If you’ve ever been told to “rise and grind,” or met a self-proclaimed “boss babe” or “SheEO” — you’re familiar with "girlboss" culture.
As women see more opportunities for growth and advancement within white-collar jobs, the "girlbossing" phenomenon has been used to characterize hard-working women within these companies.
And for young women in college — pursuing internships and looking to get a foot in the door — "girlboss" culture often characterizes the attitude we are expected to have during our foray into the formal economy. As inspiring as increasing gender equity in the workforce is, these advancements are often limited to white women, who have been at the forefront of "girlboss" internet culture.
The idea of “girlbossing” has turned into a meme, with the slogan “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss” parodying women who take on traditionally male activities. Despite its evolution, "girlbossing" is based in reality, and is considered a “lifestyle” by self-proclaimed "girlbosses."
The term “girlboss” was popularized in 2014 by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, as the title of her autobiography. Amoruso’s story of entrepreneurship became the basis for the similarly named Netflix comedy show, which chronicles a young Sophia’s decision to start an online fashion business.
Nasty Gal’s digital fashion empire, although governed by a “trailblazing” woman in business, appears no different than other fast fashion companies, ranking poorly for environmental impact, labor conditions and overall ethicality.
Toxic work environments and unethical practices do not simply disappear when company leadership becomes more diverse. The Verge covered luggage company Away, which was known for the former CEO Steph Korey, who created a cutthroat company culture of intimidation and bullying via work Slack channels. Employees were subjected to long hours, brutal criticism and constant surveillance.
The Cut paints a similar picture of the girlboss mentality: educated and wealthy white women finding positions of power in white-collar jobs, then enacting business practices that don’t always measure up to claims of inclusivity and change.
Statistics back up this archetype. In the last 20 years, the number of white female CEOs has soared above their Black, Latina and Asian counterparts, which remain stagnantly low. Similarly, the percentage of Black CEOs has fluctuated between only four and seven percent since 2004.
As significant as it is to see women empowered in the workforce, this mentality has primarily only meant mobility for white women — as they fill roles within systems of oppression and capitalist power structures. Instead, we need to empower women to deviate from and dismantle these systems.
In addition, the use of the term “girlboss” only legitimizes female empowerment when it’s within the formal economy. It devalues the impact of informal labor, such as child care or contract labor, which is just as valid and necessary to the economy, and more likely to be inhabited by women of color and immigrants.
The "girlbossing" mentality is one symptom of mainstream feminism that has caused many to distance themselves from the feminist title. The advancement of solely white women within harmful power structures does not reflect the true values and goals of gender equity, because it only serves the cis white women who inhabit these predominantly white, cis, male spaces.
Ideologically, these spaces are hardly more diverse than how they were in the past.
But intersectional feminism provides solutions. Intersectionality — a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain the unique plights of Black women — focuses on the overlapping identities that people hold, and how multiple systems of oppression can impact people in vastly different ways.
This movement focuses not only on the advancement of women as a broad category, but also women of color, disabled women, trans women, immigrant women and sex workers — just to name a few marginalized groups who are often left out of mainstream feminist advocacy.
It’s not enough to just have more diversity in positions of power. We must also create more equitable and less exploitative workplaces that challenge the power dynamics of these positions.
Intersectional feminism means expanding the rights and well-being of workers everywhere, regardless of their status at a company. That’s because social justice, at its roots, should aim to dismantle all systems of oppression. This is a principle that mainstream feminism has proven it does not abide by.
Whether your future leads you into the workforce or on another path, it’s critical that your advocacy reaches all those impacted by discrimination, not just those you most closely identify with.
Finally, it’s time to reexamine what it means to be a "girlboss" in an economy that is far too often exploitative and still upholds barriers against marginalized employees.
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