When Quilt CEO Ashley Sumner posted a photo of herself on LinkedIn with the caption, “I am a
female founder” (with the word “female” crossed out), she may not have realized the blaze of comments, sharing, and media commentary it would spark. But spark a blaze it did, and now terms like “female founder” and “girl boss,” terms which highlight the gender of business leaders who are women, are the subject of an ongoing debate over whether they rightfully celebrate the hard-won achievements of women or belittle what they’ve accomplished, as Sumner has argued, and allow “investors to see founders who are women as a separate class from the rest of the founders.”
Sumner no doubt makes a good point, but others have chimed in that while a world where all gender labels are completely unnecessary would be nice, we are not quite there yet. The fact is, they say, that there is not equal representation of women in upper leadership roles, and women do face more obstacles and resistance while working their way towards these roles. Their argument is that until this is no longer the case, there is a place for terms like “female founder” and “girl boss.” For one thing, they can be encouraging to the young women and girls out there who are just as qualified (or more) as their male counterparts but may not see themselves as leaders due to the many biases, both explicit and implicit, that they face in life.
So which is it? Are terms like “girl boss” useful and empowering, or are they minimizing and counterproductive? The answer is that both of these things can be true, and which one is more true in any given moment depends on the situation and context. So it’s not a black-and-white issue of using or not using these terms but a matter of knowing when and how to use them, if indeed you are inclined to use them at all. Some people may not be and that’s completely fine, but if you do want to use them there are three general points to keep in mind.
Don’t Call Someone a “Girl Boss” at Work
I was once at a conference (pre-pandemic) and was walking along with a colleague of mine when a young man walked by us and said, “Hello, girls.” My colleague and I stopped, looked at each other, and laughed—out of incredulity, not because our funny bones were tickled. Here we were, both of us university professors, dressed in suits for a professional event, and this person called us “girls.” If any term minimizes, intentionally or not, a woman’s presence in a business environment, it’s “girl.” Just imagine the situation in reverse. How often do you hear a man, in a professional context, being called “boy”?
The first point to remember, then, is to not use terms that highlight people’s gender in any work-related situations where gender is not specifically relevant, no matter how well intended. If you want to compliment me for a talk I’ve just given, for instance, you can just say, “Great job!” or “Great job, Dr. Carver!” Don’t say, “Great job, lady boss!”
Again, there may be situations where it’s relevant to use these terms in an objective way. An example of a situation like this might be if you were announcing an upcoming lunch & learn in which the guest speaker’s talk was entitled, “Is Calling Yourself a Girl Boss Empowering or Minimizing?” Or maybe you’re discussing the results of a study that statistically compares the experiences of male and female founders of companies. In these scenarios, gender would be relevant. On the other hand, it would obviously not be relevant if you were telling a group of coworkers that the “lady boss” wanted to see them.
It Matters Whether You’re In-Group or Out-Group
What about non-work related situations? Let’s say that instead of a conference, my colleague and I had been attending a purely social gathering. Had that same young man been present, would it have been okay for him to call us “girls” or “girl bosses”? This brings us to the second point.
In social identity theory, an in-group is a social group which you identify as being part of. Conversely, an out-group is one that you do not identify as being part of. For example, everyone who identifies as a woman, regardless of race, sexual preference, or any other identifier, belongs to the in-group of “women.” Anyone who doesn’t identify as a woman is of course an out-group member. (There can also be more specific in-groups such as “white heterosexual women,” in which not all women would be in-group members).
With the exception, once again, of situations where terms that highlight gender may be objectively relevant, it’s not appropriate for men (out-group) to call women (in-group) “girl boss” or “lady boss.” But if in-group members, in this case female business leaders, find terms like “girl boss” empowering or useful to them, and there are legitimate reasons why they may, then they should feel free to do so. But the first point that these terms should be avoided in professional situations still applies. If the young man at the conference who had called me and my colleague “girls” had been a woman and not quite as young, I would have still found it somewhat inappropriate because we were in a public work environment. It might have felt less offensive by virtue of her being an in-group member, but it would have still felt inappropriate.
Don’t Forget the Real Problem
While it’s important to keep these points in mind, it’s equally important to remember that the real problem isn’t a matter of using or not using “girl boss” language. This is the third point. The reason there’s even a controversy over “girl boss” at all is that gender inequalities in business, and in society in general, are all-too-real and persistent. There’s no controversy about using the term “boy boss” for the simple reason that no one ever thinks to call a man a “boy boss.” Male leaders are simply thought of as bosses, period, not “boy bosses.” A woman calling herself a “female founder” or “lady boss” in itself isn’t what causes investors to write her a smaller check.
Pervasive gender inequality and implicit bias are what cause investors to write her a smaller check. Yes, language is powerful and important, but these language problems are just symptoms of deeper problems that exist at the institutional level (i.e., unequal representation, promotion, and pay) as well as at the cultural and psychological levels (i.e., implicit gender biases) and which won’t be fixed by simply using or not using certain words.
Even as we apply short-term fixes for the symptoms, we mustn’t neglect the long-term solutions for the deeper problems. That means directly tackling workplace gender inequalities, and the implicit biases that create and sustain those inequalities, through a broad range of initiatives that create change at the cultural level, through implicit bias and diversity training, as well as the institutional and policy level through more equitable hiring, promotion, and retention practices. Only when we have finally achieved true, lasting equality at the cultural and institutional levels will the term “girl boss” become as unnecessary as “winged bird,” because by then there would be nothing special about a boss who’s a woman, just like there’s nothing special about a bird with wings.
This guest post was authored by Leilani Carver-Madalon, PhD
Leilani is an assistant professor in the Master’s in Strategic Communication and Leadership Online Program at Maryville University.
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