It's the latest campaign spearheaded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, but this one doesn't have anything to do with which direction you're leaning. Instead, she—along with Beyonce, Jennifer Garner, and others—want us to ban bossy:
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.
While it's important to recognize the different ways we interact with young boys and girls and to avoid a gendered double standard, we need to go further than banning words to get at the root of this problem.
In a world in desperate need of the good things feminism has to offer, spending millions on cute, celebrity-driven commercials isn't nearly enough. "Bossy" is one in a long list of words that can be used to insult girls and women with leadership skills. But any word is only like the head of the Hydra from Greek mythology: Cut it out, and two more will crop up to replace it.
Fear of being called "bossy," or any other name for that matter, doesn't hold women back from boardrooms, classrooms, and staterooms. The systemic barriers to women's progress can't be summarized in a single word. With so many entrenched structural issues preventing equality in the workplace—the subject of Sandberg's bestseller Lean In, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this week—Sandberg and the Lean In organization could do so much more.
Sandberg has already come under fire for being less than inclusive in the premise of Lean In. Her strain of feminism is for women with privilege, critics say. They're not wrong—although I think there's a place for that, and I've liked what I've read of her book. But if we as Christians are really committed to the dignity of all people, we need to take on the more difficult work of examining ourselves and the systems we're a part of in our efforts to root out injustice.
The journey toward justice includes our words, absolutely. But when women and children go hungry more often than any other demographic, our words will not feed them. When one in every four women in America experiences domestic violence, our words will not protect them. When women hold only 18 percent of seats in Congress, our words will not empower them nearly as much as our actions. What we need isn't another well-meaning but ultimately ineffective focus on what one word we shouldn't say. We need real, systemic change—not our ultimate hope, but a great hope for the world about which God cares so deeply.
I was called bossy plenty of times growing up, and rightly so. I was a bossy kid, and it's still one of the things about me I have to deal with. Sometimes it's a good thing, a signal of a take-charge attitude and leadership skills, and sometimes, it's too much. Knowing that I have a tendency to be bossy helps, though. Self-awareness is one of the greatest assets any leader can bring to the table.
As Micheline Maynard wrote at Forbes, "I wish someone had sat down the young Sandberg and said, 'That word [bossy] reflects more about the person who said it than it does about you. Don't take it personally.'" Perhaps then there would be a campaign that could set out to achieve real change, rather than one whose difference, if it does make any, will be primarily semantic.
Sandberg and Lean In, instead, could start by addressing issues of policy around parental leave and daycare. After watching friends with new babies forced to take short maternity leave, pay reductions, and barely any time off for fathers, I can see how parental leave is an area ripe for 21st-century reform. And what about daycare? Staying home with their children remains a luxury many women across the country cannot afford or choose not to do. Lobbying for creative solutions and new policies around daycare would be another great use of this coterie's time and money. As would policy change around food insecurity, or encouraging young women to remain involved in STEM fields, or an initiative around increasing the number of women in politics. Any of these would be more effective in the long term than a campaign to ban one word.
It's easier (and sexier) to "ban bossy" than to lobby Congress for these kinds of family-friendly policies, but in the end, that hard work will bring about the kinds of real change that might make the workplace better for men and women alike. But the work of encouraging women toward leadership cannot be accomplished with one star-studded video, and it certainly won't come about just because we've eliminated "bossy" from our lexicon.
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