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Girl Boss in scrabble tiles

The End of the #Girlboss Era

Nicola Biggerstaff – 9 December 2022

As it emerges this week that Baroness Michelle Mone will take a leave of absence from the House of Lords following the controversy surrounding her alleged profiteering and aggressive lobbying of several high profile government ministers for multiple PPE contracts during the pandemic, it draws attention to the increasing number of female entrepreneurs who have been caught out recently showcasing their privilege or engaging in fraudulent behaviour. But is this focus on female leaders specifically sexist in itself? Or is it actually on all of us to highlight when people, including fellow women, are taking advantage of the system for their own personal gain? Does making a point about their gender make the situation worse? Let’s look at the Girlboss, and what needs to happen to make business practices truly feminist.

Mone made her name in the headlines, not in the outcomes of her businesses. Yet her wealth and status were seen by Cameron’s early coalition government as a fast pass to a life peerage. In my opinion, she is not a businesswoman, she is a grifter. She has sailed through accusations of racism, accusations of tax avoidance, even of spying on employees, and now the consequences of her actions, the latest of a long line of PPE procurement scandals for the government, have finally come back to bite. Taking advantage of her status in House of Lords, and her political connections, Mone is alleged to have, according to sources at The Guardian, used the VIP lane to lobby the government and secure PPE contracts for friends, from which she and her children are alleged to have made profits running into millions of pounds. She and her lawyers deny any involvement and the matter has now been referred to the National Crime Agency.

Baroness Mone could potentially be just the latest in a long line of high profile women now being rumbled as fraudsters. More recent examples include the sentencing of Elizabeth Holmes to over 11 years in prison in the United States after being found guilty of four counts of defrauding investors. Holmes shot to fame in 2014 as the CEO of Theranos, the company which claimed to have developed medical testing technology which only required a single drop of blood. This technology never existed, yet Holmes still managed to hustle investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars and accelerate her own net worth into the billions before being arrested in 2018.

While not all female entrepreneurs who have been caught out recently are facing criminal charges, they have certainly faced a trial by media. Rachel Hollis, the self-proclaimed lifestyle guru and author of Girl, Wash Your Face, was criticised last year for turning on her fans. After writing many books on how her experience could help others, she turned to social media proclaiming that she did not want to be relatable, and created her brand in order to live a life that would not be relatable to her base audience. Having built her success from book sale profit and advertising revenue i.e. the money of said audience, she was accused of being tone-deaf at best, and racist at worst, after comparing herself and her rise to prominence to that of historical women of colour and their struggles, including the slavery abolitionist and social activist, Harriet Tubman.

As a definitive term, the meaning of Girlboss has evolved through the 2010s. It started as a rallying cry of female empowerment, for ‘bossing it’, in the professional field. Got that corporate promotion you’ve been aiming at for years? Girlboss. Called out a male co-worker for using sexist language? Girlboss. It was a show of love for yourself and the high standards you could achieve when you stood up for yourself and asserted boundaries in male-dominated settings – including the home, if that’s what you chose for yourself. Its self-advocacy became its downfall in the years since, as Girlboss became a warning sign, alluding to more hollow, self-serving endeavours that didn’t actually empower most women. It became the rallying call of the toxic feminist, from the local multilevel marketer to the tone-deaf billionaire. What was once a legitimate challenge to the dominance and privileges of men in the workplace is now a blueprint for personal gain, of ‘hustle culture’, fitting just nicely into the existing capitalist framework.

The modern conservative idea of ‘work hard and you will be rewarded’ is also the pinnacle of these superficial feminist arguments. Ignoring the complications made by race, finances, class, sexual or gender identity, it implies that if you haven’t achieved your goals, you’re simply not trying hard enough. You’re lazy, scared, and therefore implicit in keeping patriarchal structures in place. You’re not using your time efficiently enough when you spend all day cooking, cleaning the house and looking after the kids, just hire a live-in maid and an au pair if you’re struggling. Just stop being poor. Just stand up for yourself when you’re having abuse hurled at you online or on the street, own it.

Intersectionality has a place in these discussions, regardless of the controversy surrounding identity politics, because this is where it matters. Privilege will still reign supreme in the making of the majority of successful celebrity businesses, and poverty will keep many women from achieving their dreams. This does not require a change of mindset, but a change of society and of government.

So, why have I spent the better part of my day attacking my fellow women? Where are all the men who have defrauded, deceived or otherwise derailed progress? Well, they’re here, here, and here. I could go on, there’s plenty more public examples of ‘Nicola complains about rich men’. My point here is, if we’re also not prepared to confront the ugly truth, that not all women in the public eye will be advocating for the advancement of all women’s rights, even if it’s this fight that afforded them their platform in the first place, then we will all just be going round in circles of compliance and ignorance. It is on all of us to call it out when we see it, that they are doing their fellow women a disservice by contorting themselves to fit into the patriarchal mould of society. In their climb to the top, they don’t care who they trample on, so long as they don’t scuff their Louboutins.

When we do find ourselves with a platform, it is our responsibility as a member of a marginalised group to lift each other up, to ensure that we are all afforded a place at the table. Whether that’s through the promotion of, and collaboration with, other small businesses, or even just educating ourselves on our own privilege, and putting that to use.

Everyone agrees that innovation is a good thing, but regulation is key to ensuring that no person or entity can take advantage of the already oppressive, capitalist and patriarchal systems for their own gain. Businesses should exist to serve people, not to profiteer from crises, regardless of who is at the helm. It is the crux of ethical business practice and should not be overlooked for the sake of shareholder satisfaction. Let’s give power back to service users, and let’s not be de-motivated by any scathing analysis of society put in front of us. If our new book can teach you anything, it should be that we can create the change we need when we work together. All of us.

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