The girl boss movement, born shortly after Sandberg’s Lean In and coined by online retailer Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso in 2014, meant welding the professional and personal identity into one and working relentlessly to beat men at their own game. In this world, making it into middle management is an expression of feminism, an act of resistance.
The movement became popular, even as critics derided it as surface-level and ignorant of systemic prejudice. But it began to wane in in the late 2010s after the leaders of the movement were prominently accused of hurting women in the workplace.
Prominent girl bosses — like Emily Weiss at Glossier, Audrey Gelman at women’s members club The Wing and Steph Korey at suitcase brand Away — stepped down from executive positions following reports of mismanagement and toxic work environments.
Covid reshaped the way Americans approach work and think about office culture in general, further unraveling an already loose movement.
The girl boss’s rise and fall
In 2013, Sandberg penned the bestselling book and create the subsequent organization, Lean In, which suggests women fail to succeed in the workplace because they don’t assert themselves enough. She posits that women get in their own way in the office by opting not to sit at the table — that to succeed, women need to overcome internal barriers, not institutional ones.
Amoruso hopped on in 2014 with her memoir #Girlboss which claimed that women didn’t need to change the system, they just needed to hack it. If one woman succeeded in a male-dominated industry, argued Amoruso, she could change it for the better.
Proponents hailed it as a way forward for women who wanted a seat at the executive table, but critics said the concept conveniently pushed aside systemic barriers to success.
Lean in “ignores issues of race and class and it ignores single parents,” said Yana van der Meulen Rodgers, the faculty director for the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University. “It was written from a position of elitism and wealth and power.”
The movement, she said, assumed people start with an essentially level playing field, a meritocracy that comes down to effort in being equal to success. Marginalized groups can easily tell us that’s not the case.
#MeToo and Covid changed the conversation
Americans faced a great reckoning in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and the deaths of other people of color at the hands of police strongly amplified criticisms the movement had already faced: the playing field isn’t level in America. Lean in culture, said critics, was non-inclusive and failed to recognize the struggles that women of color have in the workplace.
Covid also fueled a reckoning on the entire concept of our working lives: Americans became comfortable with working from home and demanded more pay for front line jobs that exposed them to the virus. The lean in philosophy quickly falls apart when women don’t think of their career as their highest priority or when they no longer want to lean into a system they don’t believe in.
Sandberg’s legacy is complicated. She has long been one of the most visible and vocal female leaders in Silicon Valley. She pioneered Facebook’s ad model, which was responsible for about 97% of the company’s $117 billion revenue in 2021.
Leaning in has fallen out.