RIP 'girlboss'

The "girlboss" mode of female corporate empowerment was not made to survive a national reckoning over racial injustice and the politics of power. 

The term, rarely appearing without its hashtag as #girlboss, stuck in the public lexicon around 2014. And 2020 will mark its extinction, according to Amanda Mull in her essay for The Atlantic

From 2014 onward, to call a female executive, founder or leader a "girlboss" was an intended  compliment. The term implied that the professional success of ambitious young women who set out to hustle to the top (a) was entirely within their control and a matter of self-improvement and (b) marked progress toward equality. Furthermore, the success of those women meant a smoother path toward success for women below them. (In other words: "Babes empower babes," as a Girl Boss Collection T-shirt reads.) 

As it turns out, women who assume positions of power ⁠— particularly when their ascent is primarily driven by their own sense of personal achievement ⁠— can behave just as unethically and cruelly as men in positions of power. "Over time, accusations of sinister labor practices among prominent businesswomen who fit the girlboss template became more common," according to Ms. Mull, who details several instances of female founders and leaders stepping down amid claims of harassment and mismanagement. 

But the problem is larger than "girlbosses behaving badly." This concept of empowerment is inherently problematic because it rests on the assumption that women, simply by nature of not being men, make a difference when they hold positions of power otherwise held by men in the same broken systems. 

As it turns out, the gender of a CEO does not, in and of itself, address discrepancies that have plagued American workers for generations. If only it were that easy. 

"Making women the new men within corporations was never going to be enough to address systemic racism and sexism, the erosion of labor rights, or the accumulation of wealth in just a few of the country's millions of hands — the broad abuses of power that afflict the daily lives of most people," writes Ms. Mull.

Exclusivity is the other factor driving girlboss branding swiftly into irrelevance — and taking its self-improvement literature and merchandise with it. Anyone can throw the word around, but it found a special place in the lexicon of white, millennial, affluent young professionals. It also became a calling card for recession-era young professionals to narrow their lens of empowerment to one thing: their ascent in the good old boys world of venture capital and corporate America. Racism, ageism, classism and other forms of prejudice were somebody else's problem. 

So is the end of girlboss a good thing? Yes, if it means we're broadening our lens to look at deeply flawed systems — not simply whether the person sitting in the corner office of them is a "girl." 

"The push to move beyond the girlboss is an acknowledgment that a slight expansion of college-educated women's access to venture capital or mentoring opportunities was never a meaningful change to begin with, or an avenue via which meaningful change might be achieved," writes Ms. Mull. "America's workplace problems don't begin and end with the identities of those atop corporate hierarchies — they're embedded in the hierarchies themselves."

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