There has been a public reckoning of sorts for numerous female-run companies, especially in the tech industry. Women CEO’s that had previously been hailed as the embodiment of modern-day feminism have been accused of an abuse of power, and of being the antithesis of what is expected of female leaders. Many were forced to resign; some from the companies they co-founded. Where did progress go wrong? Isn’t giving more women a seat at the table supposed to help gender inequality? There is a discrepancy happening: the same spotlight that highlighted female leadership intensified the descent of many female CEOs in the past few years.
We see this phenomenon most saliently in the Girlboss movement. The term Girlboss originated in 2014 when Sophia Amoruso, founder of Nasty Gal, an online retail shop launched on eBay, popularized the phrase to catapult her company and personal brand into the spotlight. By 2017, Nasty Gal’s revenue was $100M and its brand was globally recognized. The popularity of Girlboss grew because it was not limited to Sophia; any woman could be a Girlboss. The term provided a template for rising female entrepreneurs and quickly became a form of protesting the patriarchy by a community of Millennial women eager to have power and success without displacing femininity. It was more than a title; it was a branded leadership lifestyle, it was a promise that women too could be successful.
The feminist attitude of the Girlboss also lives in the form of SheEO or Boss Babe where leaders self-identify and promote themselves based on their gender. They are loud and public celebrations of female presence. Turning CEO, a gender-neutral title but one often held by men, into SheEO made it clear that the top boss was a woman and was a pointed subversion of male dominated spaces.
Ironically though, the culture meant to uplift and celebrate women in the workplace reinforced patriarchal beliefs. A major force behind the movement was the idea that placing a woman in executive-level positions was the solution to gender inequality in the workplace. While men moved fast and broke things; women, however, were supposed to move fast but to fix things. They were meant to fix the gender pay gap, the gender imbalance in boardrooms, sexual harassment in the workplace, and the overall power inequity.
Girlboss culture is based on the same gender bias that justified keeping women exclusively in domestic spaces and later stuffed women in administrative roles at work. It’s this misconception that women are hardwired to be cooperative communal givers, and once at the top, their nurturing side would permeate throughout the entire company. None of this is true. We quickly saw how women could also abuse their power.
The pioneer of girlbosses, Amoruso, stepped down as CEO of Nasty Gal in 2015 and later resigned her post as Executive Chairwoman following years of accusations of copyright infringement and employee discrimination and mismanagement. Nasty Gal eventually filed for bankruptcy in late 2016. We saw this downfall also happen to Audrey Gelman, founder of The Wing, a women’s co-working space, Steph Korey, CEO of luggage company Away, and Miki Agrawal, founder and CEO of Thinx, who were called out on allegations ranging from discrimination and abuse of power to harassment. They have since stepped down from their positions.
In the past year, Girlboss has been mired with scathing reporting on the inherent problems behind the movement, ranging from infantilization of women to its exclusive whiteness. In fact, many female leaders have eschewed the branding. “I don’t know that I like to put a hashtag on myself or those around me to highlight our gender and I have always felt that inclusive and mixed communities are the most powerful,” explains Roxanne Varza, Director at STATION F and a Scout at Sequoia Capital.
It is time to move beyond the era of Girlboss, SheEO, Boss Babe, and all those other gendered epithets and recognize and advance women as leaders despite their genders. As Lisa Paache, founder and CEO of the SEO agency Verve Search, so succinctly tweeted in response to a Girlboss-related ad for SEO services, I’m a BOSS of an SEO Agency. My v***** has nothing to do with it.” But we also have to look at the broken society that encouraged its creation.
The issue is not with female leadership; it is how leadership is hoarded. As of early 2020, less than 6% of the country’s top 3,000 companies were led by women. When women rise the ranks in companies, it is usually in human resources, administration, or legal departments which do not traditionally feed into CEO positions.
With so few executive roles made available to women, the most notable examples we have of female leaders are those of women who launched their own companies. They had innovative ideas, impressive brands, and the zeal to be a boss but that is not enough to lead. Sophia Amoruso, for one, rose to leadership by running an independent eBay shop while working as a security guard. As she wrote in her memoir #Girlboss, later adapted into a Netflix series, she had an unconventional past and worked odd jobs until she became a security guard to gain health insurance. Within six years, Amoruso was the CEO of a $100 million retail company with 200 employees.
