- The girlboss has long been seen as a champion of female empowerment, but June 2020 proved to be a tipping point in her reign.
- Her plight began in 2019 when Steph Korey resigned briefly from Away. It peaked in June, as five founders of millennial-loved brands, from Yael Aflalo of Reformation to Audrey Gelman of The Wing, stepped down.
- They built their success on an image of inclusivity, but various investigations revealed a lack of diversity behind the scenes.
- At each brand’s core was the cool girl aesthetic, which had a major problem: It left no room to be anything but white.
- The girlboss’ downfall is not the end of the female leader, but it is the beginning of a new space for more inclusive leaders to shine without being identified by gender.
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June 2020 was the month the girlboss facade collapsed.
It began as a slow crumbling. In December, Steph Korey stepped down as CEO of cult-favorite luggage brand Away (she would go on to step back in a month later and resign a second time in July). In February, Tyler Hanley resigned as CEO from the millennial activewear company she founded, Outdoor Voices.
Come June, girlbosses began to fall like dominoes amid allegations of toxic work cultures that perpetuated racism:
- June 8: Refinery 29 editor-in-chief and co-founder Christine Barberich resigns
- June 10: Man Repeller founder Leandra Medine steps back to an intern role
- June 10: Ban.Do Chief Creative Officer and cofounder Jen Gotch resigns after leave of absence
- June 11: The Wing CEO and co-founder Audrey Gelman resigns
- June 12: Reformation CEO and founder Yael Aflalo steps down
In the midst of it all, Sophia Amoruso – the pioneer of the term girlboss – resigned on June 22 from the #GirlBoss media platform she had created years earlier. But while the girlboss has met a swift and public downfall, that’s actually a good thing – and it’s not the end of the female leader. Instead, it’s the beginning of a new space for more inclusive leaders to shine without being defined by gender.
So, what exactly happened to the girlboss? To fully understand her rise and fall, you have to go back to 2014.
The girlboss is born
The female founder trying to crack the glass ceiling isn’t a new concept, but 2014 was the year she got a new name.
That year, Sophia Amoruso wrote the now-famous memoir #GirlBoss, laying the foundation for the #GirlBoss media platform she launched three years later. At the time, 30-year-old Amoruso was CEO of online fashion retailer Nasty Gal (Nasty Gal would go on to file for bankruptcy in 2016).
Suddenly, women everywhere were using the term as it came to encompass more than the definition of a female CEO and instead embodied the overall attitude of women – particularly young ones – being able to do anything. The girlboss Instagram account has 1.6 million followers, and to date, the term has been hashtagged more than 20.2 million times. Celebrities from Miranda Kerr to Gwyneth Paltrow have self-identified as a girlboss.
Other monikers like #bossbabe, SHE-E-O, and the boss bitch soon started cropping up, all reincarnations of the same ideal: the young, ambitious woman who can have it all while lifting up other women on her path to success.
The ultimate ‘cool girl’
The girlboss had hustle. She was an entrepreneur or a leader in her industry. In many iterations, she was a millennial. And she often had that effortless, “it”-like quality of knowing what she wants – and of relying on being cool without seeming to care that she’s cool.
This very aesthetic also became the heart of the brand she created and led.
Leandra Medine started Man Repeller in 2010 as a personal fashion blog with cheeky takes on how women can dress for themselves, not for men. The “I don’t care what other people think of me” attitude struck a chord with cool girls, transforming the brand into the lifestyle site it is today.
Man Repeller features articles on Reformation clothes, which was dubbed the label for “cool girls” everywhere and seen on celebrities such as Karlie Kloss and Kendall Jenner. The secret to Reformation founder Yael Aflalo’s success, wrote Emilia Petrarca for W Magazine, is that she “has taken her personal Los Angeles cool-girl style … and translated it for the masses.”
Similarly, Jen Gotch, who spent time “rubbing elbows with Instagram cool girls,” per Buzzfeed’s Stephanie McNeal, founded Band.O and served as its “muse.” She built the brand on an upbeat mission that fused self-care with female empowerment, a combination she has personal experience with due to a history of anxiety and bipolar 2 disorder.
Meanwhile, Christene Barberich’s Refinery29 played to the cool girl’s ambitions and political savviness with series like Money Diaries and 2020 election. And that reader is the same girl likely to be a member of The Wing, co-founded by Audrey Gelman, a cool girl whose wedding was featured on Vogue.com and who made an appearance on the hit HBO show “Girls.”
