One day when my daughter was almost 12, she came up to me crying and said, “Mommy, I don’t want to become a woman!” She feared the physical aspects of growing up. Even more, she felt oppressed because she had no choice about it. She adamantly wanted to stay a child.
Later, discussing this with my therapist, we tried to understand what implicit messages I was conveying to her. As an exercise, we made two lists, stream of consciousness:
- What’s bad about being a woman
- What’s good about being a woman
My immediate answers were very stereotypical, misogynistic, and the “bad” list was much longer than the “good”.
Among the negatives, I wrote that women are weak, too emotional, over invested in their looks, gossipy, frivolous, must be soft and nice or they aren’t women, need a strong rich man to take care of them, and are bitches to one another.
Obviously, I don’t rationally believe any of it! But this is what came out.
The positive list had that women could rely on each other, are warm, expressive, loving, and are more holistic when they are powerful. It was a much shorter list, and it look longer to write.
“No wonder she doesn’t want to grow up,” said my therapist.
For over 20 years, I worked in a corporate environment, both as an employee and as an external consultant.
During that time, I met many successful, brilliant women. Many managers, a few C-Suite members, no CEOs. They were tough, respected by their peers, often juggling work and motherhood. While I saw no “stereotypical” backstabbing, there was no particular sisterhood, either.¹
When my husband and I became parents, we did our best to maintain an egalitarian household. We both traveled intensively, earned similar salaries, and shared childcare tasks. After our third child was born, I took a job with less travel and our balance started to skew. I found myself with more parenting and home management responsibilities. I was getting bitter, exhausted, and slid slowly into burnout.
As part of my recovery, I quit my job and decided to start an online business. I wanted more control over my time, and ideally, to go beyond a time-for-money model.
I read dozens of books and invested thousands of dollars in courses and mentorship on starting an online business. Like many others, I started with Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Workweek (4HWW) and followed his podcast. Step by step, I was introduced to other leaders in this field, like Seth Godin, Ramit Sethi and Pat Flynn, and started following them, too. To my delight, many of the thought leaders I ran into in the online space turned out to be women: Marie Forleo, Amy Porterfield, Danielle La Porte, Ash Ambridge, Jenn Scalia, Farnoosh Torabi, Selena Soo, Kate Northrup, Jenna Kutcher, Latham Thomas, Brook Castillo, Denise Duffield-Thomas, Bushra Azhar, Nicole Walters, Dr. Shannon Irvine, Laura Belgray, Luisa Zhou, Gabrielle Bernstein and many more.²
And they were living a life I wanted.
They either went completely solo or managed small teams, and were making 6-, 7-, or 8-figure annual incomes. They worked hard, at least during their first years in business. But they had flexibility. They took vacations when they wanted, they worked out, they meditated. They were smart and funny and beautiful, and had the Instagram accounts to show for it. Many of them started out in corporate roles. Others started in non-profits and odd jobs. They all struggled before they became successful. They were about my age, many of them were mothers, and they were relatable.
Hey, we all admire Oprah, but she’s an icon and too successful to represent a career path.
But some of these ladies? Well, they sounded like me.
“Girlfriend, you’re killing it!”
As I was browsing their websites, something else hit me: I started seeing the same names in client testimonials and joint ventures. Getting on their mailing lists, I received affiliate sales offerings³ where they promoted each other. Sometimes they explained how they met.
Turns out, many of them not only knew each other, but in fact, they were friends!
While many of these thought leaders also have male followers, they often specifically target women, both with their online marketing, as well as with their books and courses.⁴ As I was reading about their finances and their glowing client testimonials, usually all or mostly women,⁵ I realized:
There’s a sub-economy online. It’s a collaborative woman-to-woman space.
And with many of their online mentoring and courses costing $500-$5000, there’s significant money going around.
Don’t get me wrong, male entrepreneurs obviously collaborate as well, with each other and with women. However, business collaborations among men are nothing new. And while women are generally perceived as more collaborative than men, I believe the cultural expectation is that women help each other with things like shopping, breastfeeding, bake sales, or quilting. Maybe they’d start a quaint bookshop or a café. Can you recall an all-female version of the “The Firm”, “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “Boiler Room”? I can’t.
