I’ve been the CEO of Noun Project for 8 years and it’s been an honor and a privilege to lead an amazing team of people. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am — it takes grit, ambition, and a bit of fearlessness to start your own business. It takes tenacity, perseverance, and courage to get through the rough patches. It also takes fairness, kindness and foresight to lead a team. To call me a girlboss after all of the hard work it’s taken to get here belittles my efforts, and those of the ambitious women who came before me.
Language matters. It has the power to shape how we perceive the world around us, to lift people up or be demeaning, and it can launch, or damage, movements. Despite the recent steps we’ve taken as a society to champion gender equality, many representations of women today still support outdated stereotypes, and the way we talk about women in the workplace isn’t helping. Terms like girlboss, ladyboss, bossbabe and countless others don’t “even the playing field” or elevate women to a place of power — they reinforce the fact that women are STILL not considered equal to their male counterparts.
“Terms like girlboss, ladyboss, and bossbabe reinforce the fact that women are still not considered equal to their male counterparts.”
Qualifying the word “boss”
Although I believe people have their best intentions at heart when using terminology like girlboss, adding a qualifier to the term boss is actually damaging. I am the person in charge. I am the boss. A man is not a manboss. An African American is not a blackboss. Tim Cook is not a gayboss. So why do women get the special treatment of having an identifier placed in front of their professional standing? Would the responsibilities and qualifications be different if my job was held by a man?
I think we can all agree that leaders should be judged by their ability to lead, exclusive of gender. Gendered language can reinforce negative stereotypes -adding the qualifier “girl” implies that “boss” is an inherently masculine term. By using terms like girlboss we’re inadvertently doing more damage by perpetuating the idea that to be a leader in the corporate world you need to be male. If we want leaders to be judged by their ability to lead, we need to leave gender out of it.
I am not a “girl”
Using the term “girl” when talking about a grown woman, especially in a professional setting, is a throwback to eras past when girls were fetching coffee for their male peers while enduring ongoing sexual harassment. I don’t hear people mention “that boy that joined our company,” or “that boy is doing a great job.” Yet I still hear people refer to professional women as girls.
I’m 37, I haven’t been a girl for a few decades now, nor have any other professional women I know. There’s nothing “girlish” about the way I lead my company and oversee my team. And while it’s perfectly fine to call your wife or your girlfriends girl, it’s disrespectful to do so in a professional setting.
The next generation
I’ve seen many of my wonderful, well-meaning friends hashtag photos of their amazing, smart daughters with words like #futuregirlboss and #bosslady. Please don’t do this. If we want our children to grow up in a world where women and men are treated equally, don’t introduce gender identities to what they can achieve. We don’t use hashtags for #ladymolecularbiologist, #futuregirlpresident or #girlastronaut, so why #girlboss? I hope our kids’ minds can remain innocent and non-discriminatory for many, many years. I hope it doesn’t even cross my two boys’ minds that girls on the playground would not have the same exact opportunities as them, or that they are any less capable than them simply because of their gender. We need to set the bar where it deserves to be and expect our kids to uphold standards of fairness and equality, not lower the bar to our previous generations’ expectations. When we start our kids’ childhoods by exemplifying that a girl can only become a girlboss, while my boys can become anything they want, we’re not giving any of them a fair chance at lasting equality. Let’s not tarnish the way our kids see themselves, and each other.
“When we start our kids’ childhoods by exemplifying that a girl can only become a girlboss, while my boys can become anything they want, we’re not giving any of them a fair chance at lasting equality.”
We have more women running for political office than ever before. We have women who are finally un-afraid to speak out against sexual harassment & assault. Women are battling for equal pay, with many of their male counterparts doing their part to change the system. There are more and more women groups and networks springing up every day, providing spaces and platforms for women to support and encourage one another. Language matters, it can support or damage a movement. Let’s not degrade this moment in time by using antiquated stereotypes, let’s change the way we frame the dialogue by making a girlboss a thing of the distant, inequitable, past. We need to change the status quo to champion women at the top by calling them what they are: a boss.