The problem with the #girlboss
July 20, 2022

You can picture her, can’t you? She’s white. She’s thin. She drives an SUV. She carries a Starbucks iced latte in one hand and a large Kate Spade tote is casually thrown over her shoulder. Her hair is up in a messy-on-purpose bun, and she wears designer black trousers and a crisp, pale blue linen shirt.

She’s a #girlboss.

No one ever calls your male colleague a #boyboss. That’s because he’s the status quo, but anything women do is still the exception. Enter the #girlboss.

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What is a #Girlboss?

Sophia Amoruso, founder of the fast fashion website Nasty Gal, coined the term in her 2014 autobiography titled #GIRLBOSS. She defines the term as “a woman whose success is defined in opposition to the masculine business world in which she swims upstream.” Amoruso’s literal rags-to-riches story was inspiring, and she gained a huge following with many young professionals.

What set girlbosses apart from regular bosses was the combination of feminism with hustle. Women like Facebook COO and author of Lean In Sheryl Sandberg and Amoruso were finally wrangling power away from the men who held it for so long, which was seen as a form of justice. As the concept was codified, the idea of the girlboss became about the melding of professional self and identity, capitalist aspiration, and a specific (and arguably limited) vision of empowerment.

Women across the country began to create businesses and create spaces for other women. And #girlboss became a vibe. Women had found it so hard to find success working under men; so many barriers had always been in place. Why not shift the model? Why not build a system where women could lift up other women? The entire idea of the girlboss movement should have been a way for women to buck the whole system.

“If these women could succeed while upholding feminist values and treating their employees humanely, then maybe the patriarchy was just a choice that savvy consumers could shop their way around,” Amanda Mull wrote in the Atlantic in 2020, explaining how the girlboss concept had entwined itself with justice. The idea was the women would buy products by women-owned businesses, women supporting women. And it worked, for a while.

The Downall of the #Girlboss

That is, until Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy protection in 2015, citing “toxic workplace culture and leadership issues.”

But Amoruso is not the only girlboss to find immediate success and then come under fire for questionable behavior, and therein lies the problem with the girlboss.

In 2015, Nasty Gal became the subject of a discrimination lawsuit alleging it had illegally fired pregnant employees. Employees came forward with stories about how Amoruso’s company was a toxic workplace. In 2016, Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy.

In 2018, as criticism of Facebook’s handling of Russian election meddling, misinformation, and personal data abuse mounted, Sandberg’s bullying behavior and attempts to discredit the company’s critics came to light in a New York Times report.

In 2019, The Verge reported on Away employees’ allegations that co-founder and co-CEO Steph Korey bullied employees, and that the company wasn’t as inclusive or diverse as it had claimed.

In 2020, former employees of feminist oasis the Wing said the coworking and social space created was only for show, and that working there was an exercise in being undermined. They also alleged that Black and brown employees were mistreated. The Wing founder Audrey Gelman stepped down that June.

The same year, employees at Glossier alleged they faced discrimination from both their company and the customers they served. They said upper management was predominantly white women.

Meanwhile, it is important to note that at companies like Amazon, where Jeff Bezos, a cis, straight, white man is CEO, the Times can produce an entire exposé on work culture and working conditions, but no one asks him to step down or discusses his commitment to feminism.

Men, it seems, are not held to the same standards as women when in leadership roles. Bezos might be called out for his behavior, but he continues to lead.

What’s a girlboss now? Some would define it as “to make something or someone appear as a feminist idol or inspiration for profit, despite the numerous flaws of the person.” The internet is full of memes that state in sparkly letters: #gatekeep, #gaslight, #girlboss. It seems the girlboss movement has failed, and it’s time for something new.

What’s Better Than a #Girlboss?

What we need is not more inspirational memes or glittering launches for fancy women-only co-working spaces. We need policy change. We need women in politics, and we need them to legislate in favor of other women. 

Feminism — particularly the aspects of it that focus on gender disparities at work — needs to focus on the gender pay gap, flexible working and it needs to ask why we still don’t have affordable childcare. There’s nothing sexy about these issues. They aren’t particularly marketable. Addressing them is the only way we’ll ever achieve true equality. 

But more than anything, girlboss feminism cannot work if it is not intersectional. The feminism of white women who exclude other women— Black, brown, and the women of the LGBTQ community — will never achieve true equality. Because all it is doing is perpetuating white supremacy culture. It simply exemplifies that white women are one stair below white men instead of eliminating.

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