(Note: this was originally on my tax blog CreativelyAccounting.com, but I moved it over here, since it is not tax related)

Sheryl Sandberg’s Ban Bossy campaign has been making its rounds on the interblags over the last couple months, and, other than having a conversation or two with my wife about it, it’s been little more than an interesting side note in my life. But this last Sunday, when I was dropping my daughter off for nursery, the teacher proclaimed as my daughter walked into the classroom, “Ah, here comes the boss.”

Yep, that’s my very opinionated nearly 3 year old she was talking about. She stands up for herself on the playground despite being in the 2 percentile in size, and will even issue an order or two (or three when its her older brother) to the other kids. She will undoubtedly be labeled bossy. So should we Ban Bossy in our household?
Certainly no ban on playing with knives, though
First, I understand what Sheryl Sandberg is trying to do, though it took me a while. When she says we should Ban Bossy, she doesn’t mean that we should stop girls from being bossy, though that’s the first thing that came to my mind. It’s actually the opposite. We should encourage girls to be assertive without labeling them with that ‘b’ word. She claims that boys don’t have to deal with that word, which is a partial explanation why men are more predominate in today’s corporate world.
But she’s getting the causes twisted up.
For prior readers of my blog, watch out: I’m going to bring up Deborah Tannen’s book “You Just Don’t Understand” again. In part of Dr. Tannen’s research, she analyzed boys and girls at various ages and the way they played in both separate and mixed gender groups. Boys would instinctually (whether by nurture or nature is outside the scope of this article and her book) form up a hierarchical group, where one boy would act as the boss and the others would follow. Girls, however, would play in flat organizations, where anyone trying to take command would be promptly put in her place.
Sheryl Sandberg makes much ado about how boys don’t get called bossy, but that’s not it. Boys grow up in a culture where ‘bossy’ is an aspiration, where that word would be taken as a compliment rather than an insult. So it loses all bite. For girls, however, being bossy is a breach of protocol, hence making it an insult.

If we ‘Ban Bossy,’ it won’t do anything to affect the underlying issue: girls are taught in their social circles from a young age that bossy is bad. Use whatever word you want–bossy, assertive, go-getter, etc.–it will continue to be an insult if girls are taught not to have those attributes.

There she is, bossing her brother around and pushing her
way in to get candy


The right way to take the sting out of a word is not to ban it. A campaign like ‘Ban Bossy’ is always going to fail, even if that word is completely removed from the playground lexicon. Sheryl Sandberg admits this herself. Instead, a better attack would be to make the underlying attributes socially acceptable.
Consider the words ‘nerd’ and ‘geek.’ These were insults when I was in elementary school. Then along came jokes like how Michael Jordan could never be worth more than a fraction of Bill Gates, or how ‘nerd’ is just the preemptive term for ’employer.’ Suddenly, the word ‘nerd’ became an achievement, a mark that you were onto great things.
If Sheryl Sandberg is serious about removing the stigma behind the word ‘bossy,’ she’s going about it all wrong. Instead of ‘Ban Bossy’, it should be ‘Be Bossy’. Wear it like a blue ribbon at the state fair. That’s the way to take the insult out of the word. That might be exactly her intention, but the phrase ‘Ban Bossy’ is already starting out the wrong way. Most people’s research will stop the second they read those two words, concluding that being bossy is bad, rather than just the word.
Now, whether or not a ‘Be Bossy’ campaign is the right thing for the United States, I don’t pretend to know. I’ll let other decide that for themselves. What I do know is if my daughter comes home nearly in tears  because she was called ‘bossy’ at school, I’ll give her a high five for her accomplishment.
And probably a hug, too. Because she’s my little girl.
NOTE: We do NOT let our kids play with knives, no matter what character building qualities it may instill.