Is the term Girlboss empowering or does it do women more harm than good?

The term has been doing the rounds since Sofia Amoruso released her book, #Girlboss, but Carolyn Moore wants to know if the label is doing women any justice?

Is the term Girlboss empowering or does it do women more harm than good?

When Sofia Amoruso released her book, #Girlboss, in 2014, it was clear she had more than just a bestseller in mind. With its ready-made hashtag there in the title, it was a call to action. A social media movement was born.

Three years later, that movement is still going strong — formally (#GIRLBOSS™ is trademarked by Amoruso, and this month saw the inaugural #GIRLBOSS™ Rally — the language of grassroots activism deftly appropriated for an exclusive ticketed event), and informally (#girlboss has been used to tag almost 5 million Instagram posts, for everything from weight loss to clean eating; motivational quotes to skinny teas; and of course, by the tribe who identify most with the Girlboss ethos: young female entrepreneurs.)

But what’s clear from both the volume and diversity of posts on Instagram and the #GIRLBOSS™ mission statement — it’s about ‘being the boss of your own life’ — is that the phrase has transcended its origins as a cheerleading chant for young women in business to become the latest buzzword for empowerment.

With the Netflix series Girlboss hitting screens this April, the term is set to become even more prevalent, but with everyone from Hillary Clinton to Ivanka Trump routinely described as ‘Girlbosses’, is it time to ask whether this seemingly innocuous rallying call is doing more harm than good?

Ireland’s female entrepreneurs have mixed feelings. “Some people are so offended by it, others just love using it,” says Emma Manley, founder of Manley. While she doesn’t use the term herself, she’s “humbled” when others include her in Girlboss groupings.

And why wouldn’t she be, you might ask? Well, leaving aside the fact that boss is not, and never has been a gendered term, and that any gendered prefix — woman, lady or girl — normalises the idea that a boss is typically a man; ‘girl’ in particular carries implications of immaturity and inexperience, and — despite the viral success of campaigns like the Always #LikeAGirl ad — undertones of frivolity.

Running ‘like a girl’ might be no bad thing, but running a business ‘like a girl’ won’t instill confidence in your bank manager.

And that’s not an issue of gender. There’s a reason young men aren’t referring to themselves as ‘boybosses’, and it’s not just because men are innately comfortable occupying the domain of ‘boss’. As Mary McAuliffe, Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at UCD, points out: “Only if you were being a little disparaging would you refer to men as boys.”

While Girlboss might make the idea of female leadership seem more attainable to some, it’s also about making it more palatable to others. The power implicit in the word ‘boss’ is qualified by the addition of ‘girl’, making this declaration of empowerment inherently disempowering. With the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, ‘Be Bold For Change’, those who subscribe to the Girlboss ethos might be in danger of selling themselves — and women — short.

“Girlboss does not sit easy with me, as a feminist or as somebody who understands the power of language,” McAuliffe says. “The cultural construct of language, and the idea we have of the ‘girl’, means the phrase serves to make women unthreatening.” Fiona Heaney, of fashion brand Fee G, agrees. “We’re bosses, we’re hiring people, we’re making money,” she says. “It’s serious business at the end of the day, and for me Girlboss’ kind of trivialises that.”

Entrepreneur Norah Casey says: “The two words cancel each other out. Girlboss is a movement of young women in their 20s going out on their own, but the term implies that somehow that’s less important to the world than young men going out on their own. It diminishes it to being a girly activity rather than an entrepreneurial activity that’s adding value to society — especially in the area of social entrepreneurship, where young women are excelling.”

After two years spent researching successful women to discover what makes them different, Casey is set to launch Planet Woman Academy, a learning based approach that aims to teach women “practical things, like how to ask for a salary rise, how to speak up in meetings, how to have the confidence to go for a promotion, how to overcome a fear of failure”.

“My own common sense view was that, quite often, women were holding themselves back.

