There is a lot of conversation happening in the blogosphere around the movement by Sheryl Sandberg and friends to “Ban Bossy” Many women in leadership in faith circles can resonate with the sentiment of this campaign, as many faith-based institutions historically have silenced women by labeling leadership traits as “unfeminine” while simultaneously enshrining leadership as a male characteristic. Sandberg argued in her TED talk that inspired the movement, that in her experience many girls and women have been called “bossy” when boys and men who express similar sentiments are portrayed as “brave” and “leadership potential.” In my own experience I have experienced and seen this happen and have observed that few places are as guilty of this practice as faith-based institutions. As a professional woman and a mother of two precocious and intelligent girls, I was initially impressed with this effort to reshape the language of educators, mentors, and parents when encountering strong, opinionated children. However, upon further reflection, and after reading several engaging blogs across the political and ideological spectrum, I have changed my mind.
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While I applaud Sandberg and associates efforts to highlight the gendered assumptions about leadership that are still present in many institutions and individuals in American society, I think their efforts to “ban” a word are misguided, as “banning” has the effect of stopping dialogue. What is really needed is a cultural conversation about the meaning of “leadership” and the rainbow of its expressions in society. We need an ongoing conversation about how leadership is perceived and how it is expressed in engendered and personality-based and culturally shaped ways. Their efforts to highlight the effects of a label like “bossy” are to be commended, but banning this label alone is not enough for building a future where women and girls have space at the table equal to men and boys, because there are men and boys and culturally different minorities who are also not at the table. It is time that we stop using gender as a straw man and begin considering how labels such as “bossy” construct such narrow definitions of leadership affect both developing boys and girls.
Not all leaders are “bossy.” And while it can be argued that girls may disproportionately receive that label, the leadership style of being loudest and most assertive may also be harmful. Leadership based upon being the most assertive person in the room is a very 21st century American cultural expression, and this definition of leadership silences many individuals. In the Christian faith our theology teaches that “whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else,” and that humility is the most important virtue of a leader. Jesus himself washed his disciples’ feet as his ultimate example of leadership. We are taught to “submit to one another” and to “become like-minded,” which involves a lot of conversation by everyone, not just the visionary leader who holds the microphone. In my mind the assumption that being assertive and dominating in conversation, a value often labeled as “bossy,” is the real obstacle for both girls and boys to become real leaders.
In my life I expect my daughters will be called “bossy” (as their mother before them). Sometimes that label will be gendered and prejudicial, and I hope in that experience they learn to feel their worth before God and speak their truth in word and deed anyway. Sometimes that label will be earned, they will be in the act of aggressive dismissal of another’s worth, and I hope in that moment they stop, and listen. Rather than “banning bossy,” I propose that we teach our children a more difficult way. We need to cultivate an environment where children (and adults) learn to express their opinions respectfully with confidence and to truly hear the opinions of others. I would love to see us shape our children to become leaders who do not seek to over-talk the competition in the marketplace of ideas, or to direct others in single-minded pursuit of personal desires, but instead learn to listen, to value others’ ideas, and to lead with humility as they give others the same respect they give themselves.
Tara C. Samples , Ph.D., is a grateful disciple of Jesus. She has worked as a Professional Counselor, is a professor and is currently completing her postdoctoral residency in Clinical Psychology. She believes that social justice is the responsibility of the Body of Christ which is called to speak for those whose voices are not heard by the powerful. Tara is a wife, a mother of two creative young girls and an advocate against injustice, violence, oppression and sexual exploitation in the church and in the world.
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