice" enough. Clearly men, are more comfortable with leadership, and Sandberg is right - it's a problem.
"Bossy" isn't even an entirely unflattering accusation. It's generally accompanied with at least some grudging admiration, and carries the implication that the "bossy" girl is capable, intelligent, and inspiring. She is, in short, a leader.
However, I can't shake the feeling that the girls it presents the biggest problem for are the girls who face few challenges aside from sexism. They have conventional interests, and their strengths are the things we tend to place a high value on as a culture. They are generally pleasing to adults. They're smart enough, and nobody is going to miss it because they have no trouble expressing it. They're high achieving, middle and upper class, white, and don't suffer from learning disabilities or behavioral disorders.
So what's the real issue? The middle-class white woman's desire and demand for universal approval. This need isn't rooted in entitlement - just the opposite. It's based on the idea that it's a girl's job to make sure everybody is happy - with her - all the time. If you've made someone angry or resentful, you've done something terribly wrong. Yet, although entitlement isn't the cause, it is the result. A certain culture of women realizes they shouldn't have to worry about pleasing everyone all the time, yet still feels they shouldn't be the target of any disapproval. Their job is to make everyone, adults in particular, happy and proud, and they are very, very good at it.
The problem is, every girl gets the message that they need to make everyone happy loud and clear. But poor girls, girls of color, and girls who aren't what they're supposed to be in one way or another learn very quickly that it's not going to happen. Large swaths of people will always disapprove of them. Even so, removing the ability to please doesn't remove the desire. Women who are called "bossy" are in fact the women who are the least hurt by all this.
The ability to please is, of course, a mixed blessing. It can turn into an unrealistic expectation, turning girls into insecure perfectionists who are vulnerable to eating disorders and other problems.
Sheryl Sandberg has worked hard, and has, in return, received plenty of admiration and praise. Being called "bossy" is the closest thing to negative feedback she's ever received. The sexism lies in the fact that it bothers her so much.