The end of girlboss: Redefining women’s leadership

Sarah Jampen Almazan

On the March 8 episode of the podcast Girlboss Radio, called “Sophia Amoruso is passing the torch,” the original #girlboss and founder of Girlboss Media was asked if she thought that this term was still relevant today. Amoruso described how the idea of a “girlboss” had become synonymous with white feminism — with her as its figurehead.

“Girlboss became wrapped up in the 2020s,” she explained, “kind of like a changing of the guard… like, we’ve heard enough of [white women’s voices]. Let’s make some room for other voices. I want to do that. I can help amplify those voices.

“It’s time to pass the torch of Girlboss to women of colour and I’ll go do my thing.”

Renouncing her role at Girlboss Media and pivoting towards creating a gender-neutral brand she calls Business Class, Amoruso did what she needed to do to salvage her former brand while reinventing her next one.

“It’s the first non-gendered brand I’ve ever made and, even though it’s mostly women taking it, I’m so happy that it’s not gendered,” she said.

As we’ve come to codify it, so-called “female” leadership has gone through an existential crisis in 2020, with audiences disillusioned by white, cisgender, able-bodied girlboss stereotypes taking up space in office politics or on our social media feeds.

Even if you’re not running a gendered brand or company, there’s a good chance that you’ve also fallen into the trap of using dated and harmful gender clichés when talking about leadership.

To avoid irking your employees and an audience that’s become fed up with the girlboss and bossbabe boilerplate style and brand of leadership, here’s how to adjust your representation of women leaders in 2021.

Drop the cutesy monikers

Whether it’s “femmetrepreneur” or “She-E-O,” the mashup of gendered words and business terms have a harmful underlying message: that women leaders are really just girl versions of a guy thing.

Avoid these terms wherever possible, particularly in your titles and captions. There are many ways to boost your content’s performance without recycling tired stereotypes.


Dismantle feminine exceptionalism

The idea that there can only be one woman on the team is a familiar one. From the Pink Power Ranger to Skye, the pilot dog in PAW Patrol, it’s drilled into our collective unconscious from childhood. But no one has ever completed an MBA to become a corporate Smurfette.

Until your employees, board and management team are balanced, avoid celebrating the ascent of the one token woman on a team. Do not use their gender or race as a marketing angle, either. Not only is this exploitative, it perpetuates the idea that a woman is an exception — and has to be exceptional to earn a seat at the table.


Move away from gender in general

The term “female” is problematic for a variety of reasons. When describing women in leadership, it also implies that there are defining biological factors behind certain leadership styles. It sends the message that there are bosses and then there are women bosses, and that they are inherently different.

And what about people who don’t identify with either gender? Or with both?

As a society, we’re starting to recognize that gender roles are socially constructed. There is also a growing awareness that many people don’t fit into these categories. So why has the corporate world been so slow to recognize this?

Making space for queer people around the table is important. Welcoming and including them requires retiring the “female leadership” binary. In fact, we must work to stop positioning women as “opposite to” traditional leadership altogether, as it’s harmful to everyone on the spectrum.


End the commodification of women’s success

One of the unfortunate trends of #girlboss and #bossbabe messaging is how the visual signals for a women’s success are ostentatiously tied to those that are associated with her sexual desirability. Fifty years ago the image of a woman with an attractive physique flaunting material possessions and a champagne diet would inevitably be associated with the idea that behind all that glamour was an affluent man. Today the same imagery has become an instagram staple, co-opting the conversation around women in business by means of tired inspirational quotes and popular hashtags.

That isn’t to say that images of women showing off their financial prowess can’t be an empowering or a strong symbol of wealth redistribution, but if the visual language of women’s success in business is the same as the ones that are used to define their mating potential, are we really changing the status quo?

Inevitably, brands and influencers who capitalize and commodify women’s success are creating an incredibly exclusionary space for anyone who has traditionally been devalued by white, patriarchal society. Non-binary women, women of colour and heavier women are often left out of these spaces. Which brings us to our final point…

Content has a lot of power to alter how we feel about and perceive people. So in an era where consumers are increasingly quick to call brands out on their hypocrisy, it’s imperative that organizations move beyond making their messaging palatable and work on strategies that have real, systemic impact.

Non-binary, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) and women of all shapes and sizes deserve to be part of the conversations about what it means to be successful.

As brand creators, content producers and marketers, we can do better.



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