“I try not to get too hung up about language because there are bigger things in life we need to fix for women,” she says, “but Girlboss does diminish the work women have to do in order to succeed.”

“As with anything that makes women feel they can take control of their own lives, I imagine there are aspects of ‘Girlboss’ that are empowering,” says Mary McAuliffe, “but I think that’s down to certain misunderstandings of feminism.

“The workplace is a capitalist, patriarchal space — we haven’t transformed it that much. Being in the workplace is about pushing yourself forward, being demanding, but if we insist on portraying woman as pretty and non-threatening, we’re not really encouraging them to be those go-getters.”

If women truly want to dare greatly and lead boldly, being bold enough to embrace the power of being the boss is key. We’ve had #ImNotBossyImTheBoss, and #Girlboss — maybe it’s time for #ImNotAGirlbossImTheBoss.

Emma Manley – Founder of Manley

Emma Manley.
Emma Manley.

Growing up with two entrepreneur parents, “it was never a question of could I start a business,” recalls designer Emma Manley, “it was just a case of get on and do it.” Having worked in New York and London, she wanted to start her business in Ireland, with the support of family and friends.

“My mum was also a designer, and had been a huge part of what I was doing. I moved home to work out of her studio.” Six years later, Emma has succeeded in building a thriving Irish fashion business with her distinctive high-end womenswear brand, Manley. “We’re going through an important change in fashion in Ireland,” she says.

“People are tired of fast fashion; it’s about supporting your own now, knowing the product and where it came from.” Like e-commerce and the ‘see-now-buy-now’ model, it’s a consumer shift Emma has astutely turned to her advantage; however she is less keen to jump on the ‘Girlboss’ bandwagon.

“I’d never refer to myself as a ‘Girlboss’,” she says, “but I think some women need it to spur them on and give them confidence. I’m glad I don’t, but I wouldn’t disparage anyone who does. “Just because I wouldn’t use it doesn’t mean I’m not grateful that somebody would refer to me as that,” she adds.

“I think it’s a nice thing for people to say and it carries a lot of positive weight. If someone calls you a Girlboss, they’re not trying to offend you; they’re proud of Girlbosses and that’s how they express that.”

Fiona Heaney – Founder of Fee G

Fiona Heaney. Credit:Barry Mc Call.
Fiona Heaney. Credit:Barry Mc Call.

After years of working as a designer, successfully launching new labels for other brands, Fiona Heaney started her own label, Fee G, after her husband and business partner told her he’d back her if she wanted to do her own range. “He thought it was sure bet,” she says, and he wasn’t wrong.

14 years later, Fee G is one of the strongest fashion brands on the Irish market. “Right now we’re not taking on new customers in Ireland,” she says. “We’re focused on trying to grow our export share.” Exporting primarily to the UK, but as far away as the Middle East and Australia, Fee G have weathered a decade of huge change for the fashion industry by “staying relatively small, so we can adapt and change quickly,” Fiona reveals.

“I wouldn’t describe myself as a girlboss,” she says.

“I’d rather describe myself as an entrepreneur and a female leader. Why should we have to differentiate ourselves because we’re women? We’re business people and we’re very successfully running businesses. I was involved in a programme for female entrepreneurs a few years ago called Going for Growth,” she adds. “It’s a very confident group. It’s not about feeling there’s a need to empower women to do it – it’s about acknowledging women who are already doing it.

“As females in the workplace, we’ve made phenomenal strides when you think of where our parents’ generation were. To put ourselves back into a box called ‘girlboss’ I think actually takes us a step backwards.” Fee G’s spring/summer 2017 is in stores now.

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Sandra McKenna – Founder of MummyPages and Sheology Digital

Sandra McKenna. Credit: Dave Meehan.
Sandra McKenna. Credit: Dave Meehan.

When marketing executive Sandra McKenna had her first child, the new mum “had a lightbulb moment” when she realised there were no Irish parenting blogs. “I thought ‘this can’t be right’,” she says.

