There’s been so much written about Sheryl Sandberg’s new campaign to “Ban Bossy,” or specifically the word bossy, that Time magazine has done a roundup of the coverage itself. But while others are focused on the debate over the b-word, I’m more interested in a larger controversy: Why does it seem so hard for a privileged woman like Sheryl Sandberg, who clearly means well, to find meaningful ways to help women and girls who are less privileged?
I’ve previously written about Sandberg’s missteps in her efforts to help other women “lean in.” Most infamously when her LeanIn.org organization advertised for unpaid interns, which as anyone who is not privileged knows perpetuates inequality by giving kids whose families can subsidize them while they work for free, a leg up over kids who cannot. To her credit, following the ensuing criticism Sandberg reversed policy and announced they would compensate interns. She should be lauded for this reversal. But I’m not sure she should be lauded for using the tremendous cultural capital she has, and actual monetary capital she has on banning the word bossy, or banning words period.
When I look at the laundry list of obstacles that women face, particularly those of us who do not come from privileged backgrounds, being called bossy doesn’t rank in the top 20. For the record, I’ve been called much, much worse. Any female blogger or television pundit has. But I actually credit the fact that I was called bossy, talkative and mouthy regularly as a child—and had parents who encouraged me to embrace such labels—to playing a key role in the fact that I’m rarely offended by the names I get called when I write a column that someone hates today. In fact, I wonder how much thinner my skin might be if my mother had told my teachers, “No one is ever allowed to tell my daughter she talks too much.” They were allowed to tell me that. But they also knew that they could only tell me that in the context of chatting with friends during a lesson. If a teacher dared try to tell me I was raising my hand too much, they knew, I knew and everybody knew, they could look forward to a nice long chat with my mom about the fact that no one would stand in the way of her curious, inquisitive, and some might say bossy daughter.
The fact that a recent article on the Harvard Business School’s efforts to improve gender equity actually included references to a workshop on coaching more female business students on how to aggressively raise their hand doesn’t tell me we need to ban the word bossy. It tells me we need more women, and men, to raise their girls the way my parents raised me: to be assertive, confident and proud. Trying to ban “bossy” to improve gender equality is like saying we can solve racial inequality by banning the terms “you talk white” or “act white” in the black community. The fact that academic achievement is synonymous with white behavior in some parts of the black community is certainly destructive and studies have proven this. (For the record, I was told I “talk white” more times than I can count growing up.) But even if no one in the black community used the expressions “you talk white” or “act white” ever again, it would not solve the underlying issues in our community, which are tied largely to poverty, economic inequality and a lack of access and knowledge regarding comprehensive family planning and a host of other issues.
When I look back on my life, and the people who made the biggest difference in insuring that someone like me, a woman of color from a non-privileged background, got an opportunity that changed my life, and pushed me closer to equality, they were not people who banned words. They were the guidance counselors who helped me find a way to pay for my college education. The administrator who helped me find additional funding when some of my financial aid fell through and I worried I wouldn’t be able to graduate. The internship coordinators who convinced their bosses to find budgets to pay me so that I could take the internships that set me on my career path today.
To be clear, I’m not saying that words and symbols don’t matter. To the contrary, I hate the N-word and wish all people, of all races would stop using it. But when we live in an age in which Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis can be killed while unarmed because as black boys they were immediately perceived as threatening, I would say that black Americans have much bigger fish to fry than asking one of the most prominent members of our community to launch a nationwide campaign to ban the N-word.
And women have much bigger fish to fry than banning the word “bossy.” If Sheryl Sandberg really wants to impact gender equality, here’s a novel idea: write a check. Actually don’t write one, or two, or three or four. How about putting a post on Facebook asking every single bossy girl who has the grades and ambition to go to college, but is not sure if she can afford it to message you and then offer to pay for her to go with no loans, particularly if she is pursuing a STEM field.
Or, do what Andre Agassi or Oprah Winfrey have done and start a school that takes kids who don’t have the kind of privileged background Sandberg had growing up, and give them a fighting chance at an equal playing field. If it’s your school, you can even ban the word bossy there, or have a class that coaches girls on assertively raising their hands.
The bottom line is worrying about a word is a luxury that only kids who are already growing up with a host of advantages can afford. If Sandberg wants to make a real difference, she should put her money where her mouth is and come up with solutions that will insure more equality for girls who have more pressing concerns beyond banning bossy. Like whether or not the school they attend is preparing them adequately to compete for Sandberg’s job someday.