I admit, when my female friends began sporting everything from t-shirts to tea towels with #girlboss, #ladyboss, or #bosslady, I thought it was cute. Who doesn’t love a great tea towel? It’s always in a fun font and seems to shout that women are now in charge while remaining pretty and polite. But is that what it really says? Does it really help women own their newfound leadership roles or does it communicate that women are not ready for the depth of responsibility that comes with sitting in the corner office? It’s time for women to let go of this silly little trope and step into true leadership. It’s time aspiring female leaders see themselves as equals and take their leadership opportunities seriously. It’s time to move beyond the hashtag.
Who is #bosslady
Christina Cauterucci published an article for Slate in 2018 that I believe is the best definition of the hashtag.
‘The archetypal woman who identifies herself as a lady boss/boss lady is promoting some kind of consulting practice or home-run business. She uses the words “hustle” and “grind” and “creative” as nouns. She enjoys coffee and goal-setting and early-morning workouts. She “crushes” and “disrupts” the things she loves. She fetishizes competency and productivity and bold lip color. She frequently deploys the term “badass” and other expressions of genial profanity—“get shit done,” “fuck negativity”—with relish.’
The image that always comes to mind when I think of #ladyboss is someone who is pushing herself out into the business world but who still doesn’t believe in herself. She giggles in meetings or during presentations and leans too much on femininity to divert attention away from her lack of skills. There are numerous ways to build confidence and competence in any profession but there’s a one sure-fire way to destroy it, behave as a #girlboss.
Equality in the workplace
If we want to be treated as equals in the workplace, it’s critical that we avoid exaggerating gender differences that allow organizations to ignore gender disparity rather than creating a culture that allows everyone to succeed. By emphasizing gender in leadership, we give in to stereotypes that are simply untrue. The #girlboss philosophy suggests that leadership differences are based on gender rather than the individual person. As HBR pointed out in their article, What Most People Get Wrong Men and Women, “when facing dissimilar circumstances, people respond differently – not because of their sex but because of their situation.” In addition, in a 2018 Pew Research Center study 62% of U.S. Adults surveyed for “Women and Leadership 2018” said neither men nor women are better leaders. Emphasizing differences that don’t exist only serves to broaden the gender gap across organizations.
When we add “lady” or “girl” to the word boss, we automatically suggest that to be a boss you must be male. Simply by combining the two words together, we give away our power and suggest to our employers, clients, and colleagues that leaders must be male. The use of this destroys the very thing it’s trying to promote.
Let the work speak for itself
“You teach people how to treat you,” Oprah Winfrey
I lead a small, boutique firm that is 75% female. It would be easy to adopt the #ladyboss mantra. After all, I am the boss and I am female so who does it hurt? Everyone. It hurts everyone and most importantly it hurts you. By choosing to segregate ourselves, we distance ourselves from potential clients, investors, and networking opportunities that are looking for true leaders. They are looking for leaders who don’t need a coffee mug slogan to validate them. We teach people that our gender should be the thing they consider first. We tell members of our community that our talents, skills, and expertise are less important than our gender. This not only harms the teams we lead but it sets an irresponsible example for the women who are following in our footsteps.
When we distance ourselves from our male colleagues, we add to the stereotype that women in leadership are difficult to work with, easily distracted, and unable to take their work seriously. Every successful woman I know has had to work hard, often harder than her male colleagues, for every opportunity she’s ever had. She’s watched dreams fall apart, been passed over, and had to get back up despite having the deck stacked against her. No one starts the day hoping to be dismissed, undervalued or ignored but that’s exactly what #girlboss allows. It not only allows it, it encourages it. It teaches people how to treat us.
Simply put, women can’t afford to continue separating themselves from their male peers if they want to move ahead. As Catalyst pointed out in September of 2019, almost 45% of S&P 500 employees are women but the numbers plummet the higher up the ladder you go, with only 26.5% in Executive or Senior Official roles, and only 5.4% have made it to CEO. As Shahar Ziv wrote in his 2019 Forbes article, the gender pay gap is even bigger than 81% statistic often sited when you take into account bonuses, retirement matches, and other incentives resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in lost wages over the lifetime of a woman’s career. The wage disparity issue is a complex one with many facets that must be addressed for true wage equality to be reached but why would we make things worse by promoting #ladyboss and purposely setting ourselves apart in the workplace?
In 2019 Entrepreneur Magazine published a list of 49 female founders, entrepreneurs, and leaders. These are women who are making it happen. Kicking butt and taking names. They’re retail executives, finance and investment leaders, movie moguls, tech geniuses, career advisors, artists, and more. These are the women who have earned the “badass” title and yet there wasn’t a single mention of #girlboss anywhere. That’s likely because they’re too busy doing the real work of leading companies, taking calculated risks, inspiring others, and defying the odds that have been against them before their dreams even began. They don’t need to identify themselves as a “boss” because their work is speaking for itself.
In 2020, let’s follow their lead and move beyond #girlboss to true gender equality.