For all the things that Sheryl Sandberg has gotten wrong, there’s one thing she hasn’t: a man in charge is called a leader, a woman in charge is called bossy. Bossy is definitely a gendered word, but that is hardly good reason to sound the feminist alarm. Gendered language alone does not prove sexism or inequality.
There’s been plenty of backlash against this campaign from women who, like me, see it for the waste of time that it is. I’ve been called bossy all my life. I’m outspoken, determined in my convictions, and generally sure of what I want and when I want it. From job to job and among friends — even in my bowling league — I’ve had just one nickname: “The Boss.” Does my self worth hinge on it? No. Does it make me feel like less of a leader? No. We should be teaching young women that confidence comes from within and that leadership takes guts — that there are no magic words for being in charge. It doesn’t encourage women to lead to teach them that their time is well spent worrying about what other people call them, especially when the word in question has apparently been used to describe so many well-known, successful women.
I’m not one to mince words when I perceive sexism and I’m not afraid to let my colleagues know when I don’t want to be described with a particular gendered term, but we’ve got to be more careful about what we think is worthy of a campaign and what can be accomplished with a simple conversation. To think “my problem with this has to be everyone’s problem with this” smacks of the kind of cis gendered privilege that has undermined the credibility of modern day feminism. There are dirtier words to fight.
Social policing is not an effective strategy for achieving a more equal society. By all means, let’s teach young women how to talk about themselves in positive ways, and how to speak up and demand the respect they deserve. But let’s also recognize how these kinds of debates can so easily manifest as privileged distractions, and truly nothing more. It’s time to stop talking about things like this, and doing something about things like this. All too often, social policing is justified by pointing out how sexism is used to belittle women fighting the big fights in our society — and at what cost? For all its misuses, increasingly I’m convinced that social policing does more harm than good.