As her class vice president at Highland Oaks junior high in Miami, ninth grader Sheryl Sandberg wasn’t shy about raising her voice. “We had real changes we wanted to make in student government,” she recalls about the goals she and the class president, her best friend Mindy Levy, set out to accomplish. But instead of praising the girls for their work, a faculty adviser encouraged Levy to drop Sandberg from her ticket the next year. “She’s too aggressive, too bossy,” the teacher said. “You don’t want to be bossy.” For both young women, her point was clear: Girls aren’t supposed to lead.
Fortunately Sandberg didn’t listen. This week the Facebook COO, 44, celebrates the one-year anniversary of her best-selling book Lean In, a memoir–cum–call to action that launched a social movement. In every state and 50 countries, women are gathering in more than 14,000 “Lean In Circles” to support one another as they aim higher in their careers.
Now, Sandberg—along with two of America’s most dynamic leaders, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, 59, and Anna Maria Chávez, 45, the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA—is applying some of the movement’s lessons to the next generation. Together, these women are launching a public service campaign to ban the word bossy, a negative label they say is too often applied to young girls, and one of the many ways we discourage them from speaking up.
“Words matter,” says Rice, now a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Indeed, in a Girl Scouts study of 8- to 17-year-olds, one-third of girls who said they didn’t want to be leaders attributed their hesitancy to a fear of being disliked by their peers. “We are trying to get at the subtleties, the messages that keep girls from achieving,” says Rice.
For Chávez, who has held distinguished government positions (including policy adviser to both an Arizona governor and a U.S. secretary of transportation), the campaign is about allowing all children the opportunity to reach their potential. “I’m raising an 11-year-old son and 2 million girls,” she says, referring to the Girl Scouts’ membership. “We need to create an even playing field for everyone.”
Recently, the three joined Parade at the Facebook campus in Silicon Valley, where they discussed the unique challenges young women face today and revealed some of the keys to their own success.
Lynn Sherr: You’ve all reached great heights in your careers. Who encouraged you?
Condoleezza Rice: My parents elected me president of the family when I was 4. We actually had an election every year and I always won. I’m an only child, and I could count on my mother’s vote. But the role had substantive responsibility. I would call meetings where we’d decide things like what color to paint the living room. As I got older, I realized that what my parents were doing was sending messages about leadership potential.
Anna Maria Chávez: Instead of teaching me how to cook, my mother taught my brothers how to cook, and me how to run a board meeting. She was an elected official, and she used to take me to meetings so I could see how leadership played out.
Sheryl Sandberg: I, too, had very supportive parents who told me I could do everything. But the rest of the messages I got from society were pretty negative on leadership.
When I first got to New York in my 20s, I was told by every newspaper editor, “We don’t hire girls.” Do you have similar horror stories?
AMC: In the 1950s and ’60s, you did not see women of color, especially Latinas, in leadership positions. When my family would go to support my mother’s campaigns, people would yell at my father, “Put your woman in her place!” My dad had to fight men in the community to say, “This is her place. Her place is to lead.”
CR: I remember when I was 6 years old, we were having an event at school where different dolls were on display. I said that the tallest doll needed to be on the end, and my little friend said to me, “Oh, you’re just so bossy.” I remember thinking that wasn’t a good thing. But I kept insisting the doll had to be on the end anyway. [laughs]
So, you were bossy?
CR: Yes, I was. But in a good way. The word has a bad connotation.
SS: I tell parents, instead of saying, “My daughter is bossy,” try, “My daughter has executive leadership skills.” I’ve never had anyone say that without laughing. Now say it for a boy: “My son has executive leadership skills.” There’s no humor in that sentence, which reveals the difference in our expectations. Women still represent only 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. And more worrisome is that the number has been stagnant for a decade. What hasn’t changed fast enough is our acceptance and encouragement of female leadership. That’s goes for all of us—parents, teachers, managers, society, everyone.
So much of what you’re saying echoes the women’s movement in the ’60s and ’70s.
SS: That’s part of the problem. I’m still saying many of the same things Betty Friedan said. And I want to stop saying them. I want to put Lean In right out of business.
Do you believe that a female president would help change the status quo?
CR: I think it would be terrific. I really look forward to that day.
Dare I ask if there’s someone in particular you’d vote for?
SS: I’d vote for Condi!
CR: Well, thanks, but you’re not going to get that chance. It is important, though, that women are inside the central committees of our party leadership—that they run for statehouse, for Congress. There is an expected road into [the presidency].
SS: The road starts in school. Research done by the Girl Scouts shows us that by middle school, more boys than girls are interested in leading. If we’re going to fix the pipeline from statehouse to president, we have to start young. One of the reasons I wrote Lean In is that my daughter, when she was 4, asked me, “Mommy, why are all the presidents boys?”
AMC: When we talk about investing in girls, we’re not saying to divest from boys. It’s about ensuring that we have every capable person prepared to lead. This country has some serious problems. We need every brain cell around our decision-making tables.
What’s the ultimate goal in terms of putting women in leadership positions?
SS: Women are 50 percent of the population, so I want them to have 50 percent of the leadership roles in every industry, at every level. And I’d like to see men doing half of what needs to happen in their homes. That will make a huge difference.
CR: The day has to come when it’s not a surprise that a woman has a powerful position. We’ve actually had three women secretaries of state, and people still say, “female secretary of state.”
AMC: All three were Girl Scouts!
What’s your advice for future leaders?
SS: Believe in yourself, because the world will not always encourage you.
CR: Leadership is hard because everybody who doesn’t actually want to do it wants to tell you how to do it. You’d better have thick skin.
AMC: We’re all born with innate qualities to lead, but it takes a lot of practice. And there’s no time to waste. Research shows that almost half the girls in the United States are living in [low-income households]. We’ve got to invest in them so they can break the cycle.
What do you think is unique about girls today?
AMC: They are ready to lead. I see girls lobbying town hall to build a safer crosswalk for their elementary school. My world, when I was a kid, was my backyard. Their world is the globe. It’s time.
CR: What has always made our country special is that it doesn’t matter where you come from; it matters where you’re going. Our job is to make certain the pathways are open to both our boys and our girls.
Lean In’s Lessons for Girls
In an effort to turn the tide against discouraging stereotypes, the “Ban Bossy” campaign aims to help parents and teachers empower girls to stand up and speak out. Here, a few examples of the campaign’s tips:
For parents …
Help her commit small acts of assertiveness. With your daughter, generate a list of ways she can use her voice, like ordering at a restaurant or raising her hand regularly in class. Being brave is rarely about dramatic moments: It’s a skill acquired, little by little, over time.
For educators …
Observe dynamics in group work. Girls often complete the work of peers who slack off. If they get used to doing work without credit, they don’t learn to push for recognition when they deserve it.
For girls …
Stop apologizing. Girls tend to introduce opinions with apologies (“I’m not sure if this is right, but …”). Pay attention to that, as well as to the other little ways you might be making yourself small, like talking softly or using “upspeak” (making statements sound like questions).
Take the “ban bossy” pledge and learn more at banbossy.com. To join the campaign, post “I will #banbossy” on Facebook and Twitter.