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In 2014, the entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso, founder of the women’s fashion retailer Nasty Gal, published her peppy, pop-feminist memoir #GirlBoss. Much like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, she encouraged women to grasp power for themselves in the workplace — or more specifically, to “show up” and “own it” to get ahead.
This advice, while well-intentioned, ignores the systematic societal and institutional disadvantages women face in the workplace. It places the responsibility on women to address these structural problems, which is a near-impossible task. But it didn’t stop the book from selling a million copies, or Amoruso from launching a media company of the same name, as well as a Netflix series.
And now, the phrase “girl boss” is everywhere. It’s in millions of posts on Instagram, encouraging women to live a #GirlBossLife or join a #GirlBossTribe. You see it emblazoned on T-shirts and stationery, and on inspirational prints to hang up in your home office.
Compared to the multitude of inequalities women face in the workplace, the term girl boss perhaps isn’t the most pressing issue. But this doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic — and it doesn’t mean we should use it.
“While terms such as the ‘she-cession’ can be useful when thinking about how global economic crises are likely to have greater negative effects on women, at work many women find the prefacing of their job title with 'female' calls into question their professionalism,” explains Kate Sang, Professor of Gender & Employment Studies at Heriot Watt University.
One of the key issues is that talking about “female engineers” and “engineers” — or “female doctors” and “doctors” — it makes the women in these roles something outside of what we expect.
“We could argue that 'SHE-E-O' or 'girl boss' challenge the gender assumptions that senior roles will be occupied by women, we can also see that they reinforce these stereotypes by making a woman in these roles exceptional enough to warrant a new name for them,” Sang says.
“Many women in senior positions don't want to be seen as the 'female engineer' for example, they just want to be the engineer without their gender being put first.”
It’s also patronising to refer to a woman as a girl boss. You could be talking about someone with a PhD or an MBA, someone with excellent management skills or someone with years of experience of running their own business.
“Girl boss is particularly problematic as a girl is a child, and many women feel undermined at work when they are referred to as a girl, rather than a woman,” Sang says.
This is not only infantilising, but it calls into question their legitimacy in holding a senior position, which can have a knock-on effect on their ability to manage a team.
“Women struggle to overcome many barriers to career progression, including outdated associations between men and seniority,” says Sang. “To reach such a senior position and then be called 'the girl boss' would be frustrating and make it even harder for women to exercise their authority at work.”
The phrase might be mainstream, but it’s negative connotations haven’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, an advert urging people to “do the girl boss thing” was banned for encouraging “harmful gender stereotypes”. The poster for PeoplePerHour — an online platform connecting businesses with freelancers — featured a woman alongside the caption: “You do the girl boss thing. We’ll do the SEO thing.”
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The Advertising Standards Authority said it had received numerous complaints from people who pointed out that the message was “patronising” and implied women were lacking in technology skills.
Crucially, using gendered language like “girl boss” doesn’t actually give women an equal footing in the workplace. In fact, these terms can actually be divisive and highlight just how few women are in certain industries.
Since the phrase hit the mainstream six years ago, progress in women’s rights has stalled. There are still huge gender disparities in the workplace, flexible working is still seen as a perk rather than a necessity, and we still don’t have affordable childcare — so a significant proportion of women are locked out of work entirely. And no amount of spunky hashtags and inspirational quotes are going to solve those issues.