What do you call a woman who’s good at her job? A #bossbabe? A #girlboss? A totally awesome female leader? Nope, none of the above. She is, simply, a woman who’s good at her job. You might also call her a boss, an editor, a CEO, a leader or a pioneer if you wish but not a #girlboss.
As Netflix announce that they will not be bringing their show ‘Girl Boss’, based on the story of Nasty Gal founder Sophie Amoruso, back for a second series it feels like the perfect time to call time on the new, clichéd and infantilising lexicon which has risen to prominence in recent years when it comes to talking about women who have jobs and dare to be good at them.
The English language, it seems, is incapable of describing powerful and successful women. The words which have hitherto existed and, by and large, been used to describe men stick in the throats of people who are trying and sputtering and failing to describe women. So, they soften them, turn them into baby language which can be smoothly coughed up and spoon fed into the mouths of unsuspecting babes everywhere. Often, but not always, these terms are writ large in a pink or glittery script. They might also flash on Instagram or appear on a cutesy t-shirt.
It might all seem terribly harmless. Don’t be fooled by the sugar coating, this language is demeaning and it should stick in your throat every time you use it.
The#girlboss and #bossbabe movement has been sold as empowering, a way of lifting women up and creating a space for them in a traditionally male-dominated workspace. In fact, it only serves to undermine our achievements and reinforce the notion that we are, somehow, by virtue of our sex alone not equal to men.
How, exactly, does a #girlboss differ to a boss? The term ‘girl’ itself is the clue. A girl is an adolescent woman; she is not yet fully grown. She is somehow incomplete and lesser than her adult counterpart. More than this, the etymology of the word reveals an inherently sexist history.
Though the terms ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ are used almost interchangeably these words convey two very different ideas of female existence. Strictly speaking (i.e. according to the Oxford English Dictionary) a ‘woman’ is ‘an adult female human being’. It is the ‘counterpart of man’, his linguistic equal (you won’t find ‘Man described in the OED as ‘the counterpart of woman’ but that’s another rant). ‘Girl’ on the other hand signifies ‘a female child’ it is ‘the counterpart of boy’.
Ponder this for a moment…have you ever heard of a successful young man being described as a ‘boy boss’? I’m going to go with no.
The use of girl, instead of women, is always loaded because language absorbs the values of the society inhabited by its users. Think of language like a giant polluted lake into which we pour all of our toxic waste in the form of sexism, racism and bigotry.
The OED also tells us that ‘girl’ is a ‘form of address to a girl or woman’ used in ‘informal contexts, implying intimacy or friendship between the speaker and person addressed’. Another subsidiary meaning is recorded, ‘girl’ can also refer to ‘a woman of any age’ and, in this sense, it is ‘in (often derogatory) reference to women with respect to their occupation or social status.’
‘Girls’ writ large, courtesy of Lena Dunham is not a harmless word. Judith Baxter, is a Professor of Applied Linguistics at Aston University. Her research focuses on the relationship between language, gender and leadership in professional settings, points out that while the word ‘girl’ might seem ‘relatively neutral today’ compared to its past (if you look up girl in the OED you will see that it was also a synonym for prostitute for a very long time), the context in which it is used is very important particularly in relation to ‘age, status and class’.
Referring to the ‘girl on reception’ instead of the woman, Baxter says ‘demarcates women who are perceived as inferior’, it is derogatory. Dunham’s eponymous hit show is a pop culture example of this in action. Her lead characters are twentysomethings struggling with growing up, they are often whiny and careless, emerging from the post-graduation primordial soup, desperately trying to get their shit together and often failing. They mess up all the time. The series is, really, about the capriciousness and confusion that is associated with being a ‘girl’ not a ‘woman’. That is why the title of the show works so well, it is about the process of leaving girlhood behind and the journey to becoming a woman.
Judith Baxter points out that ‘girl’ can also be a ‘term of endearment used by women, among women, about themselves’. By turning this troublesome noun into an adjective and having a ‘girly night out’ we can play to our feminine sides, decide to be irresponsible or carefree. You can do things that you might not do with your ‘woman’ hat on: snog someone inappropriate, fall asleep in your clothes and/or makeup, eat cereal in your pyjamas or dance around in your pants. Importantly though, you chose to take on this identity and even when we are employing ‘girl’ in this way there are still some unavoidable sexist overtones. ‘Girly’ is also an insult. How many times have you heard the phrases ‘he’s being girly’ or ‘stop being such a girl’, in these cases it negatively suggests that someone is being effeminate, silly and wimpy. It is a derogatroy term.
A ‘word like girls’ Baxter says, ‘can be used to put people back in their box and remind them of their gender role’. It should be considered, she says, ‘on a sliding scale of the way we use language’. She is right that there are ‘far more words which available which are negative about women than there are about men’. Because of this, it matters how we talk to and about people, especially in a professional environment. It matters what we say. Words are never neutral they, like us, have invisible pasts, containing centuries of historical meaning within them.
When you’re a fully-fledged woman the idea of being, a girl is dangerous. Girls don’t live alone, girls don’t make their own packed lunches, have mortgages or pay council tax and no matter what Beyoncé says they don’t run the world. Girls are reliant on their parents to do these things so that they don’t have to. Second-wave feminists preferred the term ‘woman’ for these very reasons. They felt that ‘girl’ implied a lack of agency which denied women control. Certainly, the ‘girl’ on reception who is great at her job should be called a woman at work when she is in her professional role. Ditto the women who are presenting a well-researched presentation to a room full of people. Whether they chose to be ‘girls’ after work that night in a bar with their pals is up to them.
A woman can choose to be a ‘girl’ but we should be very very wary of labelling women as ‘girls’, particularly when it comes to their work. As a woman, you might choose to tap into your girlhood when you want to be vulnerable or behave childishly. These moments tend to be private and not public. Remember when Julia Roberts, in Notting Hill, stands opposite Hugh Grant and says ‘I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy’? I might also feel like a ‘girl’ when I’m dancing in my pants in front of the mirror but that part of my identity is not one I would deliberately project at work.
We should be concerned by the emergence of the #girlboss and be very critical of the term, particularly because men are never referred to as ‘boys’ in the same context. Why? Because women in senior positions today are still relatively unusual. Where we do find them they disrupt our unconsciously accepted norms. On International Women’s Day, this year figures published by the Fortune Knowledge Group revealed that the number of women running the 500 most powerful companies in the United States had actually fallen by 12 per cent. That’s despite sustained global efforts to promote gender equality in the workplace.
By adding the prefix ‘girl’ to ‘boss’ we undermine the authority of the position, we soften it and imply that somehow it is lesser than just being a boss in its own right. ‘It’s ok’ we say, ‘she’s not a boss boss, she’s just a girlboss, you know a pink, fluffy woman playing at being in charge’.
Whether to use the word ‘girl’ or ‘woman’ might seem trivial at first but, it belies a fundamental lack of equality when it comes to how we view men and women in the workplace. Unconscious bias is played out around us every day in the way we speak about and to one other.
At work, you are not a #girlboss. You are a successful, powerful, capable woman with a job.
Like this? You might also be interested in:
Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.