I grew up idolizing the idea of the girlboss, especially in the context of startups and tech. As I’ve started my own fintech startup and interacted with founders, venture capitalists, or VCs, and C-suite executives, I’ve begun to question the movement for girlboss feminism.
Women who achieve girlboss status rarely help other women in any tangible way. The success of female founders and corporate C-suites is so often lauded in the media as a win for all women. As a female founder, it was inspiring to see Whitney Wolfe’s company Bumble on the NASDAQ because it was an indication that female founders can be successful; they can make it in an industry that is so quick to second-guess and mock confident women.
However, her success hasn’t really uplifted anyone else; she hasn’t achieved equal pay, helped other women rise to C-suite positions or stopped sexual assault or harassment even at her own sister company. At the same time, why would I expect that a female billionaire would help the average woman more than a male billionaire would help the average man? It’s a double standard for me to believe that Whitney Wolfe’s success would mean more than the IPO of any other male founder. Girlboss feminism is inextricaply linked to capitalism.
Additionally, from a sociological perspective, the rhetoric of girlboss feminism also emphasizies the struggle of the girlboss in question individually, rather than from a community perspective. Sexism and misogyny, including in corporate settings, is largely systemic. The way in which confident women are more likely to be perceived as bossy rather than assertive is a reflection of the double standards and subconscious bias against women. To truly elevate the treatment and success of women in the workplace requires us to recognize the systemic barriers that have remained in place for over a century.
Let’s consider the world of venture capital funding. It is difficult to scale companies without outside funding, usually from a venture capital firm or angel investors. 2021 saw the biggest amount of startup funding ever and a 92% increase from 2020. Yet, under 2% of all funding went to women, a five-year low and a significant decrease from pre-pandemic levels.
The venture capital system is based on excluding and gatekeeping women through conscious actions such as sourcing founders through exclusive ski retreats and hosting parties with lots of liquor — the systemic way in which deals go down is inherently more uncomfortable and unsafe for women than for men.
Other factors like subconscious bias and discrimination also play into women not receiving as much investment for their ventures and being gatekept from first-round meetings with top venture capitalist firms. Girlboss feminism strategically avoids the discussion of systemic barriers and flouts the idea that any woman can make it by hustling.
Girlboss feminism also mostly gives attention to white women, many of whom already come from affluent backgrounds. For over a decade, I’ve closely followed the journeys of Whitney Wolfe, Sophia Amoruso, Sara Blakely and Emily Weiss and looked up to them as female founders who smashed the glass ceiling. I didn’t think much about how most of my role models were white women until I myself entered the world of being a founder. Girlboss feminism conveniently leaves out the difference in the way white women and women of color are perceived by venture capitalists, employees, fellow founders and the media.
In some ways, the rhetoric surrounding girlboss feminism is similar to that of the American dream and the idea that anyone can make it if they only try hard enough. Women shouldn’t have to experience mental and physical abuse to succeed. Yet so many girlbosses, particularly white women, market themselves as having achieved their success due to following the hustle.
Hustle culture is a symptom of a toxic capitalist mentality and overworking, and its perpetuation does little to break down systemic barriers against women. Rather, it positions your lack of success as a woman on your ability as an individual — which is particularly harmful to women of color.
Feminism isn’t feminism if it only uplifts a select group of well-educated white women. More and more women are slowly joining the ranks of the world’s top venture capitalist firms. But are these female VCs actively investing and fighting for female founders? It is so much harder and requires so much more emotional energy to speak out against the way things are, and it is so easy to avoid confrontation.
As I continue on my journey of being a female founder, I want to stop glamorizing the girlbosses that the media highlights. Rather than touting rhetoric about how I want to become my own girlboss, I instead seek to see how my success can result in systemic change for more women than just I. I don’t believe that success of a female founder automatically equates to success for all women.
True markers of tangible and sustainable success are more founders of color, the retention of female founders and C-suite executives in their positions and a decrease in barriers against women starting companies and businesses.
Ultimately, equality for female founders isn’t truly equality if it leaves out women of color or women from disadantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. This requires systemic change in the way we perceive success and in the way achieving success should extend to other women rather than just a few select women. To move beyond girlboss feminism, we need to recognize that uplifting women requires creating a community of women who support each other — and who are supported by those in positions of power and greater privilege.