My oldest daughter – let’s call her Marge – likes to be in charge. Aged 8, and with three younger siblings, you’d think she had ample outlet for her leadership ambitions. But no. She still likes to organise her friends, her Sylvanian Families collection, even her parents. She is often urged by her father and me to try to be a bit less bossy. But how, I sometimes wonder, would we feel if our second-born, a son, acted in the same way? Would we worry that he would be viewed as too domineering – or simply admire his leadership skills?
Sheryl Sandberg, the high-flying chief operating officer of Facebook, reckons she knows the answer. Back in 2013, Sandberg first asserted that natural born female leaders suffer a “likeability penalty” that begins in childhood – and in the five years since, we’ve been noticing and debating the phenomenon. “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader’,” Sandberg has said as part of a campaign to ban the word “bossy” from our collective vocabulary. “Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy’. Words like bossy send a message: don’t speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood.” Simply put, Sandberg’s “likeability penalty” asserts that women face social penalties for acting in the very way that leads to power and success. They may be applauded for delivering results, but then branded as “too aggressive”, “out for herself”, “difficult” or “abrasive”.
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