Sheryl Sandberg has everyone talking again.
A year ago, the Facebook COO published Lean In, a juggernaut of a book that has sold 1.6 million copies. Now, her all-star campaign with the Girl Scouts to “Ban Bossy,” an effort launched Monday to highlight the word’s pejorative use against girls, has lit up Twitter, fueled by high-profile media op-eds and endorsements by celebrities like Jennifer Garner and Beyonce.
As we all know well, the book has launched an incessant debate over the good and bad in Sandberg’s approach. Arguing about Lean In has become a feminist identity test. The back-and-forth has gone on long enough that we’ve seen a backlash to the backlash (and a backlash to all that). It’s had enough legs that a humorous essay by a Georgetown University law professor stating “I hate Sheryl Sandberg” went viral just last month, then proceeded to spark its own debate.
The "Ban Bossy" campaign appears primed to do something similar. Not even two days old, the campaign already has its critics. Some have pointed out, fairly, that it might be better to teach girls how to deal with being called names than to try to ban such names. Others find the notion of someone telling them what they can’t say, well, bossy. It’s all getting very meta.
But here’s the thing. However tiring the back-and-forth might be—and whatever one may think of the pompom girl of feminism or the merits (or downsides) of her movement—at least we’re talking more about an important topic: the seemingly intractable problem of getting more women to the top.
In recent years, the issue had become beyond debate. Everyone knew getting more women into leadership roles was an important problem that deserved attention. No one disagreed with the need to help young women get ahead. And yet, the discussion had lost its spark as the numbers stalled (the ratio of women in executive roles hasn’t really budged much in years) and the solutions seemed to reach dead ends (more women are receiving advanced degrees, for instance, yet they’re already earning less just one year out of college).
“This conversation had gotten old and stale,” says Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law and author of the recent book What Works for Women at Work. “I’ve been talking to the press for 15 to 20 years, and people just weren’t covering it.” After Lean In, she says, “all of a sudden everyone was talking about it. That’s an amazing accomplishment for a single book.”
One key way it did that was by making the feminist movement pertinent again to young professional women. These are women who had, in large part, grown up with mothers who worked and the idea that everyone has an equal shot at the top. “It made the journey to power relevant for a whole new generation of women who did not grow up reading Betty Friedan’s classic,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and the author of several books on career issues women face. “It made fresh and made cool all of these boring stories their mothers have been going on about for donkey’s years.”
Sure, we’ll likely see another broadside against Lean In. Twitter may even overtake #banbossy in a harrumph of snark. Yet at the same time, brands are wising up to the value of marketing to professional women in credible, we-get-you ways. The images we see of women in the media may improve as a result. And more women are taking action for denied promotions or discrimination in a trend lawyers are calling “lean in” lawsuits.
The debate, one year in, may get tiring at times, but it's better than the alternative. As long as the argument persists about how to get more women at the top, it remains on everyone's minds—and hopefully, on more people's agendas.