March 10, 2014— -- Can banning one school-yard word really change the world? Sheryl Sandberg says yes.
Sandberg -- the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of the best-selling book "Lean In" -- is spearheading the launch of a campaign today to ban the word "bossy," arguing the negative put-down stops girls from pursuing leadership roles.
"We know that by middle school, more boys than girls want to lead," Sandberg said, "and if you ask girls why they don't want to lead, whether it's the school project all the way on to running for office, they don't want to be called bossy, and they don't want to be disliked."
Sandberg said these attitudes begin early and continue into adulthood.
"We call girls bossy on the playground," Sandberg said. "We call them too aggressive or other B-words in the workplace. They're bossy as little girls, and then they're aggressive, political, shrill, too ambitious as women."
Sandberg's organization Lean In is joining forces with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chávez to launch a public service campaign called "Ban Bossy." The banbossy.com website gives tips for parents, kids, teachers and others about how to encourage young female leaders.
Chavez said she got involved immediately after receiving a call from Sandberg, and believes the Girl Scouts are ideal partners for the new initiative. More than half of all American women were once Girl Scouts and two million girls are currently in scouting, she pointed out.
"Imagine a classroom in America where 50 kids are present: 25 girls, 25 boys," Chavez said.
"And the teacher walks into this classroom and says: 'Boys and girls, I have this really hard, difficult program that I need to solve that's gonna impact this country.' She writes the problem on the board and then turns around and escorts 24 of the 25 girls out of the room. ... She leaves one girl and 25 boys to solve that equation. That's what's happening every day in this country. Why wouldn't we want more girls to be opting in to building the right solutions this country."
The goal of the "Ban Bossy" campaign is to help girls and women feel more confident and comfortable as leaders.
"I was called bossy when I was in ninth grade," Sandberg recalled. "My teacher took my best friend Mindy aside and she said, 'You shouldn't be friends with Sheryl. She's bossy.' And that hurt."
While she and the other women leaders she is recruiting were able to persevere despite the taunt, many little girls can't, she said.
"If you look at the world, women do 66 percent of the work in the world. Woman produce 50 percent of the food. Women make 10 percent of the income and women own 1 percent of the property. We are 50 percent of the population. We are 5 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs," Sandberg said. "We are 17 percent of the board seats. We are 19 percent in Congress. That's not enough for 50 percent of the population. We live in a world that is overwhelming run and owned by men."
During an interview at Facebook headquarters, she and Chavez are quick to point out that they are not encouraging rude, mean-girl behavior or bullying.
"Leadership is not bullying and leadership is not aggression," Sandberg said. "Leadership is the expectation that you can use your voice for good. That you can make the world a better place."
Sandberg said she hopes the campaign will open a dialogue with parents and teachers, to eliminate the use of the word "bossy," though she concedes this is not really as simple as banning one word.
"This is a word that is symbolic of systemic discouragement of girls to lead. We are not just talking about getting rid of a word, even though we want to get rid of a word," she said. "We're talking about getting rid of the negative messages that hold our daughters back."
Sandberg is a director of The Walt Disney Co., the parent company of ABC News.