Challenging the #Girlboss: Examining Feminism in the Corporate Sphere

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Who is the elusive girlboss?

She’s powerful, she’s commanding, she stands up for herself. She’s unapologetic, she stands tall. She works hard, she works tirelessly, and she looks good doing it. She is a girlboss.

She’s Sheryl Sandberg. She served as Chief Operating Officer at Meta for 16 years and currently sits on the Board of Directors. She’s Sophia Amoruso. She founded Nasty Gal, a women’s fashion retailer, when she was just 22 years old, and was named one of the richest self-made women in the world by Forbes in 2016.

The term girlboss was coined in Sophia Amoruso in her autobiography titled #Girlboss, which was later adapted into both a television series on Netflix. It describes a woman “whose success is defined in opposition to the masculine business world in which she swims upstream.” She works hard and her grind is relentless. She knows what she wants, and she gets it.

The girlboss movement is heavily reliant on the narrative of lean-in feminism, a form of feminism that Sheryl Sandberg and Nell Scovell describes in their book Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. When these books were first published in 2014 and 2013 respectively, they received a surge of popularity. People were inspired by these narratives, and felt called to “lean-in”: to work harder, to be demanding and assertive and determined in the workplace. It only took a few short years for people to realize that it wasn’t that simple.

What does it mean to “Lean-In”?

The “lean-in” movement in feminism calls upon women to “lean-in” to the important conversations being had in their workplaces, and to not count themselves out of promotions or positions of power in the boardroom. The lean-in foundation’s website says “We want to equip girls to be self-assured, resilient, and inclusive everyday leaders and inspire them to lead boldly.” There is a heavy emphasis on women being unapologetic and demanding, having a backbone and speaking up for themselves.

In theory, it looks like women simply asking for raises, asking to be considered for promotions, and demanding better pay or benefits. It looks like women calling out injustices in the workplace, and forcing those uncomfortable conversations not only on themselves, but also all those in their workplace.

The prerequisites to “Leaning-In”

The problem with “lean-in” feminism is that it requires a certain degree of privilege, and is therefore largely inaccessible to most. There’s a specific checklist of characteristics a girlboss should have, a certain list of prerequisites that must be fulfilled before a woman should even dare to lean in.

A white and influential woman who “leans in” is empowered, determined, strong-willed. A working class woman of color who does the same, who asks for raises, who calls out the microaggressions she faces in the workplace is branded as aggressive, difficult, and will likely face consequences for her actions. The consequences of “leaning-in” for these two women are different too: an affluent white woman probably won’t get fired, and if she does, she has a safety net. The workplace historically has not been this charitable towards women of color.

The first conclusion we can draw here is that in effect, the girlboss is just a narrower version of white feminism, which selectively and exclusively benefits privileged white women, and disregards intersectionality and compounded experiences. It is inapplicable to most, and requires a certain degree of privilege to be relatable.

The second conclusion that we can draw here is that girlbosses are products of “benevolent sexism” which is to say that while, on a surface level, they champion feminism and are reclaiming the workplace, the narrative still has undertones of inferiority. To some extent, their success is still defined by the patriarchy. She did well for herself. For a woman. She’s a CEO. A female CEO.

The rise and fall of the Girlboss

There are two main criticisms of the girlboss:

First, in order for them to climb up the corporate ladder, they necessarily have to step on other women. Lean-in feminism says that women should be finding success within patriarchal workplaces, and within these patriarchal workplaces, there are limited positions of power that women can hold: it’s a zero sum game. If one woman wins, that necessarily means that dozens of other women lose. It’s counterproductive and regressive.

Second, it teaches women that when they fail, it’s not because of the countless systemic barriers they face, but rather that they weren’t ambitious enough, that they didn’t want it enough, that they didn’t try hard enough. The narrative that if you simply work hard, you will succeed is problematic when you consider that the playing field was never even to begin with, and that some women can spend their entire lives “working hard” and still just barely getting by. Lean-in feminism teaches these women that they are failures.


Two-bird-one-stone activism tends to not work. Women pursuing power in the corporate sphere is just that and nothing more. Lazily slapping a girlboss hashtag across it doesn’t make it a new and revolutionary wave of feminism, it merely creates false hope for the millions of corporate women out there. Instead, we need education, structural change, solidarity, and collective bargaining.


"How 'Girlboss' Became a Slur," Early Magazine. Available at:

"Girlboss Used to Suggest Role Model; Now It's Sexist Putdown," The Guardian. Available at:

"Lean In: Girls' Inspiration to Lead Boldly," LeanIn.Org. Available at:"

Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In," The New York Times. Available at:

"Gaslighting the Gatekeeper: The Meaning of 'Girlboss'," Vox. Available at:

"Dismantling Benevolent Sexism," Harvard Business Review. Available at:

"Girlbosses: What Comes Next?" The Atlantic. Available at:

More posts by Silvia Xie.
Challenging the #Girlboss: Examining Feminism in the Corporate Sphere
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