More than 20 years ago, I moved to America to attend college. I had been a top student in my high school in Central America, had started the high school newspaper, and traveled extensively around the world. I also spoke English fluently, but still, was surprised and intimidated by the level of input that my classmates contributed to discussions. Later, when I moved into the workplace, my surprise and intimidation gave way to irritation and impatience at the number of times people, men and women, felt they had to say something in meetings. As part of my Americanization process, I came to understand that this “participation,” normative in American classrooms and companies, encouraged people to say something even if they didn’t see something. This appears to be a key tip that Sheryl Sandberg and her collaborators offer to girls in the new Ban Bossy campaign, and I take issue with it as a manager and a mother.
If you’ve missed the hype around Sandberg’s new venture, here’s the quick update. Along with Girl Scouts, Lean In.org has created a campaign to ban the use of the word “bossy” to describe girls. A well-intentioned effort, it has something for everyone—girls, parents, teachers and managers. Its basic premise is that we can encourage girls to lead by not calling them bossy. With this, I agree. What I disagree with is the notion that girls, or boys for that matter, should speak up without “editing what you want to say in your head.” Granted, this is only of the many tips (including challenge yourself, ask for help, and practice) in the Ban Bossy Guide for Girls, but it’s the number one tip for girls.
As the mother of an eight-year-old girl, and the leader of an organization whose employees happen to be all women, I support the idea that girls and women should speak their minds in class, at homes, and at work. The organization I now run trains first- and second-generation Americans to run for office, and 54% of our trainees are women. This is not by accident. We actively recruit women to prepare and run for office. Prior to starting the New American Leaders Project, I founded South Asian Youth Action, in which I launched a program specifically to address the particular challenges faced by immigrant girls from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, among other South Asian countries, as they integrate into the US. I bring to each of these roles the belief that girls and women face unique and ongoing challenges to feeling confident and empowered. So I don’t offer this critique of Ban Bossy lightly.
But speaking up is an important skill that is as much about what you say, and not just as the guidelines suggest giving “you the experience of thinking on your feet, debating with others, and wrestling with an idea.” I don’t want my child, my team members, my colleagues, male or female, just speaking up because it is good practice. Bossy men take up air space, but bossy women are no more appealing. What we want are strong girls, and boys, who know not just how, but when, to speak up for impact and effect.
During this month—sadly, still just 31 days of the year—that we decide to focus on “women’s history,” campaigns like Ban Bossy become the media’s flavor of the day. But, frankly, I’m done with the period of women’s history where we are speaking up and leaning in because that’s what men do. Let’s start a new period of women’s present and future where we speak and work better and more effectively than men.