The recent trial of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes has brought up the discussion of “Girl Bosses” and whether the term should have a place in the workplace and our culture.
The term girlboss rose to prominence in 2014, with the publication of entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso’s autobiography “#GirlBoss.” The term was meant to describe the movement of career women stepping into leadership positions typically dominated by men. The emergence of female CEOs thus framed their careers as morally righteous. Female CEOs were not just building their wealth in their business endeavors, but also acting in service to all womankind through their individual success.
But this image of the benevolent capitalist girlboss was quickly revealed to be a farce. The entrepreneur who popularized it, Amoruso, was revealed to have allegedly discriminatory labor practices. As Amanda Mull states in The Atlantic, “The confident, hardworking, camera-ready young woman of a publicist’s dreams apparently had an evil twin: a woman, pedigreed and usually white, who was not only as accomplished as her male counterparts, but just as cruel and demanding too.”
Elizabeth Holmes emerged during this era of girlbosses, and was framed as such by the media. She, too, experienced a fall from grace. In 2016, her company Theranos was revealed to be fraudulent, the revolutionary blood testing technology it claimed to have invented virtually nonexistent. By her trajectory, Holmes is, arguably, the quintessential girlboss.
Perhaps because some of the very people who were touted as girlbosses have fallen from grace, or perhaps due to a change in cultural norms, recent uses of the term are characterized by irony. Someone successfully boiling water or going to class on time, for example, could be ironically labeled as a “girlboss moment.”
This leads to the question — is it harmful that a term originally designed to empower women in the workplace is now being utilized to mock their fall from grace?
Some may find that the term is dangerous in how it further highlights a group’s marginalized identity. That is to say, the fact that girlbosses are associated with fraudulent business practices due to the actions of some individual actors, who happen to be women, further perpetuates sexist standards that keep women from rising in the workplace.
Others may say the term never achieved its purpose of allegedly empowering all women, as it never really sought to break down existing power structures that benefited men, but rather, to extend these corrupt practices to women. Many of the women who benefitted from girlboss culture were white and privileged and did not do much to equalize the playing field for other women or for people of other gender identities.
Moreover, the term could be considered patronizing, as it highlights girlhood rather than womanhood. The term “boyboss” feels incredibly strange to ever consider, as men are not typically infantilized by culture and media. In fact, in January of 2020, the UK Advertising Standards Agency banned an ad that utilized the term “girlboss” because it found it to perpetuate harmful sexist standards.
The ad was for a company that connected freelancers with businesses. The ad portrayed a smiling woman looking down at what may have been her laptop. Above the image were the words: “You do the girl boss thing, we’ll do the SEO thing.”
Some may feel exhausted by the mere premise the term presents. Is there no world where women can simply live their lives, without the weight of liberating all women from the constructs of patriarchy through becoming a fraudulent CEO?
Sure, the term is now often utilized as a joke, but this irony is purposeful. It is ridiculous to believe true liberation for women can be tied to the actions of one CEO. The irony highlights this fallacy.
Holmes’s fraudulent actions should not be indicative of all women’s capabilities as businesswomen, and as people. She should be held accountable for her actions. But just because a woman makes a mistake does not mean other women should be taken down with her just by the fact of their gender.
The utility of the term girlboss has perhaps passed, as we as a generation begin to question the actual efficacy of utilizing capitalism to destroy the very inequalities it creates.
But it is valid to question the extent to which powerful women are criticized, and recognize ways the whole discussion of #girlbosses is being used to perpetuate harmful stereotypes, rather than break them down.