Q&A With Sheryl Sandberg: Ban the Word “Bossy” When Describing Our Daughters

girl playing with dollAfter inciting much-needed conversation on workplace feminism with her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and mother of two, opens up about her own family life and gives us the inside scoop on her new Ban Bossy public-service campaign—which starts by asking parents and kids alike to stop using the word “bossy” to describe strong girls.

What can we do to help ban the word “bossy?”

People often see gender inequality as a problem too big to fix on their own, but I think cultural shifts happen by small things we do each day. To help ban the word “bossy,” tell your girls:

  • Speak Up. Raise your hand in class and express yourself.
  • Believe in Yourself. Trust that you can achieve anything you set your mind to.
  • Stop Apologizing. There’s no need to say that you’re sorry for making a decision.
  • Practice. Remember, leadership is a muscle that can be worked like any other.

How did becoming a mother influence you to start the Ban Bossy public-service campaign?

Becoming a parent was a big part of my journey to Lean In and Ban Bossy. As a parent, you recognize the inequalities your child may encounter. I remember reading a study done with moms of babies that really stuck with me. When asked to evaluate their children’s crawling abilities, the mothers systematically underestimated the girls’ abilities and overestimated the boys’. There was no factual evidence to support the mothers’ gender bias. Both sexes actually performed the same when tested. It made me realize that I was likely underestimating my daughter without even realizing it, which was a big eye-opener for me. Lean In is for the workplace, but also for the home. It has to be achieved at home.

How will the Ban Bossy campaign help eradicate gender inequality?

I think people look at big problems like gender issues and think, “This is a big deal. How can I change this myself?” At Lean In, we believe so deeply that these cultural problems change by the small things each of us do: The changes we make by paying attention to the little everyday stuff do not have a small impact. Major cultural shifts happen with small changes.

How do you model some of the Ban Bossy techniques in your own home?

Many parents still, to this day, assign household chores like dishes and laundry to their girls, while boys mow the lawn and take out the trash. In my home, the entire family does the dishes together: mom, dad, son, and daughter work as a team to clean up.

What a great lesson for both your daughter and son!

Even though it is a small thing, the extra steps are so important. A couple of weeks ago, some friends of ours invited a few families to their home for dinner. After we finished eating, I noticed that the women, myself included, headed to the kitchen to clean up while the men settled down in front of the TV. Our children were watching this. We have to model equality in order for our children to believe it exists for them.

How do you think we can encourage our male partners to adopt this philosophy?

Telling men that equality is good for women isn’t enough; however, I do think that a lot of fathers already realize the challenges their daughters face. So many men have told me they want their daughters to have the same opportunities they did. The number-one thing a man can do as a father is be involved. No matter the family’s income level, children with more active fathers have better outcomes, both emotionally and financially.

If we need to ban the word “bossy” for girls, what’s a word you’d like to see used more often to describe girls?

It’s interesting; I was talking to my 9-year-old niece about the word “bossy” when we were preparing to launch the program. I asked, “What do you think about the word ‘bossy?’ Is it for boys or for girls?” She said bossy is for girls; the word they use for boys is leader. She is only 9 and already intuitively understands what is going on. It’s not that I want to see that taken away from boys; I just want the word “leader” to be applied equally to girls, and for the same behaviors.

How do you handle this with your daughter?

Last night she was telling me about a playdate with one of her friends where they played teacher. When I asked her to tell me about the game, and who played what role, she said, ‘She is always the teacher, and I am always the student.’ I asked her if she would like to be the teacher sometime. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but she always wants to be the teacher.’ I coached her on ways she could talk to her friend about taking turns. I want her to learn how to be vocal, say how she feels, and speak up for herself. It’s my job to encourage her to go after what she wants.

What message do you hope your daughter remembers as she grows up?

“You can do anything.’ One of the catalysts to Lean In was a conversation with my daughter on President’s Day one year. We played a song about presidents, and my daughter asked me why the presidents were all boys. After a pause, I explained that although they have been, she could be the next president. I want her to know she has the opportunity to do anything she wants.”
Do you think we praise girls too often on their appearance? “We focus way too much on how girls look. A girl walks in from school, and we tell her how pretty she looks today. We don’t do that with boys. It’s not that we can’t tell our daughters they are beautiful; we just need to praise them for attributes they can actually control, too, and do it more often.

What specific media examples have a positive message for girls today?

My kids and I just watched Frozen and it was a feminist home run! When I went in to watch the movie, I didn’t know the plot. Look what happens! She gets engaged knowing the guy for a few hours and that obviously turns out to be a bad idea. She is saved in the end by the love for her sister. It is a great plotline with strong, independent female characters. My son and his friends love it too. I am so proud of Disney for this movie. It is a feminist fairy tale.

What TV shows feature female characters in a positive light?

Doc McStuffins is everything you want girls to see on TV. She’s assertive, a leader, and a diverse character. We have progressed so far in how we portray female characters on children’s TV shows. Think back to how Lucy was portrayed in Peanuts. It wasn’t positive. We have already come such a long way, but there’s still quite a way to go.

—Sabrina James

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