From gendered language in job ads to overused sports and military metaphors and incomprehensible corporate jargon, the language of the business world can be alienating to underrepresented groups, particularly women. The same is true of the words used to describe female leaders and their accomplishments.
This is what leads one of Fast Company’s editors, Kathleen Davis, to call for an end to such condescending neologisms as “SHE-EO,” “Girlboss,” and “momtrepreneur.” As she says, “We rarely use this kind of special (and sometimes infantilizing) language for other under-represented groups, and in many cases to do so would feel like a slur. By calling out that a manager or CEO or entrepreneur happens to be a woman is to qualify that person’s accomplishments as “less than.” In that version of the world there are regular bosses and then there is a lower subset of “lady bosses.
“Holding women CEOs to a different standard, or putting them in a separate category because of their gender, does nothing to alter the reality that women still only hold fewer than 5% of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies. Instead of giving women cutesy names, we should be addressing the underlying reason why they’re such an exception in the first place. Everyone would be better served by looking critically at the bias in hiring, funding, and promoting that keeps women’s numbers as managers, founders, and CEOs so low.”
Maybe These Terms Do Have a Role to Play
The problem is that these gender-specific names aren’t only given to women in positions of power. In fact, they appear even – at least in the US – in elementary school, such as in a sports team’s mascot. Sometimes schools will specify the gender of their mascot for girls’ teams, such as the “lady wildcats.” Even some schools whose mascots are inanimate objects, like “hurricanes,” will also do this.
This impulse to specify lady hurricanes implies that athletics are for boys and men unless otherwise noted, when in fact, these girls and women are no less wildcats, hurricanes, CEOs, or bosses than their male counterparts.
The flip side of Davis’s point, of course, is that when women violate expectations of how they are “supposed” to talk, dress, or act in the workplace, they are often held to an unfair standard and criticized for attributes or actions for which men are judged neutrally, or even praised. We know that these double standards can influence how women talk about their accomplishments in the workplace, so perhaps when a woman refers to herself as a “girlboss,” she is doing so in order to appear less threatening to her male colleagues.