Is it OK to call yourself a “girl boss” or “boss babe”? A new viral campaign spreading over social media urges female leaders from companies large and small to remove gender from their bio.
The push began when Ashley Sumner, CEO of the wellness-based audio platform Quilt announced she was removing gender from her online bio. Her LinkedIn post caused an immediate uproar for both support and dissent.
In the message, which was posted to LinkedIn in early March, Sumner wrote: “I am a founder. Putting my gender in front of what I am belittles what I’ve accomplished, and reminds women how few of us get to where I am. I’m ready to drop the gender and get right to the work I’m doing. Who’s with me?”
The message has since been liked more than 500,000 times and generated nearly 20,000 comments from people working in all aspects of the business world. It’s also triggered a series of memes — professional woman captioned with phrases like “Female Founder” or “Female Entrepreneur,” some featuring the word “Female” struck out and some leaving it in place, depending on their thoughts on Sumner’s message.
In a recent profile in The New York Times, Sumner said the idea came to her while she was out on a run one day. She was thinking about the terms some female leaders use to describe themselves, like “girl boss,” and the harm she thought might come from that message.
“I worry about the negative impact of that,” Sumner told reporter Katherine Rosman. “I worry that it allows investors to see founders who are women as a separate class from the rest of the founders. I worry it allows investors to write women founders smaller checks. I do believe that women need to help inspire other women but also that identity can be used as labels to separate us.”
Sumner also explained that being known as a female leader sometimes left her feeling marginalized and “less” than her male counterparts.
“I am always asked to speak on the female-founders panel,” she said. “I want to be asked to speak on the panel.”
That’s when she came up with the question she’s still dealing with today: “When is labeling in support and celebration of furthering our mission of equality successful and when is it ‘othering’ and hurting our mission?”
According to Rosman, “Sumner isn’t particularly active on Instagram or Twitter. On LinkedIn, she had never done more than repost someone else’s articles or musings. But given that platform’s focus on professional life, she thought it was a reasonable place to first share her handiwork.”
Rosman reported that the reaction to her question and her post came in droves, “from men and women in the United States, Australia, Africa, Latin America, India and beyond; from executives, construction workers, health care employees, professors and military professionals.”
“I am an entrepreneur in the medical field, my gender doesn’t define me,” Dimitra Zeza, Director of Sales at Zeda Medical, wrote in a LinkedIn post. “I give my best every day and nothing is more satisfying than working for my dream every day. Providing the best medical products for women’s health is the core of my company. Thank you, Ashley Sumner, for this amazing initiative.”
In a similar post, Leslie A. Andrachuk, Founder and CEO of Alpha Woman Co. wrote “I am a Founder. I have founded numerous businesses, most recently an independent media company, Alpha Woman Co. Even when working for large companies I often found myself in the role of intrapreneur. I love to create, to tell important stories, to work with smart, funny, passionate people. To see them succeed, to create things together and to see those creations take on their own life and velocity. Being a Founder and a person who brings value to the planet through her work is independent of my life as a woman, mother, sister, wife, niece, daughter. We do not need qualifiers to demonstrate our power — or underline our lack of it.”
On the flip side of the “female founder” debate are posts like the one from entrepreneur Julia Elliott Brown, who wrote, “I am proud to call myself a female founder and am happy to be defined by this term. I hope to be an inspiration to others and show how it’s possible to smash through the male-dominated world start-up and investment arena. In a world where still only 2.7% of venture funding goes to female founders, where we’re still working with systems that were set up for and by men, and where gender bias is still rife, are we ready to stop being known as ‘female founders’?”
Rosman has reported that “More than 150 female founders posted similar photos of themselves, crossing out the word “female,” and then shared what was now credibly a meme on the internet.”
“It was a little shocking at first, to see ‘female’ crossed out,” Antoinetta Mosley, the founder of diversity consulting firm, I Follow the Leader, told The Times. “I immediately clicked to see what she said, and I thought it was really striking.”
Mosley told Rosman that in the unconscious bias seminars she leads, she often asks people to consider the way race, gender and other traits influence narratives about people’s professional skills and how they may perpetuate inequities.
“When people see me as a Black woman leader, they are assuming that my being Black and a woman influence my leadership style,” Mosley said.
“[Mosley] believes these labels can sometimes hold women back from being considered on equal footing to men,” Rosman reported. “She said that being a Black woman is a significant part of her identity, but she, like most people, has far more dimensions. She believes her professional traits result most from being an athlete and the oldest of four children with driven parents.”
Faryl Morse, owner of the footwear company, Faryl Robin, urged women to stop using terms like “Boss Babe,” “WomEntrepreneur,” “Girl Boss” and “Mompreneur.”
“Let’s please stop adding these cute names to women who are ambitious and are going after their dreams with persistence,” Morse wrote. “It is not empowering any woman. … I am not a woman founder. I am a founder. End of conversation. Gender should not be descriptive in the world we live in today. It doesn’t define me professionally.”
Where do you stand? What’s the ultimate answer to the question? Has representation increased enough that people can drop the identifier or is it still important to show that women leaders aren’t a novelty and that their presence and importance should continue to be celebrated with terms like “female founder?”
As Sumner’s post — and the reaction to it — shows, the conversation is far from over.