By Maeve O’Keeffe
The term “girlboss” was coined by Sophia Amoruso, the founder of Nasty Gal, a fashion retailer that she grew from an eBay store aged 22. When Amoruso published her 2014 memoir, #Girlboss, which was adapted into a Netflix series, the term suddenly became part of the modern workplace vernacular, emblazoned on coffee mugs, planners, and t-shirts produced by fast fashion outlets including Boohoo, who, interestingly, have been investigated for underpaying their (predominantly female) garment workers. Girlboss was branded as empowering women to obtain the power and wealth that was traditionally held by men. The philosophy of gender equality promoted in Amoruso’s #Girlboss was less focussed on structural changes against the patriarchy in the workplace, but more on how women can empower themselves to climb the ladder of success.
In recent months, however, the term girlboss has been subject to derision on social media, particularly on TikTok, where the tongue-in-cheek phrase “Gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss,” has been employed to mock the superficial attempts of celebrities and corporations towards social justice, and to ridicule the idea of labelling the actions of any woman as feminist, even if those actions have detrimental consequences. Disregarding Amoruso’s step down from Nasty Gal due to bankruptcy and allegations of a toxic work culture in 2016, the fall of the girlboss was somewhat inevitable.
When dissected, the term girlboss is inherently problematic. Aside from the fact that the distinction between a boss and a girlboss should not be necessary, the selection of the word “girl” as opposed to “woman” is indicative of how unreceptive our society is to women in power. Referring to successful women as girls is infantilising and patronising. Just imagine how bizarre it would be to refer to a male CEO or leader as a boy. A girl is defined as a female child, so unless there are minors in charge of companies, the use of the term girlboss makes no sense. Why is it that we feel the need to make the idea of a woman as a leader more palatable and less threatening, by referring to the woman in question as a child? The promotion of feminism in the workplace appears to hinge on this infantilization and diminishment of women, rendering the so-called feminism in question a lot less credible.
Perhaps these issues with the expression itself are negligible. After all, does it really matter how we label the ethos of girlboss culture, so long as more women are ending up in positions of power?
Unfortunately, the issues with girlboss feminism are more deep-rooted than its clumsy etymology. Although having more women in positions of power is important for visibility and equality, unless these women are working towards better working environments for all women, then the philosophy behind being a girlboss comes across as somewhat hollow. Being a girlboss is sold to women as rising to the challenges of the modern workplace, and empowering themselves through their drive and ambition. However, we have to ask how helpful this mentality is in fostering more welcoming and inclusive workplaces for all women in the long run. How beneficial is it to simply slot one woman into a position of power formerly held by a man while failing to address the barriers to more women professionally?
Ultimately, there needs to be more radical change in order to address gender inequality in the workplace. The reality of life for working women is more than power suits and coffee cups with feminist slogans. It is a daily battle against misogynistic comments, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, the gender pay gap, and unaffordable childcare for parents. It is a confrontation with the unspoken societal expectation of domestic labour from women, as well as norms surrounding how women are expected to behave in the workplace. Some talented and driven women overcome these obstacles to sit in positions of power, but many more do not. Unless the women and men in charge are actively working to overhaul the system that excludes so many other capable women from participating in the workplace at the same level as men, then the label girlboss remains no more than a label.
Many businesses embraced the optics of girlboss culture, while clinging to the toxicity that permeates so many workplaces beneath the surface. Unethical corporate cultures are not made feminist simply because a woman is in charge.
It could also be argued, however, that girlboss culture is a necessary stepping-stone towards more inclusive workplaces for women. Differentiating between bosses and ‘girlbosses’ presumes that women as bosses is an anomaly, and so the distinction should not exist. Gender should be irrelevant, and the need to include a qualifier of “girl” is undermining. That said, the idea of a girlboss could be viewed as carving out a space in which women are not under pressure not to simply mimic the characteristics and behaviours of their male counterparts in order to be taken seriously.
There is an abundance of research illustrating that women who demonstrate the same leadership characteristics as men are judged much more harshly. When a woman succeeds in a typically male-coded leadership role, it is assumed, by both men and women alike, that the woman is cold and manipulative. On the other hand, the competence of women who demonstrate sensitivity and nurturing natures is also questioned, in a way that it would not be for men. Women are faced with a total paradox, like we simply cannot win. So perhaps the label girlboss is strategic in its palatability, as a way to minimise the hostility so many women face in the workplace, while asserting that women can indeed fulfil leadership roles.
Regardless of whether the term girlboss is more useful or undermining, it is clear that feminism needs to move beyond catchy slogans towards concrete policy change. Referring to oneself as a She-EO as opposed to a CEO, or wearing a gown that says “Peg the Patriarchy” at the Met Gala (I’m looking at you, Cara Delevigne) needs to be backed up by actively advocating for gender equality. Ultimately, wearing a t-shirt that says “We Should All be Feminists” means nothing if it was bought from a retailer with appalling working conditions for female garment workers. Feminist rhetoric and branding can be useful in sparking discussion about feminist issues, but is meaningless unless backed up by significant changes to power structures and policies.