I’ve really enjoyed the conversations being held about women and leadership the past two years. As the mom of three daughters, I think quite a bit about the words I use and the messages I convey:
“You can be whatever you want to be.”
“You can have a family and a career or focus on just one or the other.”
“Work hard, and make your dreams come true.”
“Help others and they will help you.”
While there are many schools of thought on how women can continue their path for equality, renowned author Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent article in The Shriver Report really hit the nail on the head for me: “There has never been a better moment in human history than RIGHT NOW to be a woman…Get out of your own way, Women!” Read the entire article here.
That’s why every time I see this quote from Sheryl Sandberg on a Facebook eCard, on twitter, or someone regurgitating it on television, I just cringe. “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills.” The quote was actually from early 2013, but it seems to have a life of its own and continually appears in my news feeds.
Now, I have nothing against Ms. Sandberg. She clearly is dedicated to advancing women’s position in the workforce, and I believe her passion is genuine. I agree whole-heartedly that there are not enough female CEOs, top-level corporate executives, political leaders or industry heads. I also like that she has re-jigged her messaging quite a bit since her initial controversial book launch to be more about empowerment and collaboration, as opposed to putting the onus more on each individual woman to take more risk in the workplace and “push” her way to get a seat at the table. I’ll lean in to that.
But Sandberg has gone on to say that a lot of the inequality stigmas we face in the corporate world begin when our kids are young. Like when a young girl tells all the other kids what to do and we call her “bossy.” To me it’s an extension of the Barbie effect. What we are exposed to at a young age then defines us for the rest of our life.
This is where she loses me.
There is a reason why the word bossy has a negative connotation, both with little kids and with adults. I did a very scientific study of what the word “bossy” signifies to children (and by “study” I mean I asked my three kids in the car on the way to school) and without any prompting, they all said that bossy kids make them sad, mainly because they made playing “not fun.” One of my daughters also said, “When a kid is bossy, I feel like they don’t listen to me. It makes me feel like they don’t like me.”
In my terms, that just meant the kid was acting like a brat.
I also asked them about adults and when they acted bossy. The dialogue was fascinating, and I was shocked at what my nine-year old said. “Sometimes an adult, like a teacher or a coach, has to tell us what to do, and we don’t always listen. I like it when [her teacher] gets our attention in a fun way or when they give us rewards when we do something right. Then it doesn’t feel like we are being told what to do all the time.”
I may have been out of the corporate workforce for a while, but that sounded a lot like team building and delegation mixed in with a bit of inspiration and performance-driven management. Pretty strong leadership skills to me. Out of the mouths of babes.
I often worry that as we are growing our next set of women leaders, we are forgetting the very qualities that we want in our own “bosses.” Yes, it is important for women in the boardroom — or any business situation — to have control, keep their emotions in check and be focused while also being strategic; but we also can use our strengths to our advantages as well. Most women innately are passionate, adaptable, strong communicators and purpose-driven. These are skills that I’d like to see my daughters cultivate and use when they enter the workforce. In fact, these are skills I’d like to see my kids use to get through life.
While I think we need to encourage our daughters to dream big, we also shouldn’t change the type of people we want them to become. Do I want my daughter to be a CEO? Absolutely, if that is what she wants to do. Do I think to have leadership skills she has to be bossy? Not so much. I’ve worked pretty hard the past nine years to try to get my kids to realize that being kind and compassionate trumps everything else, so if that’s what it takes to have my kids be part of the women’s movement, we may be missing that bus.
I like to think there is a major culture change coming. More women are graduating from college than men, many with advanced degrees in male-dominated fields. There are more dual income families and stay-at-home dads than ever before. And while it’s not enough, there are more women CEOs and executives of Fortune 1000 companies than ever before.
The opportunities my daughters will have our endless. I thank Ms. Sandberg and other top women executives for doing the hard work, including taking the brunt when being confident and assertive gets you the label of “bossy” and other not-so-nice superlatives.
But it’s my hope that my girls can be the type of leader that doesn’t get labeled as “bossy.” I hope when people talk about them, they use words like inspiring, driven, collaborative, hard-working and confident. These also are the same adjectives I hope people see in them in their younger years. And if they throw kind and compassionate in there as well, I know I did my job well.
As my daughter was about to jump out of the minivan, I asked her one last question: “What do you do when someone is bossy to you?”
She responded: “It depends. Sometimes I stand up for myself, but sometimes I just go along with it. Sometimes people are just having a bad day.”
Out of the mouths of babes.