2020: the year that saw the end of girl boss culture
It was the fall of the girl boss, and it happened in the time it takes a gel manicure to chip and break, the hard glossy façade exposing the peeling nails below. In just one week in June, Audrey Gelman of private women’s club The Wing, Christene Barberich of millennial-focused publisher Refinery29, and Yael Aflalo of the sustainable fashion brand Reformation, all stepped aside from their founder/CEO roles after sustained internal and public pressure in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We have to do better, and that starts with making room,” wrote Barberich on Instagram, alongside a white square bearing the word “Change”. “I have failed all of you… especially the Black community,” wrote Aflalo on Instagram, shortly before resigning, “I’m sorry.” Although Gelman resigned in June, she did not post a public statement until October, in which she acknowledged that she “didn’t live up to the values I set”.
Fast Company dubbed it “the girl boss reckoning”. The Atlantic proclaimed that “the girl boss has left the building”. CNN termed it “the fall of the girl boss”. There were more headlines, all variations on a theme, all affirming the same central premise: the model of corporate feminism pioneered in the 2010s by young, conventionally attractive white women was dead.
The original girl boss was Sophia Amoruso, founder of Nasty Gal, the women’s fashion retailer which accrued phenomenal cultural cachet in the late 2000s and early 2010s, pulling in $100m in annual sales at its height, before collapsing into bankruptcy in 2016. (The brand was later purchased by the Boohoo group in 2017, for $20 million.) Amoruso identified the inexhaustible late-2000s appetite for vintage clothing – the mania for grandad jumpers, polyester dresses, and worn-out brogues amongst young millennial women – and grew an eBay shop selling marked-up charity finds into a multi-million-dollar fashion retailer. As Nasty Gal became more popular, Amoruso’s profile grew. In 2014, she published #GIRLBOSS, which was part memoir, part business manual. And, like that, a new kind of business woman was born.
In #GIRLBOSS, Amoruso shared her personal journey, from shoplifting counter-cultural grifter to multinational CEO. “I entered adulthood believing capitalism was a scam,” she wrote, “but I’ve instead found it’s a kind of alchemy.” After Amoruso’s Damascene conversion, she became an evangelist for “girl boss” feminism: using the rights afforded to women by second- and third-wave feminism to achieve power and wealth and status, without dismantling existing power structures, or challenging the status quo. “I once believed that participating in a capitalist economy would be the death of me,” Amoruso wrote, in a memoir that cites Donald Trump approvingly, “but now realise that agonising over the political implications of every move I make isn’t exactly living.”
The girl boss does not seek to overthrow the man, but become him; she is, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from any other CEO in her actions and behaviour, although she obscures this by talking in the language of individualist fourth-wave feminism, and encouraging other women to empower themselves by becoming as fabulously rich and powerful as men. The girl boss is not a feminist in any transgressive or collaborative sense. She does not want to overthrow patriarchal capitalism, or unite with other like-minded people to nudge it into a fairer, more equitable iteration.
In this version of feminism, women are encouraged to hustle hard for individual success; to lean in, as Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg urged in her 2013 business manual of the same name. “Nasty Gal is a feminist company in the sense that I encourage you, as a girl, to be who you want and do what you want,” Amoruso wrote. If this characterisation felt thin at times, it was intentional: like a canapé, girl boss feminism was designed to be knocked back neatly, without any mess.
Girl boss feminism relied on uncritical consumers. Journalist Marie Solis, who has written on gender and politics for publications including VICE, Jezebel and Newsweek, attended a launch party for a feminist memoir called Disrupt-Her in February 2019. The author was Miki Agrawal, the former CEO and co-founder of the popular period underwear brand Thinx. Before she entered the launch, a video was played in which Agrawal gave birth – to herself. (The mini-Agrawal struggled out of the big-Agrawal’s vagina, wearing a fedora hat.)
Guests applauded when Agrawal told them that the businesses she had founded were valued at £200m. “She was preaching to these young women that they need to go out and be bold and unapologetic and disrupt their lives,” says Solis, “but it was just rhetoric. There wasn’t actually any feminist politics underpinning it.” Afterwards, Solis circled the party, speaking to the young women in attendance. “They’d say, ‘I’m so excited to go out and disrupt my life,’” she recalls. “And when I asked them what that meant, a lot of it had to do with professionalism: they wanted to set up their own company one day, or get promoted.” Argawal had two years previously been ousted from Thinx after a New York Magazine investigation revealed allegations that she sexually harassed employees. Argawal denied the allegations.
