‘Girlboss’ went from empowerment to hypocrisy. How should we talk about young women’s ambition now?

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

The term “girlboss” — coined by Sophia Amoruso, who founded the clothing brand Nasty Gal — used to be a compliment, but now it’s an insult. The change happened in just a few years. When the word entered the cultural lexicon, it was shorthand for an ambitious young woman who was at the top of her career, usually in fashion, media or tech. She was looking and acting cool.

Then when 2020 brought the pandemic and protests over racial injustice, many of those “girlbosses” stepped down amid allegations that they created toxic workplaces, minimized diversity at their companies, or were outright racist. They included the editor-in-chief of the fashion blog Manrepeller, the head of the luggage company Away, and the CEO of clothing brand Reformation.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, a writer for The Cut and former executive editor at Teen Vogue, explains why the term became a cultural force: “Every generation has their moment of how we talk about women's ambition. … In the 80s, it was ‘having it all.’ In the … 2010s, it was ‘lean in.’ And ‘girlboss’ was really the new generation for millennials. I think it was popular because women are criticized when they're ambitious, especially if they're unapologetic about it. And there's something about ‘girl’ that makes it cutesy, it makes it accessible, it makes it marketable. And I think that did lead to the popularity of it.”

She adds that the term became a fill-in for a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” feminism, especially as people applied “girlboss” to Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.

While the title can be seen as diminutive — because it paints women bosses as girls — Mukhopadhyay says this word changed in meaning. “People didn't necessarily think, ‘Oh, this means I'm a girl.’ It just means a certain type of entrepreneurial spirit, a certain type of commitment to hustling.”

She adds, “But it's also a little cheesy, right? It's a little bit corny. And I think that made it pretty easy to criticize as well.”

The “girlboss” is also conventionally good-looking, interested in their appearance, and interested in being the face of their brand. “That makes them great fodder to put on the cover of magazines and the cover of books, and to write in lengthy profiles. And again, a manifestation of this idea of having it all. Not only am I good at work, I stay in shape, and I understand beauty. And everything kind of becomes feminist empowerment, even when they are often very difficult to achieve standards.”

How “girlboss” came crashing down 

Mukhopadhyay explains that the real-life pressure of startups didn’t allow these “girlbosses” to make feminist empowerment a reality — and/or they weren’t equipped to manage those workplaces and create true equity and diversity. 

“You saw the example of The Wing, the kind of women's co-working space, you are espousing these feminist values. … You walk in, and there's a picture of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Everything is kind of feminist. Yet we find out that the employees weren’t being paid equitably, and they didn't have flexibility in their work hours, and they weren't able to organize effectively. … That type of hypocrisy really shed a light on the ‘girlboss’ as not necessarily this progression of feminist ideas, but a marketing ploy to suggest that people are using feminism to get ahead, but ultimately, they're not putting their money where their mouth is.”

What about men? 

When it comes to this kind of inequity, it seems like young male entrepreneurs aren’t being examined as closely as “girlbosses.” 

“Many of these founders were accused of behavior that's considered absolutely normal for male managers, right? Especially for startups, you're expected to be innovative, you're expected to be disruptive,” says Mukhopadhyay. “When you behave inappropriately in the workplace, as a male CEO, that's considered … their creative expression. And I do think men get a lot more leeway, whereas women are under a microscope to perform absolutely perfectly.”

What’s needed is increased accountability, regardless of gender, she says. 

“When men are called out in the workplace, the question of whether men should be in the workplace or not — is not the discussion that happens. But with women, that seems to be the conversation.” 

No better option?

Mukhopadhyay notes that she spoke with lots of young women who identified with the term because no other mainstream narrative existed for them to latch onto. 

“They see that they are being held back in the workplace, and many of them are extremely ambitious, or they come from backgrounds where hustling is not a choice, it's the only option. And so I do think that that piece of it gets lost,” she says. “Often when we talk and criticize the idea of the ‘girlboss,’ it's like, yes, it is not the ideal hashtag, but it does reach women. And I think that that's something to just think about.”

What’s the inspiration for young women now?

Mukhopadhyay says as society emerges from the pandemic and relationships to jobs change, young women are rethinking whether they want to commit to getting ahead or having a more balanced life. 

“I do think that young people are really invested in doing things that are going to make society better. … The next wave is a bit of a more mindful sense of what ambition looks like and a type of greater accountability. People are realizing that these individual models of … ‘myself getting ahead in the workplace’ doesn't actually lead to the broader systemic change that we need it to.”

She adds that women are not going to stop being ambitious and creative, whether the term is “girlboss” or “lean in.” 

She says, “They're not going to stop wanting to get ahead in the workplace, or performing in college and placing well as they come out of college. And so we still need a language for women to be able to negotiate higher salaries, and to be advocating for themselves and advocating for having more determination over their workday. And we shouldn't say that just because a woman is ambitious and she wants more money — that makes her a #girlboss and therefore is not cool. It's actually very much part of living in a society and living in a capitalist economy. … The next phase is recognizing: How do we balance these two pressures?”