Death of a Saleswoman
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
The fate of girlbossery.
By Tarini Krishna
Outside a Lerner Hall conference room, awaiting my first Columbia Organization for Rising Entrepreneurs Executive Board meeting, I saw co-President Noga Hurwitz, GS/JTS ’23, perched on the table alongside a banner of baby pink construction paper. Hurwitz was busy dividing the banner into sections for each week remaining in the semester. Thirty minutes later, with Hurwitz at the club’s helm, the banner was littered with multicolored post-its, each color representing a different category for CORE to work on by the semester’s end: social activities, entrepreneurial initiatives, action items for general body meetings. At first glance, one might say, Hurwitz was girlbossing.
When Hurwitz and her co-president, Shahreen Hossain, BC ’23, joined CORE in their first years at Columbia, the organization and executive board were predominantly male. Now, CORE’s executive board has slightly overshot gender parity, with six women and four men on a board that is also majority students of color—a transformation that took place in less than four years. At CORE’s all-hands meeting the next day, the general body reflected the same gender and ethnic diversity of the leadership.
“I’ve heard people call Noga a girlboss,” said Hossain after the next meeting. Hurwitz isn’t so sure she embraces the term. “I really struggle with the idea of defining a person’s leadership, a woman’s leadership, as adjacent or in comparison [to] … that of a man’s. I think that the term girlboss minimizes how boss a woman could be because it is contingent on patriarchal terms.” Hurwitz wants to be a boss, and rejects that the term “boss” in and of itself excludes women. Why should women have to pinkify being in charge?
Sydney Bambardekar, BC ’23, also finds the girlboss label patronizing. Bambardekar leads the Columbia chapter of The Women’s Network, which holds speaker events catered to college women on topics such as navigating the workplace. “Girlboss was a good start to this movement of female equality in the workplace,” she acknowledged readily. But she expressed a hope that “the term evolves over time to be more inclusive and more all-encompassing of what femininity in the workplace means.”
The contemporary girlboss—the woman who hustles among us on college campuses and appears as though she has it all—has in fact outgrown the term that, in our mid-2010s adolescence, embodied female success. More self-aware than ever, more attuned to inclusivity and optics, who has the girlboss become?
“Girlboss” was coined by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso in her pioneering 2014 autobiography, #Girlboss. The term was a self-identifier: A girlboss is entrepreneurial and possesses a disruptive spirit; she gets shit done despite the world being against her. Amoruso, who left home at the age of 17 and worked odd jobs to support herself, would go on to launch a global fashion retailer from her bedroom at age 22. Somewhat improbably, the term “girlboss” was co-opted by wealthy college-educated white women as the pre-eminent philosophy of millennial feminist empowerment. Girlbossing was to young entrepreneurial women as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was to women balancing professional success with family life. The girlboss faded for many of the same reasons Lean In did: It asked women to make the capitalist, patriarchal system work for them, rather than scrutinizing the structural inequities inherent in these environments. The girlboss became younger and cooler, but she still subscribed to the same exclusionary brand of feminism as Sheryl Sandberg.
The author Leigh Stein characterizes the girlboss as “the millennial embodiment of unapologetic ambition. Her greatest pleasure was success; being underestimated only motivated her to trance her doubters.” The girlboss was a vigilante against an easily identifiable enemy. A woman who fought her way to a seat at the men’s table, (or was lucky enough to find a VC to provide her with funding) didn’t strive for personal and professional economic gain alone: Her success would advance gender equality for all women. But the emphasis on that mysterious cocktail of hard work and good luck is just a glamorized mutation of a familiar American Dream ideology. The girlboss puts Glossier’s Balm Dotcom on capitalism.
This summer brought The Cut’s proclamation that “The Girlboss Is Dead.” Samhita Mukhopadhyay writes that the illusion of the girlboss disintegrated in 2020. The original empowerment behind the girlboss has devolved into “fake-woke feminism.” Mukhopadhyay cites the resignations of female founders and CEOs like Steph Korey of Away luggage, Christene Barberich of Refinery29, and Yael Aflalo of Reformation who “all promised business practices rooted in inclusion and posited their leadership as evidence of a shattering glass ceiling.” Their resignations had all been prompted by allegations of racist and toxic workplace culture. Despite widespread recognition and denunciation of the girlboss trap, have Gen Z women truly escaped her shadow?
The women leading Columbia’s pre-professional organizations are frustrated with the failures of girlboss culture. They all can recite the dire statistics for women at managerial levels, expressing disbelief at one in particular: In 2020, there were still more S&P 500 CEOs named Michael or James than there were women CEOs. The broken pipeline for success as a woman in the workforce is difficult to reconcile for college-aged women accustomed to seeing female peers in leadership roles on campus and entering high-prestige jobs upon graduation. What happens to them after fifteen years of corporate toil?
Sabina Jia, CC ’22, is the president of Columbia Women in Business Society. With around 75 members, CWBS is the largest pre-professional network on campus. Jia admitted that before she joined, she knew that women were at a disadvantage in the workplace, but didn’t understand the scope. Before starting her internship in finance last summer, Jia recalled an internal, instinctive dismissiveness after hearing women in banking describe the industry as a boys’ club. But during the summer, Jia attended an intern event that culminated with a talk for women in banking, and watched the Zoom participants wane from seventy, to forty, to only eleven participants, a figure that included interns and senior women at the bank.