“I researched the area; found an opportunity existed to provide Irish mums with this resource; and decided I was going to do it!” With the support of her husband, Sandra has grown her Wordpress blog into a female-orientated digital platform that includes MummyPages, MagicMum and SHEmazing, between them reaching over 4.5 million unique users per month.

“Our objective now is to continue growing our audience internationally,” Sandra says. “We’ve grown from a team of two in 2009 to over 30 employees in just eight years.”

“I can’t say I’ve heard myself described as a ‘Girlboss’,” she says. “A female entrepreneur, a mumpreneur, a woman-in-business, yes; but never a Girlboss, thankfully.

“To me it refers to someone who has achieved a level of success traditionally enjoyed by men. It’s something to aspire to, and something I am role-modeling for my girls so they dream big when it comes to their chosen careers; however, I would never use the term, nor would I say ‘Girl Astronaut’ or ‘Girl Scientist’. Neither Mary Robinson nor Mary McAleese were ever called ‘Girl President’.

“In my mind it dumbs down the achievement, that a ‘girl’ has managed to assume the role of a boss. I believe anyone can be the boss - boy, girl or transgender. “I don’t think it’s something that should be qualified by gender.”

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Marissa Carter — Founder of Cocoa Brown

Marissa Carter.
Marissa Carter.

Now at the helm of a global beauty empire, former beauty salon owner Marissa Carter has been self-employed since the age of 21.

“I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was when I started out,” she says, “but I was driven by a deep desire to be independent, financially and otherwise.” Noting a void in the existing tanning market, Marissa came up with the idea for Cocoa Brown tan in 2012.

“The tanning industry was stagnant, over-priced and lacking innovation when we introduced our one-hour tan,” she says. “It really shook up the market.” Five years later, with an extended product range and 10,000 international stockists, Marissa still can’t believe it when she sees her distinctive packaging on the shelves in Penneys.

“I created Cocoa Brown with Penneys in mind as my ultimate retailer, so when they began selling my pink bottles, I remember thinking, ‘here we go!’” she recalls. She is preparing for a move to New York in June to oversee the expansion.

Marissa sees the term ‘girlboss’ as “a pop cultural label for women in business. I wouldn’t use it on my business card, but neither does it offend me. #Girlboss has helped create a communal feeling of empowerment, amongst millennials in particular. The childish or feminine attribute of the term, I believe, was never meant to be the point. I think what Sophia Amoruso meant was, I’m a woman in business, I’m powerful and I’ve got this.”

Norah Casey – Publisher, broadcaster, author, founder of Planet Women Academy

Norah Casey. Credit: Barry McEvoy.
Norah Casey. Credit: Barry McEvoy.

After leaving school at 16, Norah Casey “fell into nursing for 5 years”; an experience that “laid the foundation for the person I am today,” she says.

A fear of one day having to treat a burns victim led her to complete a burns course at a plastic surgery hospital. “I faced my fears head on,” she says. “It was the undoing of me as a nurse but making of me as a woman.” Realising nursing wasn’t for her, she moved into journalism at age 23, knowing that “nothing I went through in my career was ever going to be as difficult as treating a child with burns.”

In 2016, after 12 years at the helm of Ireland’s largest magazine publishers, the former Dragon was surprised to find herself nominated for a ‘Girlboss of the Year’ award. “I looked at it 5 or 6 times and thought, they can’t seriously be calling me that,” she recalls. “It’s not what I would call myself.”

“It doesn’t sound good,” she continues. “As a hashtag, it might be used tongue-in-cheek, but there are subtleties about the phrase that diminish girls and women in terms of what they try to achieve.”

Norah is set to launch Planet Woman Academy this month, with the goal of helping women rise to the top.

“I wanted to offer something digitally which would allow any woman in any organisation to learn what’s holding her back,” she says. “If you’re looking for the corporate ladder, this is going to help you.” Planet Woman Academy takes place at the RDS on March 24.

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