Sheryl Sandberg doesn't like a word a lot of people and parents use to describe little girls.
In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, she called it "the other B-word." She says as a kid, she didn't really play with other kids, instead the current chief operating officer of Facebook used to organize their play.
In junior high, Sandberg recounts, a teacher stopped her best friend and told her: "Nobody likes a bossy girl. You should find a new friend who will be a better influence on you."
In an interview with All Things Considered, Sandberg says she is launching a public service campaign aimed at getting rid of the word.
"This is a very negative experience for girls, if you look at my childhood, if you look at the childhood of most of the leaders we talked to, they lived through being told they were bossy," Sandberg said. "And it has such a strongly female, and such a strongly negative connotation, that we thought the best way to raise awareness was to say, 'This isn't a word we should use. Let's start encouraging girls to lead.' "
Sandberg, of course, stirred a ton of controversy last spring with her book Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which she called a "sort of a feminist manifesto." In the book, she encouraged women to "lean in" to their careers, embrace ambition and resist the tendency to hold back when they anticipate challenges in their work-life balance.
As our friends at 13.7 explained, she was criticized for being a successful woman with a lot of money giving advice to women who don't have the same resources. Maureen Dowd famously dismissed her as a "PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots."
This initiative is in some ways simpler. As Sandberg explains on her website, when a boy asserts himself, society calls him a leader. When a girl does it, she is called bossy.
"Words like bossy send a message: Don't speak up or take the lead. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys — a trend that continues into adulthood," the website explains.
Sandberg was asked if this was really still an issue, being that girls are outperfoming boys academically. She said:
"I actually think that we are conflating issues of academic performance and leadership. And in one area, girls are leading, and in one area, boys are leading. And a lot of people are confusing those. And that's why the research has been so important, because it teases those apart. Where girls are definitely leading is they're outperforming boys academically. We see that. They're getting more of the college degrees; they're outperforming in every school. And I think what's happening is that teachers, parents, people are more worried about boys, and there are a lot of good reasons to be worried about boys. We, of course, want boys to perform academically. When it comes to leadership, when you look at the numbers for student governments, when you look at the numbers for people running for office, when you look at the data asking middle school kids if they want to lead — it's still really overwhelmingly male."
As for what she would tell teachers, Sandberg said:
"I think a lot of these biases are really not very well understood. And we all have them, myself included. And so I think one of the things you're speaking about really comes up which is that, almost every teacher thinks they're calling on boys and girls evenly. No one's trying to call on boys more. But time and again, blind studies show that we actually are calling on boys more, even though we don't realize it. Most parents think they have equal expectations for their daughters and sons, but when they're observed, the language patterns found that they're actually encouraging their boys more to lead. So a part of the denial of this, that 'Oh, this isn't a problem, this is the old generation's problem,' is part of what we're trying to speak out against. ... In this case, we suggest that teachers do a little audit of themselves — keep track, you know, throw a little data at their own performance so that they can really see what they're doing."
You can hear more of Sandberg's interview on Monday's All Things Considered. Click here to find your NPR member station.
We'll leave you with a little nonscientific survey. We'll post results Monday evening.
Update Monday, March 10 at 5:30 p.m. ET. Survey Results:
NPR's Serri Graslie and Matt Stiles crunched the numbers a bit and they report:
"About 3,500 people had taken it by midafternoon on Monday. Of the respondents, 76 percent of women — who were much more likely to take the poll in the first place — thought 'bossy' was a bad word. On the other hand, 76 percent of men who chimed in said 'bossy' was not a bad word. Young men were also more likely than older men to say that 'bossy' is not a bad word."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Are girls discouraged from asserting themselves and taking the lead? Do they overly defer to boys? And if they do, what can parents, teachers and the girls themselves do to change that? These are questions very much on the mind of Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of the book "Lean In." Now, her organization at LeanIn.org is partnering with the Girl Scouts to launch a campaign that they call Ban Bossy.
And Sheryl Sandberg joins me from Menlo Park, Calif., to talk about that. Ms. Sandberg, welcome to the program.
SHERYL SANDBERG: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: What is the problem with bossy? Why is bossy bad?
