So what if I’m bossy? The pitfalls of Sheryl Sandberg’s #BanBossy campaign

9 mins read

Sheryl Sandberg is a business woman who has recently launched a feminist campaign called Ban Bossy. The campaign was made to encourage young girls to be leaders, and she’s managed to get together a pretty extensive celebrity support system for it — Beyoncé, Jennifer Garner, and Condoleezza Rice just to name a few. On the campaign’s website, it states “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’. . .  By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys — a trend that continues into adulthood.”

I’m all for encouraging girls to seek out leadership roles, but this campaign is not the way to go about doing that. Its flaws are made apparent by the significant amount of pushback the campaign has gotten, which, in turn, has been labeled by some people as anti-feminist backlash. Count me among the detractors of the campaign.

I have problems with the claims Ban Bossy makes, but I’ll explain that later. Let’s say that little girls with leadership qualities are being unduly disparaged. Don’t leaders of both genders have to have thick skin, take criticism, and role with it? Shouldn’t we be teaching the girls with leadership potential to be able to constructively deal with opposition and to differentiate between valid and invalid criticisms of their character?

And what if a little girl actually is being bossy? Should parents and teachers just not point that out and refrain from disciplining her because her bossiness might be the sign of a budding entrepreneur? Yes, bossy is applied more to girls who are assertive than to boys, but that’s because we have other, equally disparaging words for boys who exhibit the same behavior. Only a bad teacher would praise a child for being ornery and domineering, no matter that child’s gender. This may only be my personal experience as someone who was once in grade school and who currently works with kids, but boys tend to be called out more than girls for offputting behavior, at least from what I’ve seen. Bossiness and leadership potential are two different things.

This campaign actually discredits, not encourages, the strength of girls. It implies that a girl with leadership potential can only act on it if the conditions are near perfect and consistently encouraging. Girls are strong — they don’t need their hands held through every endeavor that might bruise their delicate sensibilities. If a girl can only lead if people refrain from saying unflattering things about her, she’s probably not a good leader. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Why does every little girl have to be a future leader now? What if they don’t have the disposition for it? When making footage for the campaign, they asked a group of little girls if they’d rather be liked or be a leader, and most of them said they’d rather be liked, as if that justified banning a word.

First, that was a very leading question to ask a bunch of nine year old girls just to make a point. Second, why are the two options portrayed as mutually exclusive when being likeable is seen as a good leadership quality? Third, why do they assert that wanting to be liked by their peers is the largest factor hindering young girls from leading? I’m not all that fond of being the head honcho, and I also do not care if people like me—where do I fall on the spectrum they’ve created?

Even if being a leader and being liked were mutually exclusive, why is wanting to be liked automatically deemed the lesser option? Why not teach young girls that camaraderie and leadership aren’t mutually exclusive life choices if you want to encourage leadership? I don’t see how banning a word would contribute to that. It may just be hyperbolic rhetoric, but any campaign that says “restricting the language of other people is probably the best option here” is not one I’m going to support.

How is it empowering to girls to assert that people cannot say “XYZ” about them because it hurts their fragile self-esteem? How is silencing other people’s comments and ignoring criticism going to help? It’s attempting to expand girls’ options by limiting what people can say about them, which makes no sense. It’s trying to control people’s language and egregiously disrespects their own autonomy in favor of counterproductive sensitivity. Empowerment should not come from that.

And is this even a problem? Sandberg asserts that “by middle school girls are less likely to go for leadership positions because they worry about being called bossy.” How did she come to that conclusion? Maybe it’s true, but right now it seems like a random statement that Sandberg just thought up and decided was the Real Problem. It seems like they interviewed a handful of little girls with leading questions and called it a day. Shouldn’t something be done to make sure that this is a legitimate problem with actual, significant impact before we start trying to fix it by banning words?

This campaign is trying to stop some vague “bad” word from being used without offering any kind of alternative that addresses the many problems I’ve discussed. Social groups don’t declare words off-limits in order to gain personal empowerment and autonomy by taking it from others. They create different channels leading to confidence and self-esteem that are inwardly focused instead of outwardly focused. Dictating how other people act in order to safeguard your own feelings is not only unrealistic, but it’s not helpful. It doesn’t make you a stronger person, and it doesn’t make them better people. It just limits conversation.

Successful women own the fact that they are successful, and if someone calls them bossy or a bitch they own that too, because that’s the quality that made them successful in the first place. Tina Fey’s biography is called “Bossypants;” Meredith Brooks sang the song “Bitch” in 1997. Beyoncé, who is on this campaign, will not shut up about how much of an empowered boss she is.

It disheartens me because Sandberg is good at making headlines and clearly wants to help, but instead of doing something constructive, she did this and discredits herself and the goals of feminism in general. And you know what trying to police the language of other people is? Bossy.


  1. The way I see it, the “ban” aspect isn’t literal. More than being about a word, the campaign raises awareness regarding the way we talk about women and girls in leadership roles (or who are aspiring to them), ie generally they are disparaged for merely being strong or confident. Some people aren’t as affected by this type of language – and that doesn’t necessarily mean that those people are more fit to lead because while of course to be successful you need to grow a thick skin, it’s not absurd to want a minimum level of respect – but a lot are. Nobody is saying that women NEED people to stop using this language in order to become successful leaders, it’s just that IDEALLY people would view male and female bosses/leaders equally. So although it’s not the most important issue feminism faces at the moment, I still think it’s worth talking about, especially with young girls.

  2. Interesting article, but unlike most articles that you write, I have to disagree with this one. You say that ” leaders of both genders have to have thick skin, take criticism, and roll with it” – but that’s when they’ve already become leaders, not when they’re just children (also boys seem to manage just fine without being toughened up by being called “bossy”). “Girls are strong” – yes, but also very vulnerable to societal pressure when young. Children can’t just shake off criticism and empower themselves like you want everybody to – sure, “successful women own the fact that they are successful”, but it’s not them we’re worried about, it’s the ones who don’t make it that far. The point of “ban bossy” is not that girls shouldn’t be told when they’re overly assertive, but that it’s so easy to label girls as “bossy” (those similar words for boys, if they even exist, are used far less often) that it’s overused and contributes to how girls view themselves growing up, and how society views women overall.

    I think there are legitimate problems with the campaign. But a lot of criticisms are missing the forest for the trees. I don’t think the word “bossy” being eradicated even matters as much as drawing attention to the systematic differences in expectations and treatment of boys and girls which come out in everyday life and language, and acknowledging that we need to change those.

  3. I agree with both the author and Richard which underscores the weakness of this campaign. It seeks to empower girls by controlling speech NOT educating either the perpetrators or the victims. Some girls are bossy bullies, and their victims are typically other little girls. This kind of terrorizing can also have long-lasting negative impacts.

    Gender discrimination exists. That is a reality. The fact that some politicians are still trying to trot out “studies” suggesting men have bigger brains, so they are “smarter” attests to this fact.

    I wish there were clear cut expectations of society; not one set of rules for boys and one for girls. This would be more beneficial. Being a good leader does not change whether you do it in loafers or high-heels. Show children what a leader IS!

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