2020 Is The Year We Kill Off The Girlboss

Refinery29 UK
Feb 6, 2020 · 6 min read

By Vicky Spratt

At the start of this year an advert from People Per Hour — an online platform that connects businesses and freelancers — was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for gender stereotyping. Why? Because it used what I can only describe as the most pernicious phrase of all time: girl boss.

“You do the girl boss thing” it read, next to a picture of a benign smiling woman. “We’ll do the SEO thing.”

The ASA upheld multiple complaints about the ad and ruled that it reinforced “harmful gender stereotypes”. In response, People Per Hour removed the word ‘girl’ and issued an apology in which they admitted that it might have “come across as sexist and demeaning to women”.

Girlboss culture is now ubiquitous. Somewhat miraculously, it has become a mainstay of contemporary feminism over the last few years. I see it everywhere: in adverts, emblazoned across notebooks and, ironically, printed on T-shirts made in countries where it’s likely a woman was underpaid for her work.

I say this is miraculous because this word is a sexist Trojan horse. 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. But in reality it denies us agency, it diminishes us and denigrates our authority. A girl is a young woman — to suggest that a female worker or leader is a #girlboss directly infantilises her. If we weren’t so scared of women’s power we wouldn’t need to do this, to make it more palatable by rolling it in glitter and pinkwashing it.

‘Girlboss’ is a sexist Trojan horse. It appears to raise women up, to carve out space for us in a working world still too crowded with men. But in reality it denies us agency, it diminishes us and denigrates our authority.

Have you ever heard a male worker referred to as a #boyboss? No. That’s because men’s power in the workplace is still the default. It’s the status quo and anything a woman does is still an exception, an anomaly.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Of course, women have always worked, carrying out both the paid and unpaid labour that propelled human civilisation forward. But our entry into the professional workforce is a relatively recent development. Data from the Office for National Statistics lays this bare, showing the female employment rate creeping up from around 60% in the early 1970s (when the Equal Pay Act was introduced) to just under 80% at the end of the last decade.

We might slowly be taking up more space but we’re also fighting for that space. Only recently did BBC presenter Samira Ahmed take her employer to an employment tribunal because she found out that she was being paid less than men at the organisation for doing the same work. She won, with the tribunal unanimously concluding that the BBC had failed to provide “convincing evidence” that the pay gap was for any reason other than gender discrimination. Ahmed was being paid £440 an episode while her male colleague, Jeremy Vine, was being paid £3,000. Just let that sink in.

Ahmed is not a girlboss. She is Vine’s equal in ability as she is in the eyes of employment law. Her victory does not warrant cries of “Yassss Qwueeeeen”. It should not be punctuated with pink emoji. All this would do is further undermine her, sugar-coating the sexism pill to make it easier for us all to swallow.

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.

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. 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.

Last weekend a close friend came over to my flat. She looked exhausted as she sat on my sofa and drank tea. “How’s work?” I asked, sensing after five minutes of glib chat about the politics of ghosting that her job was the thing weighing so heavily on her.

Have you ever heard a male worker referred to as a #boyboss? No. That’s because men’s power in the workplace is still the default. It’s the status quo and anything a woman does is still an exception, an anomaly.

“I’ve had one of my team taken away from me in a restructure,” she said, “so now I have double the amount of work but no pay rise. I went to my boss to raise it with her and she just said, ‘We want you to feel empowered by this change and see it as an opportunity’.”

This will be a familiar story to so many women. We’re told to rise to the challenge, empower ourselves and be a girlboss in the face of the impossible but this is late capitalism at its very worst — making individuals responsible for structural problems.

It’s surely no coincidence that girlboss culture took off in the 2010s, after a global financial crash which stunted the economic opportunities of generations of young people, saddling us with unaffordable housing, stagnating wages and student debt. Propelled by Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso, it permeated via various career books and Instagram girl gangs. It was DIY and implied that anything was possible. But you can’t lean in if you’re locked out of the room.

The version of female success being peddled by girlboss culture is ultimately sexist. 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.

The girlboss is a woman who puts kisses on emails, says THANK YOU SO MUCH when someone does something they are contractually obliged to do for her and, like the woman in People Per Hour’s advert, smiles when resources are cut.

We need a different vision. One that reflects the reality of being a working woman, that is both aspirational and realistic. We have let this Trojan horse in and allowed it to pollute working women’s culture with a regurgitation of the 1950s housewife who ‘does it all’ and beams, even though she knows her partner is cheating on her. The only difference now is that the cheating partner is feminism.

A marketable form of feminism — like girlboss culture — which sells hollow empowerment instead of highlighting the less palatable facts of life for working women — unaffordable childcare, zero-hour contracts, sexual harassment, gender discrimination — is not really feminism at all.

It’s easy to forget that the progress women have made in recent history is still fresh. We’re still figuring out how to be in the workplace, how to be in a world which is still so often hostile to us. We haven’t quite got there yet but what’s certain is that a marketable form of feminism — like girlboss culture — which sells hollow empowerment instead of highlighting the less palatable facts of life for working women — unaffordable childcare, zero-hour contracts, sexual harassment, gender discrimination — is not really feminism at all.

In 1970, the same year that the Equal Pay Act came into force, the National Women’s Liberation Movement held their first conference in Oxford. They had four demands:

1. Equal pay
2. Equal educational and job opportunities
3. Free contraception and abortion on demand
4. Free 24-hour nurseries

We have the first of these but, as Ahmed’s case shows, the legislation isn’t always reflected in reality. On the second, more women than ever go to university yet somehow our decision-makers are still predominantly men. As for the third, cuts to sexual health services are causing severe delays which disproportionately affect women. And the fourth? Well, this is rarely discussed and, largely, considered too radical for politicians even to consider approaching.

It’s 2020 now. What we need is not more inspirational memes or glittering launches for fancy women-only co-working spaces. We need policy change. We need women in politics and we need them to legislate in favour of other women.

Originally published at https://www.refinery29.com.

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