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What Kids Actually Think About Sheryl Sandberg, Leaning In and “Ban Bossy”

March 9, 2014

Most of us have heard of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” campaign to encourage women in all professions to follow their ambitions and transform the idea of a woman’s character and capabilities. Now, with the Girl Scouts, she has launched a new initiative: “Ban Bossy.” The aim? Correcting a common (and false) dichotomy: when a man acts like an assertive leader, he’s the boss; when a woman does, she’s “bossy.”

Sandberg wants to eradicate the word from boardrooms and on the playground, because it’s toxic to girls and forces them to step back, rather than lean in and get branded as “bossy.” I was interested in what kids actually think about “bossy,” and what they actually think about each other. So ABC Nightline anchor Cynthia McFadden and I took a trip to New York’s Hunter College Elementary School and sat down with 1st and 6th grade boys and girls, in 4 groups.

Everyone agreed: “bossy” isn’t a great word, and it is used more often to refer to girls. The girls disliked the word bossy more than the boys did, sure. But here’s what’s interesting: when we asked the 1st-graders about the word “leader”—”You’re a leader, Harry, how does that make you feel?”—they were more positive but not overwhelmingly so. There’s a feeling of wanting to be friends and wanting people to like you, not be a leader. And there was a great equality between the sexes in terms of this.

Things change in 6th grade, but maybe not how you would think. Who are the clear leaders? The girls. The 6th grade boys reported them as much more enthusiastic about student leadership and academic-more ambitious and more interested in being the best. They saw the girls as equals but did admit that they were more likely to call a girl bossy than a boy.

The girls could care less about that. Bossy was a bad word, but not a terrible word, and it meant nothing from a boy. It meant nothing from someone they didn’t know. But: if someone they cared about called them bossy they’d try very hard to change their behavior, meaning that they didn’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings. In terms of socialization, girls are more concerned about how people feel, and have more collaboration, and are more socially minded. Boys at this age have a totem pole hierarchy; they don’t really care how other people are doing, as long as they can yank the one above them down and pull themselves up.

What does this mean? I think it means that a pivotal time in development—entering adolescence—we have a great model of successful, social, high-achieving young women. At the very same time, we have relatively under-achieving boys, who even admit this, testing out the sort of dog-eat-dog hierarchy that we often see at the top of any profession. Are these things incompatible in adult life—and is “bossy” the reason?

The girls I spoke to had the same question, and were unsure if Sandberg was right. “Maybe that was old times,” they said. Their career choices: Scientist, actress, lawyer, doctor. The major problem I saw was a distinct lack of successful female role models in this country, and around the world. And that’s where I think Sandberg is really making waves, encouraging women to “lean in,” be assertive, engage their professions and their leadership drives. Hopefully our successful adult role models can help our children build a different world.

Tagged with: Self-Advocacy, Sex and Gender