Maybe I’ve been living in a cave. Maybe it’s an OK, Boomer situation. But the way I grew up, a sub-economy of women entrepreneurs creating multi-million-dollar businesses by supporting one another and empowering other women to do the same — that’s news.
Proof of this feminine shift can be seen in the podcast audience of online godfather, Tim Ferris. While in 2016 he had a 15% female audience,⁶ by March 2020 it was 40–50%.⁷
As an aside, Ferriss has yet to match this shift in the ratio of female to male guests. As of March 2021, Ferriss published over 500 episodes. Although not all episodes feature guests, of those that do, less than 18% were women. (Consider the thought leader list above for your next episodes, Tim…)
They were incredibly bold about their financial aspirations, too. Many of the women shared the non-gender-specific 4HWW dreams of “location independence” or “escaping the 9-to-5”. But many online female business owners also talk openly of their earnings. They say things like “I want to retire my husband”.⁸ These are sayings that I have never heard from successful corporate managers, or even female brick-and-mortar business owners. This unapologetic boldness, too, is a game changer.
Why is this happening now? True fans and personal brands
So, what enabled women to thrive online like this?
When people think of making money online, they often think of advertising revenue, which requires massive traffic. Kevin Kelly’s seminal 2008 article “1000 True Fans” offered a new perspective. It claimed that you don’t need millions of followers online. You need people who really like you and enjoy what you’re selling. According to Kelly, if you find 1000 people who are willing to spend $100/year with you, then you have a viable business that can sustain you.
Second, these entrepreneurs position themselves as personal brands. The brand perception of Coca-Cola, Disney or Nike is mostly independent of the personalities of their leaders. But when customers buy an online course, they often buy because they are impressed with the personality, achievement, energy, and values of the seller. Often, they won’t choose a product based on a comparison of features (number of modules, length of videos or worksheets) but based on affinity.
As they say, when you are a personal brand selling knowledge products (courses, e-books, mentoring, etc.,) the product is actually you.
We could expect this process to be tougher for women, because traditionally, women were not perceived as authoritative as men.
Yet female online entrepreneurs create their authority and influence using an interesting angle. A common general marketing approach is to create an “Ideal Customer Avatar”⁹ or buyer persona. Market directly to it, using the words and values of that persona. Many female entrepreneurs call this process “magnetizing soulmate clients” or “attracting dream clients,” which to me, is “girly” in a beautiful way. They market in a way that makes potential clients feel they were becoming friends, not seller and buyer.
With that in mind, there is a strong financial rationale for female entrepreneurs to focus on a female market. I can relate to Marie Forleo or Amy Porterfield better than I could relate to Ramit Sethi. He’s brilliant, but if thought leaders are the actual product and I must choose my BFF, then for me, a woman is a better fit.
Just be yourself
Another interesting point is that these leaders are very comfortable in their own skin. They are witty and fun. Those who like to swear aren’t afraid to, and they don’t mind driving away the business of people who dislike it. Those offended would not be dream BFF clients anyway. Some online businesswomen are unapologetically childless. They all speak openly about their bad habits and failures. Their true fans love them more for their candor, which enables strong emotional connection remotely.
Granted, it’s hard to know how genuine they truly are. Perhaps their vulnerability is carefully curated to generate sales. Nonetheless, my point is that online branding encourages exposure. Women and non-dominant groups were historically discouraged from speaking their truth, even a curated version of it.
Obviously, online authenticity works for men just as well as it does for women. But as with business collaboration, for women, it’s bigger news. Women in a standard workplace are often implicitly asked to dial down those aspects from my “What’s bad about being a woman” list. Don’t be too emotional, don’t be too sensitive, don’t be bitchy, don’t be shrill… More than men, women mold themselves to fit external expectations in the workplace. But online, without physical interaction, personal brands must be even more expressive. The exciting message for women is: “The more yourself you can be, the more money you will make”.
