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study that's more than 20 years old; and I just wonder whether those numbers are really trustworthy, or whether they're out of date.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.

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