Is it time to ban the word #Girlboss?

The social media meme is doing nothing to inspire a next generation of business women, says Pinar Akiskalioglu
Pinar Akiskalioglu
Publicity shot of Girlboss the TV show
The TV show Girlboss is based on Sophia Amoruso's 2014 autobiography of started the company Nasty Gal

The backlash against #girlboss, the aspirational meme that has defined the go-getting 21st-century career woman for nearly a decade, has begun. To understand why it is problematic today, you need to go back to its roots. 

It began with Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg's seminal book Lean In which instructed women to become more assertive at work and home. But it really hit the mainstream when Sophia Amorouso founded online fashion store NastyGal and inspired millions of young women to become self made businesswomen. Amorouso’s book #Girlboss - part memoir, part inspirational self-help - became the hot book of 2014. 

But no sooner than girlboss became a hashtag with over 27 million followers, its poster girl crashed and burned. Amorouso was criticised for being ‘selfish and demanding’, her company not as feminist as it claimed to be. Then followed a series of female-led companies such as Glossier and The Wing falling into disrepute with accusations of troubling work cultures. 

These stories of successful women stepping over others in the climb to the top blighted the hashtag. Girlboss started morphing into a caricature of a ‘badass career bitch’ and today it’s now used more as an insult than rallying cry. Guardian columnist Martha Gill recently called it ‘a new way to brand career women as selfish, immoral and slightly ridiculous’, while Huffington Post journalist Rachel Moss asked for the hashtag to be cancelled when a recruitment company used the term ‘You focus on the Girl Boss stuff, we'll handle the SEO stuff" in an ad.

However, despite its many faults, I believe that focussing all your efforts on one hashtag is too simplistic. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious or wanting to be successful and a social media backlash simply breeds toxicity. I worry that there could come a point when career women become parodied in society. 

Some people say that the problem with Girlboss is that it does little to encourage women to change the patriarchal business system but instead encourages them to be successful despite it. 

But I’d argue that we are looking at the issue in the wrong way. Why should it be up to just women to change the system? It takes collective effort, women and men - not just to smash the glass ceiling and get more women into business, but also to inspire and mentor younger generations and reverse the societal issues holding back women today such as equal pay and affordable childcare. 

I’d also argue that the word ‘boss’ is out of date - an outdated term which inspires people to be superior over everyone. Modern leadership in today's rapidly-changing business landscape is about bridge building, bringing teams from different cultures, backgrounds and abilities together and appreciating the value of collaborating with different companies to create a stronger global economy. 

It’s also about recognising the unique strengths women bring to business. A global survey of about 22,000 companies found that businesses are more profitable when 30 percent of management positions are women. A 2012 study published in the Harvard Business Review concluded that female business leaders tend to excel at building relationships, developing staff and showing integrity. And studies looking at the impact of female leaders show that women bring “a different set of eyes”, fresh perspectives and a unique mindset from their male colleagues. 

When it boils down to it, it’s about picking your battles. It’s about choosing to cancel the term GirlBoss, or to play your part in helping to change the system itself. The latter feels more feminist to me. 

Pinar has founded not one but two small businesses: TAKK, an ethical beauty care business aimed at fighting landfill in plastic, beauty hype and excessive consumerism and Punk Business School, a new type of business education aimed at creating more empathetic and intuitive business leaders

Written by
Pinar Akiskalioglu
September 22, 2022