The writer, Leigh Stein, recently published a piece titled, “The End of the Girlboss Is Here.” She follows this headline with the statement, “The girlboss didn’t change the system; she thrived within it. Now that system is cracking, and so is this icon of millennial hustle.”
Her article name drops now infamous “girlbosses” who have allegedly fallen from grace. Her gripe includes the notion that, “The girlboss was the millennial embodiment of unapologetic ambition. Her greatest pleasure was success; being underestimated only motivated her to trounce her doubters. The rise and fall of the girlboss is about how comfortable we’ve become mixing capitalism with social justice.“
Several of the founders she named were accused of toxic work cultures, and at the same time, their brand’s outer appearance shared another story. They rightly should be called out for their hypocritical behavior toward employees. Leigh Stein is a great writer, and it’s a powerful piece, but the idea of applying one label to every woman boss or applying labels at all is a dangerous one. Also, where are the women bosses in this piece who live up to the title CEO? If she is going to speak about White women founders and what not to do, where are their White male counterparts who have failed as leaders, creating cut-throat environments or no social impact? Where are the Black women founders’ perspectives? The answer is: they were not included.
Stein states, “An obvious solution to men abusing their power in the workplace was to put more women in charge. But the women who leaned into their ambition and founded their own companies were not necessarily any more virtuous, ethical, or respectful than their male counterparts.” Yet, she names none of them.
Instead, Stein lumped together every woman who is hustling to be successful and paints a negative picture of ambition. What about the millions of women trying to build a company, uphold feminist and diverse values, and still sell something? Many of the founders she speaks of never claimed to be the faces of feminism or the voice of a generation. Those labels were applied to them. Yet, by default, they now represent all of us.
Jenny Galluzzo is the co-founder of The Second Shift, a company on a mission to change the workplace for women. She believes that women founders are held to a higher standard. “Even if feminism and female empowerment are at the core of your brand, female founders are often held to an impossible standard because they have a business to scale, a mission to fulfill, and they are the standard-bearer for a movement. There is no room to fail,” says Galluzzo.
Cate Luzio, Founder & CEO of Luminary, a women’s collaboration hub with an emphasis on community, self-development, and giving back, was created with mentorship and inclusion at its core. Luzio rejects the singularity of the label girlboss. “Girlboss is just a term, and it’s been used in a lot of different ways. There were girlbosses long before Sophia (Amoruso) coined it. We, as women rising up together, are trying to change that system. It’s not for one person or one company to do. There are still millions of women with ambition who are fighting every day for gender equality, pay parity, diversity, and inclusion,” says Luzio.
That said, Luzio believes the fault is within the system, not necessarily one person. “The women listed in the article were likely not great managers, and they were young when they assumed a ton of responsibility. Don’t ask for what you can’t handle. With a lack of leadership and the demand for growth at all costs, culture is at risk, as is the focus on the customer. When founders take a large dollar investment, you get all that money; there’s a feeling of immediate power versus focusing on sustainability, your customer, and the path to profitability.” For the women accused of creating toxic cultures, Luzio asks where were their boards, investors, and high-level advisors?
In this piece, ambition comes off as a dirty word. Ambition is a good thing and should be celebrated, not shamed. “If everyone who works really hard is a bad thing—why is it not bad for men?” questions Luzio. “Just because we are a capitalist society doesn’t mean we can’t have impact.” To that end, Luminary launched with its Illumination Grant—a full annual membership at the collective level. For every ten memberships purchased, they give away one to a woman in need. Luminary is entirely inclusive, with no application process—Luzio practices what she preaches. “Luminary is building a diverse community and more than a 60% diverse staff,” says Luzio. “I didn’t spend 22 years in corporate America fighting for this and not building a company that stands for the diversity of thought and background.”
Rhonesha Byng is the Founder & CEO of Her Agenda, a digital media platform bridging the gap between ambition and achievement for millennial women and the Co-Founder & CEO of Hurston House, a private social club and dedicated co-working space for gifted and creative women, where Black women are at the center, but Allies are welcome. Byng says, “Nothing is wrong with ambition. But the issue here in specific reference to the girlboss is the system that she operated within. The narrative it perpetuates is false for Black women. We can’t just be successful with our ambition. Research shows we’re the “most ambitious” demographic in terms of graduation rates, launching businesses, and the aspiration for promotion/C-Suite level positions. Yet, the reality is that this ambition is often not rewarded because of a number of factors rooted in racism and systemic biases. In practice, Black women lean in just as much as their counterparts but have been shut out of the “movement” because of the system. “
Stein writes, “In recent weeks, nationwide protests for Black lives and against police corruption and brutality have coincided with a racial reckoning in media and corporate culture that is playing out live, on social media. Brands “are listening” and have quickly come around to the fact that feminism is out, anti-racism is in.” But Stein didn’t include any Black voices in her piece. To this Rhonesha Byng points out, “It’s just another example of how we have become invisible in these conversations. There are so many incredible Black women who are leading with intention and integrity who don’t get enough shine.”
On the subject of privilege, Stein writes, “The white girlboss, and so many of them were white, sat at the unique intersection of oppression and privilege. She saw gender inequity everywhere she looked; this gave her something to wage war against. Racial inequity was never really on her radar.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement and privilege is worth talking about.
Tai Beauchamp, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Brown Girl Jane states, “There is a privilege hierarchy. And we only attempt to fool ourselves if we don’t recognize this fact. As an educated Black woman, who earns six-figures annually and has done so since I was 26 years old, I am privileged. The key is to be intentional about using your privilege to benefit those who have less or no privilege at all. This is how we mitigate and refute capitalist establishment.”
Stein points to trend marketing, “Why do I find myself bracing to find out how anti-racism becomes the branding for her next for-profit venture?” Beauchamp responds, “Are there brands exploiting this “of the moment” opportunity—trying to work backward to re-engineer a value proposition or purpose statement, one that they previously never acknowledged, never practiced, or cared about? Absolutely. But the brands who have honored those values and who continue to authentically champion their brand value statement while less mainstream or focused on now will still engage those consumers and a public who also shares those values.”
Rhonesha Byng says, “It is possible to make money and make a difference. The focus has to be on solidarity versus individualism. A lot of the issue is that people feel that what many brands are doing now is performative and “checking the box.” I think it’s important that all brands support the movement—both professionally and socially— with their revenue and voice if they truly mean it. Anti-racist work is a commitment and a marathon, not a sprint.”
Cate Luzio adds, “It’s better late than never, but let’s make sure it’s still happening within three months, six months.”
“Doing good and having a good business are not mutually exclusive,” states Jenny Galluzzo. “The optimism and energy of post 2016 feminism created a wellspring of excitement to disrupt the status quo. There is nothing negative about trying to change systemic inequity by re-writing the rules and creating your own power and money. That is true feminism.”
Now let’s aim to make that a reality for all women, not just those with a current seat at the table.