Sheryl Sandberg on why you should never call your daughter bossy

In March 2013, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In sparked a major national conversation on women and leadership in the workplace. The technology executive also set up a nonprofit, Lean In, to help women strengthen their workplace confidence and skills by convening in Lean In Circles with trusted peers. One year later, Lean In has teamed up with the Girl Scouts to launch a public service campaign, Ban Bossy, to encourage everyone to think twice about using a word that Sandberg says teaches women to hold themselves back. Sandberg talked to Yahoo News about the new initiative promoting a vision of girls and women as leaders — and why she wants to ban the word “bossy.”

Let’s start with the word "bossy." Why is it that little girls are called bossy but little boys are not?

Decades of social science tells us that as human beings we do not like surprises. We like information that organizes the world, and stereotypes are that information. So when things go against our expectations, when things go against our stereotypes, we react negatively. Boys, males — everywhere in the world — the stereotype is aggressive, assertive, a leader, decisive. The stereotype for girls and women is communal, giving to others, speak when spoken to. When men and boys lead it goes to their stereotype. When girls or women lead, we react negatively. The way that negative reaction is expressed for little girls is the word "bossy." Girls are called bossy four times as much as boys. Similarly, I’ve gone all over the world and I’ve asked people, "Raise your hand if you’ve been told you are too aggressive at work." Less than 5 percent of men raise their hands. I ask women, "Raise your hand if you’ve ever been called bossy at work." Everyone. So the word "bossy" typifies what is a very serious problem for women, which is we don’t like female leadership. Women got 50 percent of the college degrees in this country over 30 years ago. Thirty years is plenty of time to get more women into a leadership role. But if we continue to react negatively when girls lead or women lead, we are not going change the numbers at the top of any industry.

I have a son and a daughter, and I worry about unwittingly sending messages like this to my children.

Me too. My son once called his little sister bossy, and I was super upset, and he said, “Mommy, it’s not even a bad word in the bad-word list at school.” And I said, “Well, in our house, that’s the worst word.” So I think about it a lot, and I’m sure I’m still sending messages I don’t want to send because this stuff is so deeply ingrained. By seventh grade, parents have higher aspirations for their sons than their daughters. Every parent I’ve said that to has gasped. They don’t know that’s true. They’re not even sure it’s true of them — they think it might be true of other people. But it makes them aware. And you give them a very specific thing, which is, Be as ambitious for your daughters. For teachers, we know that boys get more airtime in class than girls. Are you giving as much airtime to the girls? What happens with school projects — and the data shows this — is the girls are doing all the work and the boys are getting more credit. And that feels really familiar to women in the workplace. Because guess what happens when they are grown up and they’re in the workforce? The women are doing the communal projects to help everyone in the office and the men are getting the credit.

The research shows that girls become less confident and comfortable leading around age 11. Doesn’t this all start much earlier?

We do know that girls lose a lot of self-esteem from being very young to being around that age. So you know the 5-year-old is totally self-confident, but by 11, girls go through a much more dramatic reduction in self-esteem than boys. I’m not an expert on why, but my gut is that it’s about all of these expectations. I actually think that a lot of this stuff starts really young. We know that parents overestimate their sons’ crawling and underestimate their daughters’. It’s kind of a crazy fact, but it’s true. You ask a mother — not just a father, a mother — how far your child can crawl, with boys you get slightly wrong higher and with girls slightly wrong lower. We know that with performance in the workplace, everyone remembers male performance slightly high and women’s performance slightly low. Anytime you take gender out of the equation, every study shows you women would have done better.

 Does this bossy stereotyping differ by socioeconomic background or race or ethnicity?

Bossy is across every demographic, every race, every age. The experiences are dramatically similar. I think we go on to have different stereotypes of women. I have a new book coming out, the graduation edition, and in it Mellody Hobson wrote a chapter on leaning In for women of color, and she says that for black women you have to overcome the stereotype of the angry black woman. And the corollary for Hispanic women is the stereotype of being hot-headed and emotional. So I do think there are additional burdens for women of color. But all of them are rooted in leadership and voice, in the concept that leadership is acceptable for men and encouraged and voice is encouraged for men, and not women.

There are still not nearly enough women in positions of leadership, but it is a lot better than when we were children.

It’s little bit better. It’s not enough better.  Women are 5 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs, and it doesn’t hit 5 percent in any country in the world except Vietnam, where it’s 5.5 percent. So it’s basically 5 percent or lower for the top listed companies in the world, regardless of industry. Even for industries that are overwhelmingly women. You look at teaching: As you get more senior, there are fewer and fewer women. People think it’s just finance or journalism or tech — it’s every industry. And that’s why this bossy campaign is so important, because our stereotype that women shouldn’t lead is holding back women in every industry.

So beyond banning the word "bossy," what message would you like people to take away from this campaign? Is it just about making us all more aware so that we think before we speak and before we stereotype?

We can’t change what we are not aware of. So the awareness should not be trivialized. As I’ve done my book tour, I’ve said, don’t call your little girl bossy. Say she has executive leadership skills. And everyone gets it immediately. It also has humor, right? I’ve never failed to say that — your daughter’s not bossy, she has executive leadership skills. Everyone laughs. Now say, my son has executive leadership skills. Nobody laughs. Which shows you that it’s expected. So it all starts with awareness. But then it’s about offering practical tips for taking real action.

 How to Raise Girls Who Lead

Rachel Thomas, the president of Lean In, has offered a list of four  “small but powerful things we can do to encourage girls to lead.”

1)   Talk about their ambitions. By middle school, parents place a higher value on leadership for boys than for girls. So just talking to your daughters about their ambitions can change the way they think and feel about leadership.  

2)   Teach small acts of assertiveness. We know that women are less likely to take risks, and it holds us back. But we can teach our girls to take risks in safe environments, like our homes, at a restaurant, when they are with us and feel supported. And we can really help them build up their confidence, which is so crucial. So I do this with my own daughter, who is 6 and she’s very shy. I have her order food at restaurants, and her current goal is to raise her hand once a week at school, and once she cracks that, the goal will be to raise her hand every day.

3)   Moms need to model assertive behavior. You can’t be what you can’t see. Girls look up to mothers for how they should behave, so when we as speak our mind and when we ask for what we need, they learn how to use their own voice.

4)   Fix the wage gap at home. Studies show the wage gap actually starts in the house. Girls generally do more housework, but they generally make less in allowance. When I learned that, I really thought about what my own kids were doing. And my daughter set the table and my son took out the garbage. And now we’re really conscious of having them do different jobs. Boys also often end up making more allowance, and sometimes it’s because of the jobs they’re doing. If you mow the lawn, you get paid pretty well for mowing the lawn. So we need to think not just about what they are doing but are they getting paid equally.