The girl boss sees herself as a feminist, inasmuch as representation is progress: there were very few female CEOs before, now there are some, ergo, things are getting better. The feminist academic Professor Sarah Banet-Weiser of the London School of Economics has warned that popular feminism’s focus on representation to the detriment of social and cultural change is not enough. “That kind of feminism will still always be at the level of visibility for me,” she says. “Girl bosses aren’t interested in challenging patriarchal capitalism, because patriarchal capitalism gives them money and status… fighting against inequality cannot just be about making your own way in capitalism, so you can make as much money as the men.”
In #GIRLBOSS, Amoruso explains the qualities she looks for in potential hires. “You want to know what four words I probably hate the most?” she writes. “That’s not my job.” (Other pet hates, Amoruso writes, are “dressing like you’re heading to a nightclub instead of a job interview” and “thinking you don’t have to wear a bra”.) This is not socially progressive leadership. In other words, Amoruso requires them to be model capitalist employees: diligent, modest, bra-wearing, hard-working.
Between 2015 and 2019, I worked at VICE’s millennial-focused women’s brand, Broadly. My colleagues were supportive, well-intentioned, intelligent, feminist women from diverse backgrounds and races. We were often scathing about girl boss feminism, preferring instead to spotlight the issues that affected ordinary women from all walks of life: abortion access, domestic abuse, trans healthcare, the gender pay gap, sexual violence, and the insufferability of men who attend Burning Man.
In my role as a writer, and then later an editor at Broadly, I’d be deluged with emails from PR firms asking me if I’d like to interview female business leaders about what it’s like to be a female business leader; and press releases from vodka brands and watch companies and shoe designers and hotel chains inviting me to “celebrate women” in ill-defined terms. On my desk teetered a brightly coloured pile of books, sent to me by publicists trumpeting the newest “empowering” tome for “boss women”, which I’d contemplate with irritation on a daily basis.
I learned to dread International Women’s Day each year, and with it the influx of millennial-pink effluvia into my inbox. (I set up a filter to screen out emails containing the words “badass”, “she-eo”, and “girl boss”, but this only did so much.) On bad days – usually around International Women’s Day – I wondered whether the existence of female-siloed websites made things worse; whether we’d boxed ourselves into a powder room, instead of a town square; whether I was a part of the girl boss popular feminism I professed to despise. But I have never worked with a team of more supportive women, and I was given a platform to run campaigns on issues close to my heart, including stalking and intimate partner violence, and I was sometimes sent free cosmetics, and so I stayed.
I was not invited to The Wing’s London launch party in October 2019 – by then, I had left VICE to pursue a freelance career – but my former colleagues were, and all evening I was WhatsApped photographs of the private member’s club pastel-hued interior, and the oil paintings of Malala Yousafzai, Diane Abbott and Phoebe Waller-Bridge that decorated its interior. (“It’s cursed,” said one ex-co-worker of the Waller-Bridge portrait.) When The Wing was founded, Gelman envisaged it as a space for professional career women to take meetings, recharge, and network. The Wing expanded to 15 physical spaces, all decked out in abundant soft furnishings, made possible by the $118m in investment from a consortium of venture capital firms Gelman and her co-founder Lauren Kassan pulled in.
Throughout the late 2010s, girl bosses turned to private equity and venture capital firms to help them scale their businesses as rapidly as possible. Amoruso received $49m from venture capital firm Index Ventures. Private equity fund Permira acquired a majority stake in Reformation. Refinery29 was also backed by private equity, before being acquired by global media brand VICE. Thinx, the period pants, was acquired by Sri Lankan apparel manufacturer MAS Holdings, and governed by an all-male board. If these girl bosses had to make deals with insalubrious organisations to satisfy their investors, so be it – The Wing arranged corporate partnerships with Amazon and the CIA.
The girl bosses’ strategy was straightforward: take money from (male) investors to sell a product (corporate feminism) to socially-progressive millennial women. “Girl boss feminism taught women that they should aspire to the same things men do, which is to succeed in the corporate world, and exploit the people under them for profit,” Solis observes. “As they are women, they are entitled to do that, and it’s actually a feminist decision to do that.”
