New Yorker Writer: 'Don't Ban Bossy'

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg made waves with her "Lean In" campaign. Now she wants to ban the word "bossy" to describe girls. But writer Margaret Talbot explains why she wants to keep that word around.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to focus on a debate over how we talk about women in leadership or, let's say, leaders in training. We're talking about the Ban Bossy campaign by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. Now, Sheryl Sandberg previously stirred the pot on the whole issue of women's place in public life with her 2013 book encouraging women to lean into their careers. In her latest campaign, Sheryl Sandberg is fighting to ban bossy. She's telling people to stop using that word, and others like it, to describe assertive girls. Sandberg recently talked about that with NPR's Melissa Block.

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SHERYL 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.

MARTIN: But just like Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean in," her Ban Bossy effort has sparked a backlash or, at least, a spirited critique, including by writer Margaret Talbot. She wrote the essay "Don't Ban Bossy" for The New Yorker. And Margaret Talbot is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARGARET TALBOT: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: I'd just like to mention we're going to hear from a number of other commentators about this in our roundtable in just a few minutes. But first, let's hear from you. What's your main criticism of banning bossy?

TALBOT: Well, for one thing, I think bossy is a perfectly good word, it actually describes behavior that I think we've all seen and experienced and can be kind of annoying in boys or girls. Now it is true - and I think this is good that they've called attention to this - that we probably use it more often to talk about little girls and girls maybe in general. But it's also true that there are people who, they aren't your boss, but they're acting kind of bossy - you know, they're telling you what to do, they're offering unsolicited advice, right. And that's bossy, that's not the same as leadership, it's a particular human trait.

MARTIN: But why do you think it is that it is more often applied to girls?

TALBOT: Well, it might be that historically because girls and women haven't had authority but have wanted to exhort it, that they haven't been the bosses, but have wanted to be bossy - so, you know, have wanted to exercise leadership. So it could be that historically that that's the reason. I also think there are certain words that, you know, there are certain words we use mainly when we're talking about boys and men too, which are also negative words, like jerk is a word - you don't usually call a girl a jerk. And it, you know, one of the points I wanted to make in the piece is that a good - I think - way to react to these words is sometimes just to try and reclaim them and use them for your own purposes, like gay rights advocates did with the word queer, for example, or - and this seemed like a good precedent - the word nerd. When I was growing up, it was really about boys and it was really a put down and it was, you know, the boys with the pocket protectors and the calculators and the chess club. And now, you know, girls and boys call themselves nerds, often call themselves that, you know, kind of proudly. Adults call themselves that when they're calling attention to some expertise or passion of theirs - you know, I'm an ethnic food nerd or I'm a Jane Austen nerd or whatever. So I think you can sort of reclaim these words and that's a more creative, probably more long-term, solution.

MARTIN: A number of accomplished women have signed on to ban bossy, including the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez. I'm wondering what you think these women are attracted to in signing onto this and if there's something wrong with it. I mean, if you think there's something wrong with the campaign?

TALBOT: Well, I think really it's not that there's something wrong with an campaign - although I don't like the idea of banning words unless they're truly only used to demean or degrade people, which I don't think we can say about the word bossy. But, you know, I think that actually a better way is to think about just promoting and encouraging leadership in girls, which is something that, for example, the Girl Scouts organization does very well already by teaching girls, you know, competencies in a wide range of organizational activities. And, you know, I think by encouraging girls - you know, there are studies that show that parents encouraging girls to think about running for office, for example, makes a big difference, participating in sports makes a big difference because it really encourages girls to sort of feel and, you know, be proud of being competitive, which politics, for example, is something that demands. So I think there are other ways that are a little less gimmicky and a little more straightforward to encourage to leadership in girls.

MARTIN: Why you think these high-profile women are attracted to this?

TALBOT: It's kind of cute, it's kind of catchy, you know, it's alliterative - Ban Bossy. And I think a lot of women probably have had the experience of feeling that their leadership skills are being kind of downplayed or they're being patronized for them. So they may be getting at a real issue, it's just I don't think it's the best way to go about it.

MARTIN: Have you ever been called bossy?

TALBOT: Probably by my kids, yeah, I probably have because, you know, all moms...

MARTIN: You're not the boss of me. Yeah.

TALBOT: All moms are bosses.

MARTIN: You're not the boss of me, Margaret.

TALBOT: But not in a long time. But, you know, I think...

MARTIN: When you were growing up?

TALBOT: When I was growing up, not so much. I'm the youngest in my family, I'm sure I called my older siblings bossy.

MARTIN: Were you trying to be mean? And do you remember whether you called - I don't know if you have older sisters or brothers, I know you have a brother.

TALBOT: I have an older sister and two older brothers, yeah.

MARTIN: Do you ever remember thinking of more than - one or the other as being more bossy?

TALBOT: That's tricky. Sorry, Cindy, but, yeah, my sister was the bossier one.

MARTIN: She was the bossier one?

TALBOT: But, you know, she's a doctor. She's, you know - she's kind of a knowledgeable person so maybe she was just, you know, showing that off.

MARTIN: Showing that off.

TALBOT: Yeah.

MARTIN: What reaction are you getting to the piece?

TALBOT: You know, I've gotten positive reaction. And, in fact, people have been citing different words and terms, like sassy - I had a linguist friend who wrote in about sassy. She said when she was younger - she's in her 40s now - sass was a bad word, it was like something when you talk back to your parents, you know, or your teachers, now people - women kind of like to be called sassy, right. So it's sort of an example of a word that people have reclaimed. And, you know, Tina Fey has done it with bossy, "Bossy Pants," her book.

MARTIN: Margaret, you're so bossy.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Margaret Talbot is a writer for The New Yorker. She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much.

TALBOT: Thank you, Michel.

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