The “girlboss” is officially dead; I hope its death teaches us how we can actually achieve success in a system that wasn’t designed to elevate women.
“Girlboss” culture had its fair share of fame. When Sophia Amorouso first coined the term in her 2014 book “Girlboss,” she featured a woman “whose success is defined in opposition to the masculine business world in which she swims upstream.” A “girlboss” soon became synonymous for a professionally motivated woman who was climbing the career ladder.
At first, being a girlboss was empowering; the label itself symbolized a stand against patriarchal corporate culture, showing people that yes, women can and should be leaders. Being a girlboss meant you were ambitious and hustling to get what you wanted out of your career. The issue was that it didn’t account for the cost of that hustle or assume anything else needed changing.
Six years later, the girlboss facade began to fade. First, after the Advertising Standards Authority banned a billboard using “girlboss” for reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes. The billboard read, “You do the girl boss thing we’ll do the SEO thing.” Girlboss was seen to be patronizing and sexist, not empowering; using “girlboss” here implied that women weren’t adept at SEO and technology.
On top of that, a series of scandals centered on certain women executives came out — and we learned that just because a woman’s at the top of an organization doesn’t mean that she’ll create a safe workplace for everyone, even other women. Top women executives started resigning after revelations that they created toxic work environments, specifically for people of color.
The flaws of girlboss culture started to become clearer. By telling women to grind and hustle and play by the man’s rules, women who rose to power were still participating in a system pitied against women. We aimed for success, but a version of success defined by and designed by men.
As a result, in 2022, girlboss culture has had its reckoning — but I hope it’s a period we can learn from rather than just try to forget. Embracing the symbolism of girlboss gave us an experience that lays the foundation for how we should advocate for changes in the workplace instead.
Specifically, success at work can’t — and shouldn’t — come from relying on the power structures we already have at work, because those aren’t meant to serve us. For example, it’s not my responsibility, as a young woman at work, to hustle and grind and work myself crazy to try and take on a corporate culture that favors those without other responsibilities and interests. After all, women don’t get promoted or paid less than men because they don’t work as hard; it’s because there are real biases and cultural expectations women face that prevent us from getting promoted or paid equally.
Girlboss culture implied — and sometimes explicitly pronounced — that we could out-work and out-hustle the institutional and cultural barriers women face. However, the lesson we learned is that we can’t overwork our way to eliminating sexism in the workplace. Instead, we need to prioritize ourselves and our mental health, both in and outside of work. We shouldn’t sacrifice our livelihoods in an attempt to climb a corporate ladder that wasn’t built for us. The burden can’t be on us, as individuals, to outwork structures and practices that fail us.
“The way we get to equality is not by making ourselves even more,” Reshma Saujani, Girls Who Code and Marshall Plan for Moms founder said during Fairygodboss’ 2022 Inspiration Summit. “It is about fixing policies in the workplace that basically prevent us from reaching equality. So we have to radically shift the narrative and the conversation.”
And to radically shift the narrative and conversation, we should focus our energy from overworking ourselves to advocating for ourselves, collectively.
“I think we need to all advocate for one thing for ourselves,” Saujani said. “So whether that is for you, flexibility, whether that’s remote working, whether that’s paid leave, I think that we have to start advocating for ourselves.
And then in the organizations that we are a part of in our women, ERG groups, in our parenting groups at work, we need to start having a radically different conversation. We need to start talking about the structure. We need to start auditing our corporate policies. All the programming that you typically do for Women’s History Month — throw it in the garbage — anything that feels like I'm inviting someone to give you a skillset so I can ‘fix us’ is a deviation from what we need to be focused on.”
What we need now is the anti-girlboss culture: one that prioritizes boundaries and work-life balance while calling out the systems and barriers that prevent us from succeeding in the same ways as men.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.