These platforms created a needed space for the stylish and career-oriented woman, becoming successful empires along the way. The Wing opened in 2016 with a 13,000-person wait list and a 20,000-follower Instagram presence. Today, the company is estimated to be worth $200 million. Within three years of its founding, Reformation had become an e-commerce business; in 2019, it projected yearly sales to exceed $150 million. And in 2019, Vice acquired Refinery29 in a $400 million deal.
But in her quest to tout gender inclusivity, the girlboss fell short in another critical form of inclusivity: diversity. As Leigh Stein for Medium wrote in a takedown of the girlboss, “Racial inequity was never really on her radar. That was someone else’s problem to solve.”
The brands’ feminist focus lacked diversity all along
By ingraining her personal identity into the brand’s identity, the girlboss left no room for the cool girl to be anything but white and wealthy. Her downfall comes as corporate America faces a reckoning
Since the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests in June, employees of color have revealed the very white core of these companies.
Two former employees told CNN Business’ Kerry Flynn that Barberich would reject photos of Black or plus-sized models for Refinery29, deeming them “off-brand.” Barberich acknowledged to CNN the brand’s shortcomings came at “the detriment of Black women and women of color in particular.”
Medine took to Instagram to address accusations of favoritism and a lack of diversity at Man Repeller:
Gotch, too, took to Instagram (her account has since been deleted) to respond to employee allegations of racism at Ban.Do after a Buzzfeed investigation revealed a racist, “mean girls” environment at the company. “I am guilty and not only am I guilty, I have been so ignorant and so insulated by the ease and comfort of my white privilege…” she wrote.
A New York Times expose from March on The Wing revealed low pay, poor treatment, and racism at the company. When these criticisms resurfaced in June, Gelman resigned, saying in an email to staff that stepping down was “the best way to bring The Wing along into a long overdue era of change.”
It’s a similar story at Reformation, where a racist culture pushed out Black employees, former employees told Business Insider’s Bethany Biron. In an Instagram statement, Aflalo apologized for failing the Black community:
In what Fortune’s Emma Hinchliffe dubbed a reckoning, a total of eight female founders had stepped down from the companies they were leading by the midway point of 2020.
The downfall of the girlboss is a step in the right direction
Not every young female founder has stepped down. Emily Weiss remains with Glossier; Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin remain with The Skimm. Not every woman at the helm of a millennial-loved company is white: Consider Payal Kadakia of ClassPass or Arum Kang, co-founder and CEO of dating app Coffee Meets Bagel.
Not every company with a bad boss is a start-up helmed by a woman or a millennial. Recent investigations into companies like Pinterest, CrossFit, and Bon Appetit – each of which is (or until recently was) helmed by male leadership – have uncovered toxic workplaces.
And not every female helming a company stepped down for the same reason. Amoruso took to Instagram to announce that her departure from the #Girlboss platform was tied to the company’s decimated revenue during the pandemic (past reports have indicated that she oversaw a culture rife with poor leadership and high turnover at Nasty Gal, allegations she did not respond to at the time).
But as the reign of some of the most prominent girlbosses has come to an abrupt end, what has opened up is space for a new type of leader. Refinery 29 and Ban.Do are both currently seeking successors to Barberich and Gotch, respectively, while Reformation has replaced Aflalo with the brand’s current president. Gelman was replaced by an “office of the CEO” helmed by three executives. And Medine has stepped into an intern role at Man Repeller, which is hiring a diversity and inclusion specialist.
What’s more, as the girlboss is meeting her downfall, so is the “girlboss” title – and that’s a good thing. Such titles might be intended to empower women, but they only reinforce the idea that women aren’t equal to their male counterparts.
“While ‘girlboss’ immediately draws attention to the feminine, it also infantilizes the role of a female as a boss,” Magdalena Zawisza, a Reader in Consumer and Gender Psychology at the UK’s Anglia Ruskin University, told BBC in January. “Have we ever heard about ‘boy bosses?'”
This infantilization makes disavowing the girlboss title a step toward gender equality. The girlboss downfall is not the end of the female leader, but the beginning of a new space for more inclusive leaders to shine without being identified by gender.
It’s time the world sees that a bad boss is a bad boss and a good boss is a good boss, regardless of age or gender.