Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bossy Girls

Earlier this week, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, led a panel on "Women as the Way Forward" at The World Economic Forum at Davos.  Sandberg was one of six co-chairs of the forum; the rest were men.  In fact, attendance at this year's 5-day meeting was more than 80% men.  Surprised?  Of course not.  And there were more women there this year than ever before.  Sandberg, who is 42, noted that women attending the highly competitive forum were likely to have been called "bossy" as little girls.  She was.  According to Sandberg, "success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women."


Were you called "bossy" as a little girl?  Yeah, me too.  In my pre-teen and teenage years, I also got "you should be a lawyer" a lot.  I don't think this was a compliment on my verbal or analytical skills.  Nope, not intended to support developing leadership abilities either.  Or to help build up that self-esteem we know plummets as girls approach adolescence (and, thankfully, so fastidiously work to maintain in our young girls today).

Not that my labelers meant any harm.  No, I think those who called me "bossy" and "lawyer" were just trying to place me.  I was raised as an orthodox Jew, and orthodox Jewish girls are not known for being particularly outspoken.  Or for challenging authority.  I was the one who, when just the 12th grade girls had to take a class called "Lifecycles" and learn the laws of nidah, marital purity, went apoplectic.  It was the 1980s.  I think my well meaning peers and the adults in my community just figured, "must be one of those 'female lawyers,' like on LA Law."

Oversimplified?  Sure.  Because it was certainly a time in the United States when a tremendous amount was changing for women, and the orthodox community was not immune.  To be fair, there are other orthodox Jewish women my age who became lawyers, and those who made laudable strides in mixing feminism with Torah observance (See for example, Haviva Ner David, the first orthodox Jewish woman to receive rabbinical ordination or the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance's work to bring mixed - as in men and women together -Torah reading to modern orthodox synagogues.)  Still, I think its fair to say that orthodox Jews, even the "modern" ones, are, well, fairly orthodox when it comes to following specific prescriptions for life.

So, my upbringing wasn't all "get married, have kids, cook nice meals for Shabbos." I took AP classes; I served on student council.  Hell, I even had the opportunity to play on a volleyball team, and we know how effective sports can be at building self-confidence.  I certainly can't blame the patriarchy for the klutziness that meant I spent all season on the bench.

But even a naive fourteen year old girl in a long jean skirt and keds knows that while its OK for some of the dads, her being well suited to lawyerdom makes her, well, if not a total Lilith, at least somewhat undesirable.  Unpleasant.  Unmarriable.

Oy how the messages were mixed.  I sang "Free to Be You & Me" and "Someday My Prince Will Come."  I received consistent praise for bringing home "As."  And consistently received things like the easy bake oven, cabbage patch dolls, and pretty clothes for Chanuka.  My mother told me I was too smart to be a model.  And that a good mother would not go to work and let her children be cared for by a nanny.  My father proudly touted my accomplishments to whichever extended family member was willing to listen, and defended me against the rabbis who were less than inspired by my opinions.  And when I signed up for a creative writing class during the same 6 week period in which I dated an aspiring playwright, my father advised that I not; "Let writing be his thing," he said.  A potential husband can feel threatened.

Though I recognize that the telling of this part of my story may result in some (hopefully brief) hurt feelings, I in no way intend to disrespect a well-intentioned community and the parents who did their best, and, in the process, raised a reasonably successful, happy woman who, it seems worth noting, did in fact go onto to study law at a university that didn't even accept female students until 1970.  

So Sheryl Sandberg, what do we do to finally turn this thing around and get more women to Davos?  In 2012, do we really still have to work to make clear that most women and girls are not one thing or the other - take charge or doting, competitive or sweet - but a rich mixture of all of the above?  Do we still call girls who speak their mind and challenge the status quo "bossy" or do we acknowledge them as leaders?

Or, did Tina Fey really have it, when she said, “Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions; go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.”  


p.s. Here are links to a few organizations that inspire me to keep on honoring the "bossy girl" within.  Please tack on links to yours ...

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