A decade ago, Sheryl Sandberg asked working women to ‘lean in’ in her global bestseller of the same title. The call to action encouraged women to transform their mindset, harness their power, and translate it to workplace advancement and success. This was the start of what’s now known as the ‘girlboss feminism’ era, though the ‘girlboss’ neologism wouldn’t be coined until a year later when Sophia Amoruso, the founder of clothing brand Nasty Gal, published her memoir under the title ‘#Girlboss’.
Over time, the sentiment towards the phrase has changed from one of positivity to something more complex as women started to question whether they needed something so gendered to express themselves and as the idea of ‘hustle culture’, which ‘girlboss’ is also a part of, came under criticism.
This International Women’s Day, LBB and Tag wanted to know how women in the industry really feel about the word ‘girlboss’. Is it empowering, infantilising, both, neither, or something else entirely? In an industry that still has a way to go towards gender equality, is it useful to have a word that seems to champion women’s power and competency? Or is gendering women’s expertise and abilities in itself an issue?
LBB put the question to multiple women in the industry - below is what they think.
CMO EMEA, Tag
Sheryl Sandberg heightened the word ‘bossy’ as an adjective only used about women, in a derogatory sense, and never used to describe men – you’d just call them leaders. In much the same way, girlboss for me sits in the patronising, denigrating camp and undermines the achievements and ambitions of women. Why do we need to call out gender at all? A boss is a boss is a boss – while the characteristics of leaders may differ, how anyone identifies today, male, female, transgender or otherwise is frankly irrelevant and only diminishes the progress women have made...
I absolutely love the term girlboss when it comes from the mouths of the generation of women coming up in this business. When the women in my office say it, I hear the love, respect, and admiration behind it and I love that they equate my femininity to power. However for some reason when I see it in print, or recently when I saw a company referred to as the “top female owned production company” I do take pause. I wouldn't want to be known as the top female-owned company, I just want to be the top company. To suggest our company’s skills are somehow only the best among a group of other female competitors feels limiting and divisive and definitely not the goal. But when a young woman in the office calls me a girlboss it’s different. It somehow acknowledges the unique challenges I’ve had as a woman in this business to get to the position I’m fortunate enough to occupy and makes me want to do even better to make the path easier for them.
CEO and founder, MTArt
The girlboss appellation was created to empower women and young girls and give them a sense that they could do it, they could lead their lives and have it all. This in itself is a very positive and progressive way to think for all women. Whether the term shall now evolve and is indeed outdated - my wish was always to be recognised as a founder or CEO of a great business rather than a gendered description of the role - and that the representation of the girlboss could now feel pressurising rather than empowering. We shall equally be careful about taking the term down as we have seen with the recent cancelation of founders like Audrey Gelman, Leandra Medine and others; taking 'girlbosses' down is sexist, violent and anti-feminist.
It ultimately takes these women down, removes them from top management positions (where the numbers of women represented are still drastically low) and signals to other women that they shouldn't try. The Guardian recorded last year (2022) to be the highest year of attacks against female founders and politicians. Let's make sure to avoid a debate around being pro or against, and instead evolve always towards a more equal and integrated future. Nuance is the key to progress and onboarding everyone with it.
It’s an interesting question. Words always matter but ultimately the impact of words is all about tone and context. Girlboss is a popular term and we see it being used a lot by many women, particularly younger women who own it proudly and good on them! For everyone who relates to it to describe themselves or others in a positive way as a self- made woman, kicking goals and being the boss, it can certainly be empowering.
But as a woman in my 40s I find it somewhat infantilising. I also think we should question why we feel the need to qualify successful women in this way. We never describe men as ‘boybosses’ for example. Personally, it’s not a term I use myself and I look forward to the day when women leaders are simply referred to as leaders instead of gendering terms such as ‘girlboss’ or even ‘female CEOs’. But it’s a journey, and as long as words like ‘girlboss’ inspire women to have more confidence to set-up and run their own businesses, then it’s to be welcomed and celebrated.
WPP country manager Italy, CEO at VMLY&R
Girlboss? To be honest I don’t even know what it means? Girl is the definition of a woman’s age. Boss is a rather ‘negative’ way to describe someone in charge of a company or a business. There is probably no sense in associating those two words. For unclear reasons it seems we feel the need to label people for what they are or what they do or the way they do it. The real inclusivity to me is fighting any labelling and just letting people be themselves. Last not but not least, your job does not define you as a person, and not even your age. So why bother with empty words? We are all more than words.
Founder and CEO, MakeLoveNotPorn
It’s been so misused by the media that it’s meaningless. Movements like girlboss absolutely inspired a tonne of women to think differently about themselves and what they can do. Every woman needs her own trigger for understanding what she's capable of, and wanting to seize the opportunity being denied to her. I don't knock that term for what it's done in that respect. But it's absolutely been massively misused by the media.
Founder and ECD, Newfangled Studios
I'm not a fan of the phrase 'girlboss' for a few reasons:
1) We’re women, not ‘girls’ and we deserve to be respected as adults and equals.
2) Putting the word ‘girl’ in front of the word ‘boss’ suggests that women being successful leaders is unusual and needs to be called out.
3) The term tends to be associated with a hyper-feminine aesthetic that reinforces harmful gender stereotypes.
Let’s cancel the term ‘girlboss’ and focus on promoting gender equality and creating a society where women can succeed without being reduced to juvenile stereotypes.