Given Jia’s leadership role in CWBS and her internships in finance, I asked if she’s ever been called a girlboss. Only “in a joking manner,” she reassured me. But Jia also doesn’t self-identify with the term. She never revered original girlbosses, such as Emily Weiss of Glossier or Audrey Gelman of The Wing, as role models, because their experiences felt fundamentally different. Asian Americans, for example, are the ethnic or racial group in the U.S. least likely to be promoted to management positions. Entering the professional world, Jia knew her fight, in girlboss parlance, would always be both gendered and racialized.
Recently, LeanIn.org published their annual report on conditions for women in the business sector. One finding was that the factors preventing the advancement of women of color in the workforce are different from those preventing the advancement of white women. Women of color are less likely to receive the meaningful mentorship and sponsorship that drive promotions, and their bosses are less likely to highlight their work contributions and help them navigate organizational politics.
While diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts will always come as a secondary priority to a corporation’s profit motive, there is a concerted effort to promote inclusivity within many of Columbia’s pre-professional societies. Bambardekar cited her identity as a woman of color at Barnard as her motivation to join The Women’s Network and to, as president, bring in speakers from diverse backgrounds. Hannah Lederman, CC ’23, CWBS chair of internal initiatives, said that the majority of speakers she has brought in have been women of color, with the added caveat that those women tended to be lower-level within the companies they work at.
Lederman expressed little patience for the performativity of corporate DEI efforts, ridiculing companies for believing they can solve the problem through a handful of meetings. Yet many of the actions that Columbia’s pre-professional organizations have adopted to foster diversity and equity mirror moves made by corporations.
This past spring, CWBS added a DEI chair to their board and organized affinity groups, such as FGLI Women in Business and Asian Women in Business. The Women’s Network also has a Vice President of DEI. CORE has Women@CORE and the organization explicitly states that inclusivity is one of the organization’s central values. But these organizations’ efforts to name DEI chairs to their boards seem to mimic the navel-gazing efforts of corporate America. DEI chairs and affinity groups are deemed acceptable by future employers because they don’t truly challenge the system at work. Ultimately, most of these organizations' leaders and members intend to enter the corporate or startup world. Therefore, these organizations focus on providing their members with the network, tools, and language for surviving within that world.
During a CWBS panel on consulting, a question was posed about the experience of being a woman in a male-dominated industry. A panelist railed against the gender inequality at her firm and cited as an example an internal survey done by the firm that concluded that one way to support women’s success is by making it easier for them to have children. Another consultant said that she was sexually harassed during her first project, but was careful to mention that the firm cares about hearing women’s voices.
These experiences left me with the impression that while corporations have become experts in DEI rhetoric, they don’t expect to immediately enact the structures needed to help underrepresented groups succeed within a system still geared towards cis, white men. What perhaps has changed is the coded advice from young professional women, proliferating in such speaker events, on how to successfully assimilate into and stay motivated in these environments. But what would happen if these women in leadership at Columbia, who so confidently decry corporations’ DEI efforts as performative, walked into their interviews and asked about the company’s efforts to help underrepresented groups succeed? Would they be satisfied with the answer, given their own efforts on campus to diversify their leadership boards and panelists? Would they get the job?
The need for representation remains. For instance, Jia recalled that the moment she first envisioned a concrete future at the financial firm where she interned was when she saw another Asian woman leading the consumer retail group. “I can’t imagine what it’s like. If everybody looked like me, I would have so much confidence.”
However, girlboss ideology itself is not the way to achieve representation because of how it’s so readily devolved into a meme. In the past year and a half, “gaslight” and “gatekeep” have become yoked to the term “girlboss,” cementing the term’s ideology as a source of irony. Hannah Lederman of CWBS laughed when I asked her if she’s ever been called a girlboss. To her, “girlboss” now refers to canceled female founders, toxic femininity, and whitewashing.
But girlboss is still a productive term, in that her inevitable demise reveals a lingering problem: It’s not enough for women to be founders and CEOs of profitable and growing companies—they must also be consistently virtuous in doing so. Perhaps this expectation that women are paragons of morality is a vestige of the cult of domesticity. Perhaps it’s also a consequence of people’s misplaced faith in corporations to advance social justice after public institutions have failed for so long to pass adequate policies—such as paid family leave—to advance workplace gender equity.
The girlboss met her demise because she wanted to mimic the leadership style of men, bad behavior included, and her employees called her out on it. But the outsized focus on the handful of girlboss cancellations has come at the cost of a widespread discourse on how women should lead, especially among Gen Z women who view these girlbosses’ careers as cautionary tales of unchecked ambition and toxic white femininity. We are taught to be conscious of sounding bitchy if we are decisive or sounding shrill when projecting our voices. Hurwitz, Hossain, and Jia all described their frustration with feeling as though they must apologize when speaking at meetings or soften their language in emails through overusing exclamation points because when women are called “bossy” it’s an insult.
Current women leaders on campus, as they take on these temporary leading roles, are trying to configure new modes of leadership. Hurwitz called her paradigm “values-driven leadership.” The term is significant because it demonstrates this generation’s desire to move away from labels that box individuals into one categorical identity. The term “girlboss” has become a meme for Gen Z because we demand a term that is not predicated on othering oneself in order to achieve success.
These women are viscerally aware of the imbalance of power in the private sector and still preparing to enter it willingly, even eagerly. Many of them have already experienced it: that sense of otherness, of being the exception in the room. But will Gen Z women always have to apologize for being too ambitious? Will they still be on the receiving end of comments that they sound too bitchy, too bossy, or too abrasive in the corporate meetings that they speak up in or lead? Will Gen Z women of color have role models and bosses who look like them, or will they still be striving to be the first? Will they meld the irreconcilable goals of social responsibility and capitalist success?
*Correction (2/1/2022): a previous version of this article contained an incorrect spelling for Shahreen Hossain’s name.