Work

Lady Boss of Me

How the “lady boss” rhetoric of female empowerment places women in charge of little more than themselves.

"Boss Lady" website design themes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by A Prettier Web.

Executive Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about bosses.

The higher you look on almost any company’s organizational chart, the fewer women you’ll find. Though women hold more than half of all professional-level jobs in the U.S., they make up only about one-third of low- and mid-level managers at S&P 500 companies—and just 6 percent of CEOs.

And yet, if you look around the realm of e-commerce and the women’s empowerment blogosphere, lady bosses and their close cousins, boss ladies, are everywhere. They’re hosting networking sessions for female entrepreneurs, triumphing over chronic illnesses, and encouraging women to lose weight with a few simple tricks. They’re selling yarn, pizza, hair extensions, luxury garments, vitamin powders, and bath products made with marijuana. Though their projects are diverse, they are linked by two uniting principles: They are women, and they are good at their jobs.

The archetypal woman who identifies herself as a lady boss/boss lady is promoting some kind of consulting practice or home-run business. She uses the words “hustle” and “grind” and “creative” as nouns. She enjoys coffee and goal-setting and early-morning workouts. She “crushes” and “disrupts” the things she loves. She fetishizes competency and productivity and bold lip color. She frequently deploys the term “badass” and other expressions of genial profanity—“get shit done,” “fuck negativity”—with relish.

It’s slightly strange to see so much commonality among lady boss ladies, given that the words themselves, as a descriptor of a woman in charge, are so incredibly broad. Today, the term has coagulated around the idea of a Type A self-motivated woman who derives strength from her conception of her gender. But it’s a constrained strength. The impulse to qualify the word boss with lady, or the other way around, reveals two things about the way contemporary society understands the intersection of women and power: First, the institution of bosshood is so fundamentally male that women must modify it to their own specifications to find themselves within it, often through conspicuously feminine signifiers. And second, whereas a male or ungendered boss usually earns that title by gaining some power over other people, a lady boss’s bosshood has nothing to do with actual managerial responsibility. Her domain is her own life, and her defining asset is power over herself.

That may be why so many boss lady ventures associate themselves with a girly bombshell aesthetic. In addition to gel manicures, matte lipstick, and mink-fur eyelashes named “Boss Lady,” there are countless “Boss Lady” businesses—including a pizza place in Colorado, a CBD-infused bath-bomb company, a Bermuda clothing store, and a virgin-hair vendor—whose logos feature a sexy lady silhouette. The fuchsia “Boss Lady” WordPress theme, created “for women entrepreneurs” by A Prettier Web, comes pre-populated with a stock photo of a woman with statement bangs, ombré pink hair, perfect nails, and bright pink lips. On PaleoBOSS Lady, a “conscious living lifestyle brand” by a woman who says she healed herself from secondary progressive multiple sclerosis with a better diet, the logo is written in a font that looks like lipstick. The aggregate effect is one of neutralization, an effort to make the idea of a female boss less intimidating by swathing it in makeup and a color associated with little girls.

Nowhere is the internal focus of lady bosshood more evident than in the Lady Boss weight loss system, which claims to have served 1.3 million women worldwide. The company’s brand identity centers around a shade of hot pink shared by virtually every other boss lady brand on the planet. Its homepage is plastered with dozens of before and after photos of women who say they’ve used the Lady Boss nutrition advice and workouts to lose inches and drop dress sizes, and like most other contemporary businesses promising skinnier bodies, it drapes its product in the rhetoric of liberation. “When is it going to be YOUR turn to look, feel, and BE who YOU want to be?” the company’s founder, Kaelin Tuell Poulin, asks on the site. “I say that TODAY, RIGHT NOW, it is your turn.” Further down the page, she defines the term lady boss as “your confident alter ego,” a “no BS, take action, get it done, no compromise woman” who is “in control of her destiny, her situation, her health, her body.” The same ethos—you might call it “lose weight, gain power”—undergirds Boss Lady, a New Zealand–based clearinghouse for beautifying health supplements such as “Blackstone Labs Trojan Horse Fat Burner.”