Pavla Burgetova Callegari
MD and founder, Compass Rose
To me the word ‘girlboss’ or ‘boss lady’ definitely carries with it the notion that a woman working in a position of authority is something so unique it requires its own label. This only shows that there is still much work to be done before we reach a place where a person in a leadership position is just that. Having said that, in my experience, I don’t hear this label used very much, if ever. On the contrary, I feel that the production world very much respects and advances strong, smart women, and looking at production companies across the globe, we very often see women in these key roles.
Founder, LS Productions
Clearly the issue with the term ‘girlboss’ stems from who first coined the phrase, how it embodied a very individualistic view of success and who could access it. Sure, it’s polarising, very much like the term ‘mumpreneur’ that was thrown at me when I set up LS sixteen years ago, and despite being true, I really didn’t like it.
But I do think the term is important, every industry needs more girlbosses. Women, young, old and every age in between, are still underrepresented in leadership positions and that needs to change. I don’t find the word girl infantilising, I find it powerful, energising and full of potential. It’s the word boss that concerns me with connotations of control and authoritarianism.
Of course I’d love for there to be no need to label women managers at all but we’re so far from reaching any kind of parity in leadership roles, that there is a case for still doing it. So, until we get there, I’d love for the word to mean more, for it to embody a different type of leadership, one that confidently embraces the contribution and positive change women in leadership positions can make, not just for themselves but for women in their teams, and those in the industry still figuring out what their career aspirations are.
Global head of integrated services, Tag
To me, ‘girlboss’ is the new ‘career woman’. A few years back all you would hear
at the school playground or at family events was ‘she’s a career woman’. I kept thinking, “Does having a career make you less of a well-rounded individual outside of the working environment?” The words make me cringe and feel guilty that people may have potentially viewed me as an absent mother. However, not only do I have a career in a male-dominated sector, but I also have the flexibility to be with my children and share this responsibility equally with my husband; the ability to be able to do is squarely down to the provisions my company and leadership have put in place. Nowadays, the new buzz word ‘girlboss’ is thrown around. Frankly, I find it insulting and used to belittle women making them sound childlike and incompetent.
Have we really not retired 'girlboss' yet? It had its moment, it was a smart PR play at the time for Sophia Amoruso and it makes a great hashtag but I would hazard that 99.9% of leaders (who also happen to be women) have eye-rolled/groaned/fumed/exploded at the irrelevance and insult of the term. When I think of the phenomenal leaders within WACL, for example, and incredible women who have worked for 20, 30, 40+ years at the top of their field, you see how wrong it is. And it's not just the women who feel this. It is almost laughable to consider this could be an acceptable way to describe successful leaders, but the fact that so much of the media jumped on it shows how many still struggle with the idea of female leadership as the norm.
We shouldn't underplay the power that language has. When applied at large, of course it is problematic to single out women, create a stereotypical behaviour, to both infantilise and throw in a dose of ageism in for good measure. Hashtagging it to make it snappy and 'cool' makes it seem harmless. It's not.
It also underplays the progress that society - and our industry - is making towards female representation at leadership levels - albeit not nearly fast enough. The latest IPA census puts female leadership at 37.5% but that shows we still have a very long way to accelerate gender equality to hit 50:50 representation at executive and board levels. The truth is that there are a lot of women out there who are currently showing, or who are capable of, great leadership - and there's a big difference between leadership and 'bossing it'.
Founder, Lollipop Mentoring
The term ‘girlboss’ can be both empowering and reductive. While it celebrates women's competency and strength, it may also suggest that women are still viewed as ‘girls’ in the professional world, which can be infantilising. It implies that women are still perceived as girls in the professional world, gendering women's abilities and expertise can reinforce stereotypes and undermine their accomplishments.
While the term may be useful in acknowledging women's success in industries that historically have been male-dominated, it is essential to recognise that it perpetuates the notion that women's achievements are less significant and deserving of recognition. I think it would be more beneficial to focus on promoting equality and inclusivity in the workplace. Gendered language can be exclusionary towards individuals who identify outside of traditional gender norms too.
While the intention behind the term ‘girlboss’ may be positive, it can be harmful in reinforcing gender stereotypes and trivialising women's achievements. Anecdotally I have not heard of many black women referring to themselves as such, and I can’t give you a definitive answer as to why - only my own thoughts - surely a boss is a boss?
EP, In & Out Productions
I feel that, as human beings, we are all equals, and we have to see each other as such. While it is important to empower women because of the difficulties we have gone through and the challenges we continue facing, the word ‘girlboss’ doesn’t support humanity as a whole. We should be focusing on bringing people together rather than solely elevating one group and leaving out the accomplishments and strength of others, especially in this era where gender is such a fluid term. Equality doesn’t mean creating division or categorising with gender-specific words. It means power and light for everyone, with unity and positive energy.
Senior account manager, Tag
My perspective of the word ‘girlboss’ has changed significantly over the years. By no means negative but I feel that it doesn’t quite reach the depths of championing women in our full glory. A few years ago, I would have seen it as a useful term for acknowledging my own efforts as well as others, for being ambitious, independent, strong, and paving a way to success and self-fulfilment. An unstoppable driving force of knowing what you want and going out there to achieve it.
But today it’s not a word I’d use as a compliment. There is an element of infantilism, so it would be strange calling out to my peers “you go…girlboss!” We can do so much better to lift and empower one another. We’re living in a time where convenience is welcomed, where it’s great to have a universal trending word acknowledged by the masses. However, as much as we could want to summarise our efforts into one word, it would not reflect all the unique and extraordinary women that are out there.