There is a lot of conversation happening in the blogosphere around the movement by Sheryl Sandberg and friends to “Ban Bossy” Many women in leadership in faith circles can resonate with the sentiment of this campaign, as many faith-based institutions historically have silenced women by labeling leadership traits as “unfeminine” while simultaneously enshrining leadership as a male characteristic. Sandberg argued in her TED talk that inspired the movement, that in her experience many girls and women have been called “bossy” when boys and men who express similar sentiments are portrayed as “brave” and “leadership potential.” In my own experience I have experienced and seen this happen and have observed that few places are as guilty of this practice as faith-based institutions. As a professional woman and a mother of two precocious and intelligent girls, I was initially impressed with this effort to reshape the language of educators, mentors, and parents when encountering strong, opinionated children. However, upon further reflection, and after reading several engaging blogs across the political and ideological spectrum, I have changed my mind.
While I applaud Sandberg and associates efforts to highlight the gendered assumptions about leadership that are still present in many institutions and individuals in American society, I think their efforts to “ban” a word are misguided, as “banning” has the effect of stopping dialogue. What is really needed is a cultural conversation about the meaning of “leadership” and the rainbow of its expressions in society. We need an ongoing conversation about how leadership is perceived and how it is expressed in engendered and personality-based and culturally shaped ways. Their efforts to highlight the effects of a label like “bossy” are to be commended, but banning this label alone is not enough for building a future where women and girls have space at the table equal to men and boys, because there are men and boys and culturally different minorities who are also not at the table. It is time that we stop using gender as a straw man and begin considering how labels such as “bossy” construct such narrow definitions of leadership affect both developing boys and girls.