Most invocations of lady boss and boss lady aren’t so blatantly positioned to gin up profit from women’s self-hatred. But where the cultural constructs of lady bosses and traditional standards of femininity collide, there almost always exists a kind of regenerative whirlpool informed by often dubious interpretations of third-wave feminism. To be a boss lady is to reject society’s expectations that women look and behave within tightly drawn boundaries. (No need for gel manicures or ruffled dresses!) Boss ladies also reject the idea that powerful women must dress and conduct themselves like men to be taken seriously. (Gel manicures and ruffled dresses are feminist!) Lady bosses embrace the refrain that women can and should be encouraged to excel in any personal or professional pursuit. (Women can weld!) They also follow that refrain 360 degrees around, back to its starting point, where it becomes an encouragement to resist the idea that an empowered woman must work outside the home. (Choosing not to weld is feminist!) At its emptiest, boss lady simply refers to a woman who does whatever she feels like doing.

A Montana-based network of “creative female entrepreneurs” called Boss Lady Bash puts it this way:

The biggest indicator of a woman deserving of the title “BOSS” is someone who wants the life of working for herself, and pursues it endlessly. Which sometimes, can look like laying down the hammer for a year while she gets her marriage in order. Or takes care of her young children. Or works on herself. Or travels…because she always promised herself she would. Or works part-time because that’s really all she wants to work.

It is a testament to the vehemence with which women’s lives have historically been constrained that a woman merely living life as she pleases qualifies her to claim a term that, in men, connotes some tangible financial benefits and social cachet. As such, many lady boss endeavors were founded on the premise that women could stand to benefit from comparing notes on their experiences in fields that have been hostile to female participation. Rachel Bloom’s music video spoof “Ladyboss” does a nice job outlining the contradictory demands placed on women in power, who are left wondering of workwear, as Bloom does in the video, “How much boob is too much boob?” Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, whose memoir #Girlboss is one of the most prominent iterations of the lady boss concept, now runs a site by the same name that bills itself as a community for female go-getters. There, writers publish advice (“8 Highly Impressive Apps For Setting Your Goals And Then Smashing Them”), thinkpieces (“Why Is Modern Dating So Hard—Especially For Ambitious Women?”), and scam-adjacent content (“Down To Earn More $$$ Every Month? This Challenge Is For You.”) that seem tailored to young women struggling to gain a foothold in industries that may seem inscrutable outside the walls of the proverbial boys’ club.

But even Girlboss, with its pseudo-feminist rhetoric and veneer of sisterhood, lacks any sort of robust philosophy around women’s advancement. Amoruso’s Girlboss Rally, an annual conference that will convene for the fourth time this November, will charge VIP ticketholders nearly $800 for, among other benefits, “private beauty touch-up areas,” discounts on purchases from a “curated shopping bazaar,” and “glam touch-ups” before headshot sessions. The pink-saturated Girlboss brand is a smart commercial concept in that it extracts money from women who want to believe that looking nice, buying things, and listening to Arianna Huffington talk about herself constitutes empowerment. That doesn’t make Amoruso, whose Nasty Gal company went bankrupt, and who was sued by several employees for allegedly firing them right before they went on parental leave, a reputable poster woman (girl?) for the new era of leadership—ethical, inclusive, humane—other lady bosses seem to want to usher in.

Some boss ladies have done a better job of articulating how a lady boss might differ, in constructive ways, from a man boss. Lady Boss, a New York–based initiative that started as a networking group for women in creative fields, evolved to advocate for workplace policies that support women, feminist values, and gender equity, with a spin-off group for working parents.
Its leaders have spoken publicly about the value of expressing emotions in the workplace—a no-go in the male-dominated offices of yore. The boss lady concept, it turns out, is far more compelling and change-oriented when actual bosses are involved. Self-improvement and -beautification carry indisputable benefits, but there’s only so much one badass woman can do alone.

Read more from Executive Time, Slate’s pop-up blog about bosses.