What we’ve seen with the recent public reckoning of female leaders is that placing a woman on top can’t fix a broken hierarchy; we need to shake up the hierarchy from the bottom. “When it comes to women “fixing” discrimination, I definitely think people who have been exposed to discrimination are more likely to be sensitive and pay attention to it. Less is expected of men, perhaps because men have not had to deal with as much gender discrimination. In the long run, those that are creating more inclusive, nurturing work environments will prevail–they will be the ones to retain the talent and attract customers who are now cautious of the businesses they support,” adds Varza. Well-established companies need to start evaluating their internal practices and carve out meaningful spaces for non-white males.
As the CEO and founder of Women of MENA in Technology, I saw the growing need for spaces in which women could network and develop the skills and connections that are traditionally excluded from them in the workplace. Women of MENA In Technology exists to help women of Middle Eastern and North African descent in STEM have equal opportunity to thrive. It’s time workplaces create substantial changes in their policies and hiring practices to close the gender and diversity gaps. Office culture needs to become one that cultivates leadership skills in women and people of color early on through meaningful experiences such as mentorship, public speaking opportunities, promotions, and improved manager-employee relationships.
Ahva Sadeghi, a young, Iranian-American woman who founded and leads the tech startup Symba and a member of Women of MENA In Technology, explains, “Having a strong female mentor was transformative and a ‘must-have’ for me. When I went through my first fundraising round of venture capital, it became even more apparent to me how capital is unequally distributed and how challenging it is for women to obtain the necessary resources to succeed in business.”
Opportunities that intentionally aimed towards advancement of female founders and for women in business have the promise to uplift women for the better. “I’ve had the opportunity to benefit from many female-driven opportunities like winning the National Women’s Fast Pitch, receiving a Women-Owned Business Certification to land corporate clients, and working with investors like January Ventures geared towards investing in women,” Sadeghi explains. She and her co-founder were among the few women represented in Forbes 30 Under 30 under the Enterprise Technology List.
In addition to providing substantive and actionable opportunities to women in the workplace, we need to stop lampooning the mistakes of the few against the many. Yes, women leaders have failed; they have put their employees and companies at risk and there is no excuse for that behavior. But so have men. Founder and former CEO of coworking space WeWork Adam Neumann stepped down from his role once it was discovered that WeWork was leasing office spaces in buildings he owned. Paying himself through leasing agreements was a serious conflict of interest, yet he was set to walk away with $185M as part of his exit package. Women are in a delicate predicament that any missteps or flaws are seen as indicators of their inability to lead and erodes confidence in supporting women.
There needs to be an honest discussion on what gender equality really means. If we are holding women to a different standard than men, is that really equality? The reckoning in corporate America was caused, in part, by Girlboss culture–by believing that women are instinctively nurturing leaders, we create a fictional narrative on what a woman CEO looks like and who she should be. The greater impetus for the public reckoning–or fatality of female leaders–is how quickly corporate American closes ranks against women. There is also the glaring problem that leaders do not act alone. There are investors, stakeholders, and an entire corporate ecosystem that aids leaders in their decision-making until leaders become the sacrificial lamb while the cycle continues.
Gender inequity in the workplace is pervasive, and it only might get worse unfortunately. It was recently reported that during the pandemic, 156,000 jobs were lost by women whereas men gained 16,000. We have to wonder how many years gender equality has been set back. The bigger question is: what are companies going to do to break the cycle? We can take a cue from other female leaders.
While we gawk at the female leaders who have failed, we ignore women who have shown us what an innovative leader can accomplish. Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, and Jennifer Hyman, co-founder and CEO of Rent the Runway, are just a couple examples of leaders not only breaking the glass ceiling but also reinventing the future of education and retail, respectively. Saujani recently launched a movement advocating for monthly stimulus payments for mothers known as the Marshall Plan for Moms. She has garnered support from prominent women in tech, entertainment, politics. Hyman shared her vision for an equitable workplace in a New York Times op-ed when she announced the company would equalize benefits for salaried and hourly employees, “I want Rent the Runway to be an example of what a modern workplace should be — a leader in creating a more human workplace, where the heart is just as important as the head, and where we show that we care about each and every member of our team equally.”