SANDBERG: Bossy is one of the many ways we discourage girls from leading. When a little boy leads, it's expected. We applaud him. But when girls lead, we call them bossy. We tell them not to. We tell them to put down their hands. And we do this in very explicit ways, and very implicit ways.
The research shows that by middle school, more boys than girls want to lead, and that pattern continues into adulthood; and we live in a world where even though women are 50 percent of the population, they have 19 percent of the congressional seats, 5 percent of the Fortune 500 seats.
We believe that by addressing the core stereotypes that tell us girls shouldn't lead, we can change this. We can stop discouraging girls from leading, and start encouraging them instead.
BLOCK: I want to talk to you about some of the research that you're relying on, and you alluded to one bit of this research. It's a number that shows that by middle school, girls are 25 percent less likely than boys to say they like taking the lead in a group. That is based on a study that's more than 20 years old; and I just wonder whether those numbers are really trustworthy, or whether they're out of date.
SANDBERG: There's a lot of research in our stuff, and some of them are dated. It's just hard and expensive to do studies on children, and so a lot of the longitudinal work just doesn't get done very often. But we have a lot of ancillary research that hasn't been published, that tells us these patterns haven't changed. So we checked this really carefully. We've actually run very recent studies with the Girl Scouts as well, to check for validity of the data.
BLOCK: You know, it's interesting because when I did an informal poll of some middle school teachers whom I know - both male and female - they said exactly the opposite. They said they see girls taking the lead far more than boys, and raising their hand more often. It seems to go against the trend that you see. Do you think they're wrong, that they're just not seeing what you're seeing?
SANDBERG: Yeah. This is an interesting issue because I actually think that we are conflating issues of academic performance and leadership. And in one area, girls are leading and in one area, boys are leading. And a lot of people are confusing those. And that's why the research has been so important because it teases that apart.
Where girls are definitely leading is, they're outperforming boys academically. We see that. They're getting more of the college degrees; they're outperforming in every school. And I think what's happening is that teachers, parents, people are more worried about boys. And there are a lot of good reasons to be worried about boys. We, of course, want boys to perform academically.
When it comes to leadership - when you look at the numbers for student governments, when you look at the numbers for people running for office, when you look at the data asking middle school kids if they want to lead - it's still really overwhelmingly male. And because girls are doing so well academically, we're missing that. And I think part of what we're trying to do is tease out academic performance and desire and expectations of leadership.
BLOCK: And for teachers in the classroom who may think, look, I'm already really mindful of this, I pay really close attention to whom I'm calling on, what would you want teachers to do?
SANDBERG: Almost every teacher thinks they're calling on boys and girls evenly. No one's trying to call on boys more. But time and again, the - you know - blind studies show that we actually are calling on boys more, even though we don't realize it. Most parents think they have equal expectations for their daughters and sons. But when they're observed, the language patterns are found that they're actually encouraging their boys more to lead.
You know, so a part of the denial of this - that oh, this isn't a problem; this is the old generation's problem - is part of what we're really trying to speak out against.
BLOCK: If you think forward a bit, Sheryl Sandberg - and imagine maybe 15 years from now, one of these middle school girls coming to you and applying for a job. What would you hope to see from her that maybe you're not seeing among people that you talk to now?
SANDBERG: I'd like to see her having the same self-confidence as the men sitting next to her because the data shows - and I find this in the office, and a lot of people find this - is that still at the same levels of performance, not only do we overestimate male performance relative to females, but men own it more, feel more self-confident; and women are more hesitant.
Every meeting I ever go into, I see women sitting on the side in the corner, and men sitting in the center and at the table. I'd like that girl to find her voice when she's young, to believe that she can be encouraged - not to be called bossy, but to be told she's a leader; and then have the confidence to pursue any dream she has, and really believe in herself and her own achievements.
BLOCK: Sheryl Sandberg, thanks for your time.
SANDBERG: Thank you.
BLOCK: Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer of Facebook. She was talking with us about the public service campaign called Ban Bossy. Yesterday, we posted an informal poll at NPR.org, asking for your opinion on the word bossy, and more than 2,400 of you have already weighed in. Early results show that nearly 80 percent of women who were more likely to click on the poll in the first place think "bossy' is, indeed, a bad word. Just over 70 percent of men who chimed in said bossy was not a bad word.
We want to hear what you think about this. Head to NPR.org, and cast your vote. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.