Are ‘Bossy’ Girls Future STEM Leaders?

How do we encourage girls to take the lead in STEM fields? Sheryl Sandberg suggests banning the word “bossy.”

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In organization recently launched a campaign to ban the word “bossy,” enlisting powerful women such as Condoleezza Rice, Beyoncé, and Diane von Furstenberg to help spread the message.

What’s wrong with “bossy”? The Ban Bossy website explains: “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’ Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up.”

Supporters of ”ban bossy” argue that the term undermines girls’ confidence and reinforces harmful gender stereotypes. Critics, on the other hand, have taken issue with everything from the movement’s scolding tone—which itself has been called “bossy”— to the very idea of policing language.

Teacher-Tip_No-Interruptions-copyWriting for The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot points out that “‘bossy’ is a useful descriptive word that invokes a particular kind of behavior. It’s not actually a synonym, derogatory or otherwise, for leadership or authoritativeness, nor necessarily a criticism of women who embody those qualities.”

She concedes, though, that the term is disproportionately applied to girls and women.

Slate’s Katy Waldman questions the campaign’s effectiveness: “Will banning it actually help adjust the retrograde thinking underneath, or will we just start to rely on other code words, like shrill, angry, or emotional to do the same minimizing work?”

Instead, she suggests reclaiming the word, like Tina Fey did in her book “Bossypants.”

Even if the campaign fails to eradicate the five-letter B word (well, one of them), it has a lot of people talking about the issue of women and leadership, and that’s a good thing.

Whether you believe that language merely reflects or reinforces behavior, the fact is that a gender gap persists in many areas. Women are lacking in leadership positions from the C-suite to Congress. And that gap is especially apparent in STEM fields, which remain male dominated.

Why does this matter? Because STEM represents a critical growth area in this country. According to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report, STEM occupations are projected to increase by 17 percent through 2018, relative to 9.8 percent growth in non-STEM fields. And STEM professionals earn 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts.

One problem is that fewer women pursue STEM occupations. Anna Stansbury reported on the disparity for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Journalist’s Resource: “Women accounted for 55 percent of university graduates ages 25 to 29 but only 31 percent of STEM graduates. They make up 50 percent of the overall US workforce but only account for 25 percent of STEM workers.”

Even when they do enter STEM fields, their attrition rates are higher than men’s. As Stansbury writes, “After about 12 years, 50 percent of women who originally worked in STEM have left, compared to only 20 percent of professional women.”

The statistic is even more striking for women with advanced degrees, who are 165 percent more likely to leave STEM fields. Interestingly, this doesn’t apply to women with advanced degrees in non-STEM areas.

One researcher is trying to find out why this attrition happens. University of Delaware psychology professor Chad Forbes was recently awarded a $791,000 National Science Foundation grant to study stereotype threat—the pervasive, self-fulfilling ideas that undermine performance, such as the belief that women aren’t good at math—and the effect this phenomenon has on women and minorities in STEM fields.

As Forbes’ research suggests, fear of failure may be the greatest deterrent to success in STEM fields, not concern over being perceived as bossy or aggressive. This fear prompts women to self-select out of challenging disciplines such as engineering and technology—fields that happen to pay better and offer more opportunities than most. And it’s impossible to rise to the top in a field you abandon or, worse, never enter.

Banning “bossy” won’t eliminate this fear factor, of course, but empowering girls and young women to take risks and accept challenges just might.

Top photo/ JBLM PAO

Published March 26, 2014