Female leaders are just leaders; they’re not ‘girlbosses’

At a time when the world was only starting to see the emergence of powerful female leaders who spoke passionately about leaning in, being your own role model and asking for what you want, Amoruso’s words were a source of inspiration. But now, it’s not so hard to realise that the girlboss culture has set unrealistic standards for women.



By Gopika Nair

Published: Sun 9 Jan 2022, 9:31 PM

The term ‘girlboss’ was already on its way out, but Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the defunct blood-testing company Theranos, might have just put it to rest for good.

Holmes was recently convicted of fraud during a highly publicised trial. But before her fall from grace, she was a feminist icon — nay, a girlboss — who was lauded for a revolutionary breakthrough in a male-dominated startup world.

With Holmes’ signature black turtlenecks (inspired by Steve Jobs), brick red lipstick and an elegantly messy bun, she was the image of a powerful woman on top of the world — and for a while, she was.

Before she was called a “con artist” and an “evil genius”, headlines simply described her as a genius. A 2015 Inc. Magazine profile says: “She is no imposter. She was an entrepreneur before movies and television made it cool. She is substance where there’s often only flash”.

But shortly after the Wall Street Journal published an investigation into Theranos’ blood-testing technology, more questions were raised and the company crumbled, as did Holmes’ status as the once-exalted girlboss. Something good came out of it, though — no one aspires to be a girlboss in the same way they used to.

The term was popularised in 2014 by American businesswoman Sophia Amoruso, the founder of Nasty Gal, after she wrote a memoir titled #Girlboss. And the phenomenon is best described by the self-proclaimed girlboss herself.

“A #girlboss is someone who’s in charge of her own life,” she writes in her book. “You know where you’re going, but can’t do it without having some fun along the way … You take your life seriously, but you don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re going to take over the world and change it in the process.”

At a time when the world was only starting to see the emergence of powerful female leaders who spoke passionately about leaning in, being your own role model and asking for what you want, Amoruso’s words were a source of inspiration. But now, it’s not so hard to realise that the girlboss culture has set unrealistic standards for women.

The girlboss is expected to be many things without being too much of anything. She’s a cool boss, but she’s capable of getting things done. She’s driven by ambition and purpose, but she’s not full of herself. She’s a creative genius, but she’s also a true leader of the people, one who’s empathetic and caring in a way most bosses aren’t. She’s practically the liberator of those who have been caught in the toils of capitalism.

But the past two years saw some prominent girlbosses losing their stature. Employees at several companies, including Amoruso’s Nasty Gal, Thinx, Refinery29 and Holmes’ Theranos, accused their founders of creating a racist and toxic work culture.

The book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup described Holmes as a demanding boss, who encouraged people to work longer hours by having dinner catered to the office at 8pm. Amuroso was accused of illegally firing pregnant women right before they were about to go on maternity leave, an allegation she has denied. Former employees at Thinx, a feminine hygiene company, said its ex-CEO Miki Agrawal created an environment where “dissent was discouraged and met with retaliation,” according to New York Magazine.

The allegations that emerged tainted the founders’ reputation; many of them even stepped down from their roles as CEO.

And while their resignations might’ve paved the way for improvement, we mustn’t forget that there’s a reason why the downfall of these girlbosses has had a profound cultural impact. It’s because the world expected them to be unblemished leaders who were not only innovative, but would also fight for the underdogs and humanise the workplace.

The reality, however, was that their companies ran rife with the same problems that plague several male-led workplaces.

Moreover, terms such as ‘girlboss’, ‘SHE-E-O’ and ‘fem-preneur’ are just cute and non-threatening ways to describe women who should be taken just as seriously as their male counterparts.

Attaching such terms to women also perpetuates the idea that words like boss, CEO and entrepreneur are exclusionary and reserved for men. After all, no one has ever called a male leader a ‘boyboss’ or a ‘HE-E-O’, so why do we need a distinction at all?

What ultimately needs to change is the patronisation of women just for being a woman.

Instead of putting female entrepreneurs on a pedestal and villianising them when they don’t turn out to be some kind of revolutionary leader, let’s focus on their accomplishments and how they treat their employees.

If they’re frustrating and demanding at times, well, then they’re just a boss. If they recognise your worth and offer support when needed, they’re not a girlboss; they’re just a good one.

— gopika@khaleejtimes.com


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