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Closing the Gender Gap: Bossing the B-Word Out of Schools

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While Beyonce, Jennifer Garner, and First Lady Michelle Obama embrace the new public service campaign to ban the word “bossy” from being used derogatorily against girls, the slogan is receiving mixed responses from the public.

The BanBossy campaign, a joint effort between Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org and The Girl Scouts of America, is aimed at teaching young girls to assert themselves in classroom and other environments where boys may typically dominate. The idea is that girls are taking a back seat to boys when leadership opportunities arise, in part because of misconceptions that girls who attempt to lead are “bossy”, a negative label, whereas boys are demonstrating “leadership skills.”

Some critics are questioning the simplistic tone of the campaign, pointing out its emphasis on restricting one word from our vocabulary.

Alexandra Petri of The Washington Post asks for Sandberg’s tips on “what to do” rather than what to not say.
Suzanne Lucas’s lead story on Inc.com yesterday takes issue with the quality that Sandberg has identified as a leadership trait. Being bossy, Lucas states, is “the opposite of leadership.” Advocating that little girls who demonstrate “queen bee” manipulation skills should be encouraged in that behavior can perpetuate the power imbalance among children, regardless of gender. Michelle Maynard adds to that sentiment in her piece on Forbes.com, explaining that the word bossy “says more about the person who said it than it does about you.” Maynard’s implication is that Sandberg’s campaign is personal, but not all self-assured young women take labels such as bossy, ambitious, assertive, or bold as personal insults. Maynard also makes clear that women today have much bigger things to worry about than words, such as “far more vile and graphic abuse” when living a public life. Think Erin Andrews and the peephole scandal.

And some successful, notable women don’t take offense at all to being called bossy. Case in point: Tina Fey. Her best-selling memoir is titled Bossypants as a celebration of the take-charge persona that got her to the top of a male-dominated industry. As fellow female comic Janeane Garofalo highlights in her review of Fey’s book, not only did Tina Fey rise to the top despite the odds, she raised even more female-centered ire when she portrayed the poster-girl of successful working women: Sarah Palin. Ironically, being linked to such a contentious candidate only solidified Fey’s success. Score two for being bossy.

On NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday, host Melissa Block, a woman with a notable public presence herself, questioned the relevance of the statistics on which the BanBossy campaign hinges, pointing out that much of the data is 20 years old. Sandberg defended the studies used, citing a few conducted recently by the Girl Scouts as showing that not much has changed. The link to this research provided on the Ban Bossy literature is no longer operable. A summary of the research can be found here instead.

But Sandberg’s comment in her NPR interview hit on a key assumption that needs further exploration. She stated that, "Almost every teacher thinks they're calling on boys and girls evenly. No one's trying to call on boys more."

When was Sandberg last in a classroom for any length of time? Is it possible that she is “room mom” during her free time from her duties as Facebook CEO?

Her response continued: "But time and again, blind studies show that we actually are calling on boys more, even though we don't realize it..."

The classroom studies to which she is referring were conducted in 1992, 1994, and 2009. It is quite possible that young girls are being treated differently now in schools, especially when there are more women in leadership positions around them (principals, superintendents, doctors) and access to media (Facebook among others) makes images of female role models easily accessible to young girls. There is a new "norm" for expectations of women that couldn't exist twenty or even ten years ago.

As if in answer to this, she proposed, "In this case, we suggest that teachers do a little audit of themselves — keep track, you know, throw a little data at their own performance so that they can really see what they're doing."

Apparently, Sandberg herself thinks there is room for more current data to be gathered, and is asking that educators collect it themselves.

Sounds kinda bossy to me.

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