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Are Little Girls Bossy—and Big Girls Not Bossy Enough?

Do teachers discriminate against little girls who show confidence?

Sheryl Sandberg and Anna Maria Shavez have written a book. I don’t know what kind of advance the authors received, but their “Big 7” publisher is giving them plenty of exposure, including The Wall Street Journal and Parade magazine. They even managed to get Condoleezza Rice’s endorsement.

These two high-powered executives are worried that girls who show confidence are often called the other “b” word in the place of bossy, and this will somehow keep them from reaching their full potential. I have to assume full potential means CEO of a Fortune 500 company because the updated story from The Wall Street Journal includes an insert: “Meet the Women of the Fortune 500.” If that is the authors’ goal, I don’t think the average gal who may be working two jobs to keep food on the table has much need for another success manual.

The authors assert that data collected by The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health shows that parents of seventh graders place more importance on leadership for their sons than for their daughters. Other studies have determined that teachers interact with and call on boys more frequently, and allow them to shout out answers more than girls.

My own experience as a psychologist working with teachers is that teachers know more about boys and girls than do business executives. I find it hard to believe that teachers think these squirmy little guys who are impulsive and barking out answers need to have their leadership skills reinforced. Teachers may also realize that the girls are concentrating on their studies, piling up superior achievement test scores, and eventually becoming the majority of college students. Maybe teachers think that academics is the goal of teaching; not developing future Wall Street CEOs.

The authors also state that “it’s no surprise that by middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys are. Seventh-grade girls rate being popular and well-liked as more important than being perceived as confident or independent. Boys are more likely to rate confidence and independence as more important.” So it isn’t the glass ceiling after all, boys just want more leadership roles, and as a result, end up with more of the top jobs.

No, I don’t think that’s what they’re saying.

There is an implication here that because girls did not raise their hands in elementary school they are now more interested in socializing than boys. I think this assertion begs for a little research in order to connect the two. And, aren’t we leaving out the biological fact that girls reach puberty sooner, and the frontal lobes of their brains are more mature than the boys are. Girls seem to have a long history of wanting to socialize as teens, as well as a long history of wanting to socialize as adults and nurture and care for their children—if, that is, they decide to have children.

In the Sandberg and Shavez article, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is used as an example of someone a foreign policy advisor once described as the “bossy intrusive Englishwoman.” I don’t know about bossiness, but Margaret Thatcher was indeed strong and assertive. I think this was because of her values, her sense of right and wrong, and her command of goals and strategies she really believed in. If she was bossy, it didn’t seem to hold her back much.

Condoleezza Rice also appeared on the cover of Parade magazine with the authors. This is the last person I would think of as overly assertive or––e-gads, aggressive. Yet the mostly female faculty at Rutgers wants to bar Rice from speaking at the Rutgers commencement exercises because they believe she’s an aggressive warmonger.

The authors are undoubtedly trying to warn girls and young women not to fall into stereotypical behaviors. This is commendable. I hope they don’t also oversimplify, but rather recognize the significant differences between the genders and the significant differences among women.

Neuropsychologists have reported over the past 20 years that there are significant brain differences between genders. In the first place, male brains utilize seven times more gray matter for activity while female brains utilize nearly 10 times more white matter. What does this mean? Gray matter areas of the brain are information and action processing centers, and when engaged in a task, guys may not demonstrate much sensitivity to other people or their surroundings. White matter, which is more dominant in females, is a networking grid and allows women to quickly transition among tasks and allows for good multitasking.

I have no research evidence, but this would lead me to wonder if females are more observant of what’s going on around them and therefore prone to micromanaging, and maybe even encouraging and checking on subordinates which could be perceived as, e-gads, bossiness!?

The female brain is also more likely to ruminate on and revisit emotional memories, where the male brain reflects briefly on emotive memories in order to analyze them and then moves on to the next task. So women may be more sensitive and remember these verbal characterizations more than men.

According to psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister, women don’t work as long or as hard as men, and maybe this is what Sandberg and Shavez are trying to rectify. One study showed that 32 percent of women with graduate and professional degrees were currently staying at home with their children, rather than working. A study of Harvard Business School graduates found that a third of the female graduates were not employed at all. Another third were working only part-time on contract. Roy F Baumeister, Ph.D, Is There Anything Good About Men? How cultures flourish by exploiting men, (Oxford University press, 2010).

Remember, women differ from each other in many ways, and those within-gender differences could be greater than differences between the genders. Can women sometimes achieve business goals through quiet leadership and understanding of others’ feelings rather than relying on public displays of assertiveness?

Back to that issue of reaching one’s full potential, here is my formula for anyone who wants to be a CEO: First go to one of the Ivy League schools and make good connections that will give you an immediate step up in a large corporation. Then work 70 hours a week; don’t take vacations for 10 years, and find a wife or husband to take care of the children—or don’t have kids. Meanwhile, save your money for divorces and stress-related hospitalizations. In your spare time, you might even find a ghostwriter and crank out an occasional business book.

 

 

Mack Hicks, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author of The Digital Pandemic: Reestablishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age.

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