'Girlboss' Culture is Getting Called Out — What It Is and Why It’s Being Criticized

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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger

Girlboss culture has become sort of a very big movement. You know what we're talking about — all the women out there using #Girlboss every time they post something about their entrepreneurial work on social media. In fact, the #Girlboss hashtag has nearly 23 million posts on Instagram alone. 

You've certainly seen the term floating around. It's printed on T-shirts. It's written on coffee mugs. It's glossed over notebooks and planners. You don't have to look so hard to find it — someone in your network is bound to own something or to have posted a social media photo with the word Girlboss. Like it or hate it, it's here.

But Girlboss culture isn't necessarily what we need. And critics are finally calling it out — a long overdue pushback at marketing ploy to amp women up to beat a system that's designed to be unbeatable. Here's what you need to know about what Girlboss culture is, where it came from, and the many ways in which if falls short.

What Is Girlboss Culture

The dichotomy between what Girlboss culture claims to be and what Girlboss culture actually is makes it difficult to define.

Girlboss culture sort of refers to women who are taking the workplace by storm. It refers to those female entrepreneurs who work around the clock (arguably known as workaholism) despite all of the systemic odds stacked against them (arguably known as sexism) and, somehow some way, make the system that's designed against them work for them.

But what Girlboss culture is, in reality, is much grimmer than some blazer-clad businesswomen smashing out deadlines. It's actually arguably toxic.

Where Did Girlboss Culture Come From?

For Gen, Kelly Caminero writes that Sheryl Sandberg's 2013 bestseller,  Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is largely at the roof of Girlboss culture. In her book, Sandberg says that institutional barriers vs. internal barriers is the "ultimate chicken-and-egg situation." She suggests that, "rather than engage in philosophical arguments over which comes first, let’s agree to wage battles on both fronts.” And she lays out a plan for working women to pave their own paths to the C-suite by "leaning in" instead of by dismantling the patriarchy.

"By presenting gender disparities in the workplace as a war to be fought on a personal level, Sandberg allowed women to feel like they were activists whenever they advocated for themselves," Caminero explains in her post. "It’s inspiring to feel like you’re on the right side of a good cause, like you’re a part of history in the making."

Giving permission to women to define feminism on their own terms and make the system work for them, rather than debating who it was designed to work for, ushered in the "cotton-candy pink epoch of the girlboss, c. 2013-2020," Caminero says.

"The girlboss was the millennial embodiment of unapologetic ambition," she writes. "Her greatest pleasure was success; being underestimated only motivated her to trounce her doubters. She’s Election’s Tracy Flick at 30 with nicer clothes. ('Some people say I’m an overachiever, but I think they’re just jealous.') She’s Emily Weiss getting 11 nos from male venture capitalists before her first yes to launch Glossier... #Riseandgrind workaholism was part of a girlboss’s DNA."

Girlboss culture has obvious flaws.

A #Girlboss "puts kisses on emails, says THANK YOU SO MUCH when someone does something they are contractually obliged to do for her and... smiles when resources are cut," writes Vicky Spratt in a piece for Refinery29, "Let 2020 Be the Year We Get Rid of Girlboss Culture for Good." "She is 'fierce' but never angry. She is well put-together but doesn’t try too hard. She is empowered, never stressed. She is implacable, never flustered. She is always just about toeing the line, never crossing it."

While tons of people use the term to share their relentless efforts, and hard-earned successes, critics argue that it actually misses the mark. Spratt, for one, write that, while Girlboss culture is "miraculously ubiquitous" and has become a "mainstay of contemporary feminism," the term is "a sexist Trojan horse." 
"If the most progressive thing we can imagine is a smiling, non-threatening woman posting a selfie on Instagram from the shiny office of her £2,000 a month 'all-female collective' then we’ve got big problems," she writes.

What Do Critics Have to Say About Girlboss Culture?

While Girlboss culture may intend to push the agenda forward for women in the workplace, critics argue that it's missing the mark. And I couldn't agree more.

"It appears to raise women up, to carve out space for us in a working world still too crowded with men and purports to offer us a bit of the boardroom we can call our own," Spratt writes. "But in reality it denies us agency, it diminishes us and denigrates our authority."

For starters: the word "girl" automatically "infantilizes" professional women, Spratt says. Beyond that, it's safe to say that no professional man has ever been referred to as a #Boyboss. (Have you ever heard that? Because I, most certainly, have not.) And that's because it's "the status quo," Spratt goes on. If a woman rises to the top, she is still considered an aberration to the norm. She's something special. She must have done something extraordinary to get there because that just doesn't happen for a lot of women.

In fact, in 2020, the proportion of women in senior management roles is just 29 percent, which is the highest number ever recorded. In one sense, the growing percentage is exciting; in another breath, the fact that it's not even half is discouraging.

"If we weren’t so scared of women’s power we wouldn’t need to [use the Girlboss term], to make it more palatable by rolling it in glitter and pinkwashing it," Spratt goes on.

In other words, rather than being seen as anomalies, women should be seen as equals, as the are in the eyes of employment law but not necessarily in the eyes of the system. Moreover, critics argue that Girlboss culture  suggests that, if women aren't succeeding in the workplace, it's merely because they're not putting enough effort in to succeed. 
"Until this country is willing to reckon with its extraordinary wealth inequality, and our government requires corporations to pay their fair share in taxes, we will continue to see reincarnations of the girlboss because she’s a manifestation of the American myth that says if you’re not succeeding, it must be because you’re not trying hard enough," Caminero writes.
Besides, simply giving women titles that carry authority alone will not create the change that the world needs to see. It slaps a Band-aid on systemic sexism, merely covering it up to the naked eye. This arguably makes it all a whole lot worse because companies can claim that they're "doing their part," when, beneath the surface, sexism is still pervasive.  For example, ever hear of the glass cliff? Breaking the glass ceiling is great, but not if women are only being promoted to save sinking ships — and then being blamed for their inevitable demise.

"Slotting mostly white women into the power structures usually occupied by men does not de facto change workplaces, let alone the world, for the better, if the structures themselves go untouched," Amanda Mull writes for The Atlantic. "America’s workplace problems don’t begin and end with the identities of those atop corporate hierarchies—they’re embedded in the hierarchies themselves. Making women the new men within corporations was never going to be enough to address systemic racism and sexism, the erosion of labor rights, or the accumulation of wealth in just a few of the country’s millions of hands—the broad abuses of power that afflict the daily lives of most people."

And finally, Girlboss culture misses the mark because it attempts to make feminism an easier pill to swallow. And, frankly, feminism isn't about appeasing people or making people feel comfortable or being marketable. It's about creating change that isn't always easy but, rather, that can be confrontational and, sometimes, controversial.
"Feminism – particularly the aspects of it that focus on gender disparities at work – needs to focus on the gender pay gap, flexible working and, above all, it needs to ask why we still don’t have affordable childcare," Spratt explains in her article. "There’s nothing sexy about these issues. They aren’t particularly marketable. They might not appeal to the interests of marketeers cooking up your branded content. Addressing them is the only way we’ll ever achieve true equality. Girlbossery does worse than gloss over all of this, it actively undermines it by finding a seemingly innocent way to sell our insecurities and the precariousness of our collective situation back to us."
So, while Girlboss culture may have had good intentions, it's about time to move on from it — and refocus our energy on what really matters. Because women (and companies in their entirety!) need systemic change, not a childlike title.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.