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Why it’s a good thing the term “girl boss” left the building

Posted by Kanika Sinha

April 20, 2022    |     4-minute read (778 words)

Deemed shorthand for an ambitious young woman at the top of her career, the term “girl boss” has long been seen as a champion of female empowerment. But the neologism came crashing down in recent years after some of the very people who were touted as girl bosses fell from grace amid allegations of toxic work cultures that perpetuated racism. 

In fact, in 2022, the trope seems to have completely fallen out of favor — and that's a good thing. 

The rise and fall of “girl boss”

The “girl boss” slogan was coined in 2014 by author and serial entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso. It was meant to describe the independent, motivated, looking and acting cool, don’t-need-nobody female icons of the business world who shattered glass ceilings. 

While the expression was initially applied to women who ran their own startups, it eventually came to encompass more than the definition of a female leader and evolved to reflect the overall attitude that women — particularly young ones — were able to do anything, even in traditionally masculine spaces. And suddenly, women everywhere were using the term. The “girlboss” Instagram account has more than 1.8 million followers, and the term has been hashtagged more than 26 million times to date. Even celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Miranda Kerr  have self-identified as girl bosses.

But the phrase has fallen from grace in recent years, as many of these girl bosses had to step down amid allegations that they created toxic workplaces, minimized diversity, fostered discriminatory behavior or were outright racist. Among them were former Refinery29 editor-in-chief and co-founder Christine Barberich, The Wing CEO and co-founder Audrey Gelman and Amoruso herself. And let’s not forget Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos and one of the most popular girl bosses ever. 

Finally, the popular trope has reached its expiration date in 2022.

This isn’t a sad demise 

The takedown of the term “girl boss” is a step in the right direction. Here’s why:

It gives way to the notion of toxic masculinity and negative gender stereotypes. The “girl boss” isn’t a symbol of feminism; rather, it is a replication of the stereotypical, work-obsessed male presence in respectable roles and positions. This culture encourages an individual to work hard and even harder, to just get on with it, and strongly emphasizes the necessity of being a lone wolf. 

It creates an endless loop of burnout. The “girl boss” pushes a near-impossible template of success and thus encourages unhealthy obsessions such as overworking and anxiety about performance, power and stability. Additionally, it fosters a mindset of constantly wanting to achieve but never slowing down to appreciate what you have already accomplished. All this in combination creates a vicious cycle whereby individuals are constantly working and never feeling a sense of achievement, ultimately experiencing burnout and self-doubt at the hands of capitalism.

It is a diminutive title. While the term “girl boss” draws attention to the feminine, it also infantilizes the role of a woman as a leader. It underscores girlhood rather than womanhood for success and making a place for women at the table. On the other hand, the term “boy boss” feels incredibly strange to ever contemplate.

It leaves no room to be anything but white and wealthy. Many of the women who benefitted from "girl boss" culture were white and from privileged upbringings. They did not do much to equalize the playing field for other women, particularly those from Black communities. In fact, the term never translated to Black girl boss but instead isolated women of color by failing to acknowledge racial barriers to entry. The alleged episodes of racism and employee exploitation at The Wing and Reformation revealed the white core of prevailing “girl boss” culture.

The latest generation workforce rejects the idea. Gen Z, born between 1997-2012, has redefined the term to reveal its irony. They use the term “girl boss” to mock capitalism and as a way to critique the idea that anything women do is feminist.

It is an outdated trend in 2022. The "girl boss" movement served a purpose for some women, helping them mark their presence in stereotypically male roles and workplaces during its early days. However, the state of inclusion in 2022 looks a lot different than it did in 2014, when the term came into existence. Continuing to use the term even today is incompatible with society’s ever-changing definition of feminism.

It ushers in a new era. The end of the popular cliche doesn’t represent an end for female leadership. Instead, it's a step toward gender equality — creating a new space for more inclusive leaders to succeed without being defined by gender.

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