In a 2019 commercial for Air France, Gelman reclines in a business class seat. “When you close your eyes and think about what business class looks like, there’s a lot of guys in suits,” she said. “But I’m a CEO.” Clearly, Gelman is not a man in a suit, but a young, attractive woman. But on the inside, they are the same. They fly together, in the section of the aeroplane cordoned off for the elite – the CEOs. Gelman has completed the final level of girl boss feminism, and her prize is to take a seat in business class, alongside the men. In this advert, Gelman inadvertently outs herself: the girl bosses were never really progressive to begin with, as Malone described Agrawal, “she is a tech bro – except she’s a woman.”
And then came 2020. It was an Arab Spring for girl bosses; one by one they toppled like pieces on a chess board.
After the Black Lives Matter protests erupted following the death of George Floyd in May, The Wing staffers spoke to the feminist website Jezebel about the company’s culture of corporate indifference towards racist behaviour. “If they cared [about racism], they would have blacklisted members who were being rude to us and racist,” Johana Broughton, a Black former Wing employee said.
Since its earliest inception, feminism has had a race problem. When the first feminists gathered in 1848 at Seneca Falls, for the first women’s rights convention in the US, only one African-American was in attendance, and he was a man – Frederick Douglass, the anti-slavery campaigner. Suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton was appalled by the idea that Black men should achieve the franchise before white women, and led opposition to the passage of the 15th amendment, which granted Black men voting rights.
Many early American feminists were able to advocate for their own rights because of the Black domestic workers who ran their households when they were away campaigning. White feminists have always relied on the invisible labour of low-paid women of colour to cook, clean, keep their houses in order and look after their children – as an employee of The Wing complained to the New York Times in March, before the Black Lives Matter protests, “we were ‘the help.’”
In the UK, the Office for Nationals Statistics states that women of Black African descent earn £10.92 an hour on average, and Pakistani-heritage women £10.10, compared to £11.21 an hour for white British women, and £16.93 for white Irish women. There are no female Black CEOs of a FTSE 100 company. In the US, Black women-led start-ups have raised only 0.6 per cent of the $4bn raised in tech venture funding since 2009. Women of colour represented only 4 per cent of C-level positions in 2018, compared to 68 per cent of white men, and 19 per cent of white women. If the girl boss was white, it was because Black women couldn’t get into the room to pitch to investors.
Whilst these white girl bosses were the subject of magazine profiles that lauded their feminist credentials, their low-paid employees, who were often people of colour, were invisible. “What we saw this summer, with all these execs being forced out, was evidence that women can also create toxic work environments, allegedly perpetrate sexual harassments, be assholes and racists,” says Solis. “The reckoning was about realising that the feminist politics these women stood for were totally empty and meaningless.”
A former Wing staffer, Katie (not her real name) – who is Black, and worked at the London outpost for a year, from 2019-20 – tells me that she felt that by walking away from the company she founded, Gelman absolved herself of any responsibility for creating an inclusive space for women of colour. “For any company that presents itself at the forefront of social issues and inclusivity to shut down during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement shows that Black people were never seen as part of their vision of being a community for all,” Katie says. It would have been better for management to speak with Black and Brown employees, and ask what needed to change internally. “As we continue to see,” Katie says, “the world stands on Black women’s shoulders, but continues to have zero to no regard for them.”
In a lengthy mea culpa, posted on Instagram in October 2020, Gelman reflected on her shortcomings as a girl boss, and how the aggressive growth needed to satisfy their investors came at the cost of The Wing’s corporate culture. “I chose to create a business model that was a continuation, not a radical reimagination of the service industry,” she wrote. “I sought to gain personal financial success…[and] to prove that it was possible for young women to be just as successful in blitzscaling a business as men, and to inspire other women to do the same. Unfortunately this came at the expense of a healthy and sustainable culture that matched our projected values, and workplace practices that made our team feel valued and respected. We had not subverted the historical oppression and racist roots of the hospitality industry; we had dressed it up as a kindler, gentler version.”
It was a cogent analysis of what went wrong and why, even if it stopped short of actually trying to fix things. For now, all of The Wing’s outposts remain closed, indefinitely. Malala and Phoebe stare down in the pastel-coloured gloom. The girl boss is dead; 2020 killed him. Because the girl boss was really a bro all along.