The Girlboss Has Left the Building

American workplaces are facing a reckoning. So what comes next?

A woman's hand
Krista Schlueter / The New York Times

When the term girlboss was foisted on the public in 2014, the United States was already well on its way to the series of cascading disasters that have shaped 2020, even if they had not yet come fully into focus. That year, an Ebola outbreak briefly seemed as though it might take root in America. Conspiracy theories about the safety of vaccines became popular enough to seed a measles flare-up in New York City. Donald Trump hinted at a future run for president. Michael Brown, a black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Many people sensed a need for change, but not everyone agreed on how much. In her pop-feminist business memoir, #Girlboss, the entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso, who had parlayed an eBay account into the fast-fashion mini-empire Nasty Gal, proposed a convenient incrementalism. Instead of dismantling the power men had long wielded in America, career women could simply take it for themselves at the office. Like Sheryl Sandberg’s self-help hit Lean In before it, #Girlboss argued that the professional success of ambitious young women was a two-birds-one-stone type of activism: Their pursuit of power could be rebranded as a righteous quest for equality, and the success of female executives and entrepreneurs would lift up the women below them.

Amoruso’s vision of female corporate supremacy was celebrated and emulated by other aspiring entrepreneurs for years. #Girlboss sold more than half a million copies, and Amoruso launched a media company of the same name, complete with networking conferences, branded merchandise, and a Netflix series. Soon, the girlboss ideal became a template for marketing and writing about powerful women in virtually every industry. For a time, female wealth was treated as feel-good news unto itself.

The reality of girlbossing, however, was always a little bit messier. Amoruso’s career at Nasty Gal was dogged by constant turnover, accusations of discrimination and abusive management, and the company’s eventual bankruptcy. (The company denied the allegations when they were made. Through a representative, Amoruso declined a request for comment for this article.) Over time, accusations of sinister labor practices among prominent businesswomen who fit the girlboss template became more common. The confident, hardworking, camera-ready young woman of a publicist’s dreams apparently had an evil twin: a woman, pedigreed and usually white, who was not only as accomplished as her male counterparts, but just as cruel and demanding too.

Since #Girlboss’s publication, the country’s deep, long-standing divisions along race and class lines have led many people who might have been amenable to Amoruso’s remunerative quasi-feminist liberation fantasy to become more skeptical not just of their male bosses, but of power itself, and anyone who might possess it. Now, amid the chaos of 2020, people sense a need for change deeper than self-help career books could hope to offer. In recent months, a series of stylish young female entrepreneurs have left or been forced out of the companies they founded. This group even includes Amoruso herself: Earlier this week, she and most of her staff left Girlboss Media, citing financial losses due to the pandemic.

Even before Amoruso’s announcement, the end of the girlboss was nigh. When a country is grappling with mass death, racist state violence, and the unemployment and potential homelessness of millions of people, it becomes inescapably clear that when women center their worldview around their own office hustle, it just re-creates the power structures built by men, but with women conveniently on top. In the void left after the end of the corporate feminist vision of the future, this reckoning opens space to imagine success that doesn’t involve acing performance reviews or getting the most out of your interns.

For the girlboss theory of the universe to cohere, women have to be inherently good and moral creatures, or at least inherently better than men. For some young women who find inspiration in the concept, that assertion might simply feel like a vote of confidence. But the presumption of that difference between women and men is also what made girlbosses marketable to those who might patronize their businesses: If these women could succeed while upholding feminist values and treating their employees humanely, then maybe the patriarchy was just a choice that savvy consumers could shop their way around. Maybe people could vote for equality by buying a particular set of luggage or joining a particular co-working space.

For white, affluent Millennial women who desired to become girlbosses themselves, their particular ambition was tailor-made for the moment in which the concept flourished. Girlbossing provided a tenuous bridge in the mid-2010s: on one end, the reality of social upheaval and stagnant wage growth that met young people in the job market after the Great Recession; on the other, the long-gone world of predictable corporate success that these women had been promised by the professional progress of their mothers. Many of those women rushed over that bridge, hopeful that the future they had been promised was on the other side.

That same basis in self-interest, however, makes girlbosses particularly unsuited to a moment that has stopped prioritizing their personal achievement—and is instead focused on the national reckoning over racial injustice. “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,” Leigh Stein wrote recently in an essay on the era’s end. “Racial inequity was never really on her radar. That was someone else’s problem to solve.”

Women are still people, which means we can respond in similar ways to the incentives and privileges of power that sometimes make male bosses tyrants or harassers or wealth-hoarders. Slotting mostly white women into the power structures usually occupied by men does not de facto change workplaces, let alone the world, for the better, if the structures themselves go untouched.

This is all too apparent in the ways that the social upheaval of recent years—and especially the past few months—has shaken out in companies run by some of the country’s most ballyhooed female entrepreneurs. Steph Korey, the CEO of the luggage brand Away, has been locked in a power struggle at the company over her allegedly tyrannical management style since late 2019. (She resigned and issued a lengthy apology, but then called the reporting “inaccurate” and announced a few weeks later that she would stay on at the company.) Audrey Gelman, a founder of the women-only co-working space the Wing—itself an incubator of sorts for girlbosses—resigned from her role as CEO earlier this month amid an uproar over low pay and poor treatment of the people, largely women of color, tasked with the day-to-day operations of the company’s membership clubs. (Gelman declined to comment on the record, and in the interest of full disclosure, I hosted an event at a Wing location last year.) Miki Agrawal, the founder of Thinx underwear, was forced to leave the company in 2017 after former employees accused her of sexual harassment. (Agrawal has denied the allegations.)

As these stories have surfaced, they’ve met an audience less willing than any in recent memory to excuse the thoughtless or harmful behavior of those in power, no matter the gender of the perpetrators. In the past, when an Anna Wintour or Arianna Huffington climbed to the top, their widely reported maltreatment of their employees was waved away for decades as an unfortunate but necessary by-product of executive genius, an indicator of just how much women had to harden themselves to excel in a man’s world. (Wintour recently apologized to her staff in an internal email; in the past, Huffington has declined to comment on complaints about her management style.)

The current cultural pushback against girlbosses isn’t a desire to be done pursuing equality, or to stop trying to eliminate workplace disparities. This mode of empowerment was briefly successful exactly because people had become more aware of—and uncomfortable with—the way power functions in America. During Donald Trump’s presidency, that feeling has only intensified among exactly the group #Girlboss was supposed to inspire: young progressive women with a will toward action. 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. Being belittled, harassed, or denied fair pay by a woman doesn’t make the experience instructive instead of traumatic.

With all the attention given to the alleged misdeeds by female executives and entrepreneurs, it would be easy to feel like they are being disproportionately targeted for things that men in their positions have always done, or that people take a bit too much glee in their downfall. Certainly, gendered discrimination at every rung of the corporate ladder is still rampant. But this time, there’s evidence that the shift is larger: It’s not just girlbosses who are being called to account. CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman, Bon Appétit editor in chief Adam Rapoport, and the New York Times Opinion editor James Bennet, a former editor of The Atlantic, were all forced out of their jobs this month by those below them.

For most people, an equal-opportunity reckoning for those in power offers a glimmer of hope. America’s workplace problems don’t begin and end with the identities of those atop corporate hierarchies—they’re embedded in the hierarchies themselves. 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.

Disasters disrupt the future people expected to have, but they also give those people the space to imagine a better one. Those who seek power most zealously might not be the leaders people need. As Americans survey a nation torn apart and make plans to stitch it back together, admitting this, at the very least, can be an easy first step in the much harder process of doing the things that actually work. Structural change is a thing that happens to structures, not within them.