For centuries, women have been silenced or toned down. This dramatic upturn online, giving more women from around the world the tools and support to become successful entrepreneurs is speeding up the quest for equality. Women can reach a global market regardless of where they live. They can powerfully and authentically express themselves and profit from connecting to and helping other women.
What does entrepreneurship have to do with gender equality?
Taking a stand and speaking up online is a key characteristic of current feminism, most notably associated with #metoo.¹⁰ Some of these businesswomen express views that highlight the impact of their work on our society. For example, Denise Duffield-Thomas, who describes herself as a money mindset mentor for women entrepreneurs, says “Rich women change the world”.¹¹ Other businesswomen do not discuss gender or privilege at all, but de facto, are followed mostly by women, and use online tools to create financial collaborations and increased wealth and power for their clients.
You may find fault with some of these women on issues of white privilege, business practices, politics, or beauty standards. But looking at them through the lens of empowerment in business, I see them as feminist icons, and contributors to the revolution. In their work, they are setting new standards for pay scales, work times and collaboration. With their large following — they can be a voice for change and social justice, for inclusivity and representation. They can create equality and freedom through connection and financial independence.
An online sisterhood.
An aspect of this, which strikes a personal chord with me, is that our economy still relies heavily on uncompensated work, mostly by women. This leads both to increased rates of stress and burnout among women, and to an insidious disrespect of women’s contributions to society. I believe this is a part of the negative, self-deprecating opinions I have internalized. My lists about womanhood embarrass me. I wish no woman ever thinks this.
This gendered mindset contributed to my burnout, which further reinforced it. In my new business I support female professionals who suffer from chronic stress. Together we can expose and oppose burnout culture, on a personal as well as a systemic level.¹²
When I think of my daughter and her generation, I hope that this economic woman-to-woman ecosystem, will create enough momentum and shift in standards that their lives would be dramatically different. When today’s kids grow up, I hope that regardless of gender and background, they will have more control of their time, fair compensation, comradery and respect. I hope that our work will have an impact, so that becoming an adult woman will no longer be daunting, but exciting and liberating.
PS — I apologize that this article offers a binary gender viewpoint. It is based on my own experiences as a cis woman, and those I encountered online. I sincerely hope that the changes I highlighted are part of further diversifying the online space and our culture at large. For guidelines for creating an inclusive business, see Kelly Diels’ feminist business practices.
 This was right before Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In took off, so things may be different now
 This is most certainly NOT and exhaustive list! Add your favorite online businesswomen and thought leaders in the comments, and I’ll update the list.
 For example, Jenn Scalia’s book, “ Your First Six Figures “ is specifically directed at women. So are Denise Duffield-Thomas’ books.
 There could be a bias at play here, which I can’t check, that women might be more likely to give testimonials and admit that they paid for mentoring.
 Seen often on Facebook comments, Facebook lives, and even on this eponymous page: https://www.startamomblog.com/how-to-retire-your-husband/.
 Feminist history can be broadly divided into several waves: The first wave, in the 19th and early 20th century, was concerned with legal, contractual and property rights, and predominantly with women’s right to vote. The second wave, at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, focused on reproductive rights, inequality at home and at the workplace, and other social injustices. The third wave, beginning in the 1990s, focuses on race, ethnicity, class, religion, and nationality’s impact on women’s lives. Fourth-wave feminism began around 2012 and is characterized by a focus on the empowerment of women, intersectionality and the use of internet tools. Fourth-wave feminists use media tools, and particularly digital media, to connect, share diverse perspectives, collaborate, mobilize, and expand their reach.
 Pp. xxii (Introduction) “Get Rich, Lucky Bitch!” by Denise Duffield-Thomas
 Arianna Huffington says, “In order to close the gender gap at work, we need to get rid of our burnout culture.” https://play.acast.com/s/tilted-a-lean-in-podcast/breakingtheburnoutcyclewithariannahuffington-emilynagoski
Originally published on medium.com