Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
Last year, one of America's top businesswomen, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, bolstered the feminist cause with her book "Lean In," advising women to take charge and seize career opportunities. While not everyone cheered -- some feminists accused Sandberg of downplaying discrimination, some conservatives of dismissing women's traditional choices -- her basic message was a positive one of female self-assertion in equal partnership with men. Unfortunately, Sandberg's new campaign -- "Ban Bossy" -- is a spectacular misfire that promises empowerment but promotes the worst stereotypes of feminism: victimhood and speech policing.
The idea behind the initiative, backed by several other prominent women including the singer Beyoncé, is that girls are kept from fulfilling their leadership potential by the fear of being called bossy. According to the website, BanBossy.com, "When a little boy asserts himself, he's called a 'leader.' Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded 'bossy.' " Supporters are urged to take the "I will ban bossy" pledge to not only encourage girls to lead and speak up, but also to avoid language that might hold them back -- such as the word "bossy," which, the site asserts, "is rarely used for boys."
Many critics of the campaign, which has received a largely negative response from feminists and conservatives alike, note that targeting a word is hardly the solution: even if "bossy" is out, girls who worry that they will be disliked for being too assertive will go right on worrying. The answer, some say, is to teach girls to be less worried about others' negative opinions -- or even to turn the tables, embrace the term "bossy" as positive and wear the label proudly.
But is there any evidence that American girls in this day and age are fragile flowers whose confidence can be destroyed by a discouraging word? According to BanBossy.com, "girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles will make them seem 'bossy' " -- a factoid based on a 2008 report from the Girl Scout Research Institute, "Change It Up!"
But while the report is based on a solid study -- a survey of about 2,500 girls and 1,500 boys -- this particular finding is less than impressive. It is based on a subgroup of 360 children who said they weren't interested in being leaders, and who were asked about the reasons for this disinterest. "I do not want to seem bossy" was mentioned by 29 percent of the girls but only 13 percent of the boys. However, in the entire survey pool, girls were just as likely as boys to say that they wanted to be leaders and to agree that "I think of myself as a leader." They were also equally likely to describe themselves as "confident," "talented," and "strong."
Moreover, the girls in the survey were more likely than boys to report actual leadership experience. Thus, 31 percent of girls compared to 26 percent of boys said they had been the leader of a team for a school project; 13 percent of girls but 10 percent of boys had run for a class or school office. This is consistent with a vast amount of recent data showing that girls are outpacing boys on all sorts of academic and social measures.
Are girls more likely than boys to be called "bossy"? Perhaps, though it's certainly not true that the word is never applied to boys; it's also likely that obnoxious boys are more often called worse names from "bully" to "jerk."
Let us by all means help girls fulfill their potential. But let's not invent oppression where it doesn't exist -- and let's not forget about boys who are falling behind.