Up until now though, I’ve kept my distaste to team Slacks and eye rolls to my co-founder.
Not anymore. Just last month, Bumble Founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe-Heard took her business public and officially became the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire. An incredible moment for Whitney and role model for female founders (present and future) - so why was my excitement tempered with frustration? Hearing those two little words in coverage of the move: ‘Girl Boss’.
At first glance, terms like ‘Girl Boss’ might seem a little cloying but ultimately not worthy of outrage. You could even argue they’re making entrepreneurship more accessible - and aspirational - for those who might not have considered it as a career option. It’s certainly true that we need to champion more female talent across the ecosystem. Right now in the UK, only 1 in 3 entrepreneurs is female, a staggering 48% of investment teams feature no women at all, and for every £1 of VC investment, all-female founder teams get less than 1p versus 89p to all-male founders. Perhaps these catchphrases really are just a hashtag-friendly stepping stone on the way to greater representation.
However, my experiences as a founder leave me convinced that there’s something more insidious at work than just a proliferation of cutesy sloganned work planners and sweatshirts. Take last year’s missguided campaign by freelancer platform, PeoplePerHour which featured the line: “You do the girl boss thing, we’ll do the SEO thing.” After justified viral outrage, the ASA ruled that London Underground ads featuring the term perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes. Usage like this makes it clear that terms like Girl Boss are moulding us to see the role of boss as inherently male. It needs no gendered adjective clarification. From the books of my childhood to mainstream media reports on wins in the sector, the idea that ‘boss’ is naturally a man’s role has been and continues to be emphasised as the norm - and it’s just not good enough. Today, bosses come in all forms: male, female and non binary.
I know first hand about the gender bias faced by female entrepreneurs. I’ve experienced sexism from potential investors who questioned my commitment to the business as I happened to be six months pregnant. I’ve felt the same anger as many female entrepreneurs seeing their accomplishments invalidated by that ridiculous Tube campaign. However, the issue at hand is about more than just personal affront. We’re in no position to downplay the vital role of female founders, with women-owned businesses contributing £105 billion to the UK each year. In fact, the Rose Review stated that if able to start and scale at the same rates as male founders, female founders in the UK have the potential to add an additional £250bn to the economy. So why aren’t we doing that justice?
When ‘Girl Boss’ entered the popular vernacular via Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, it was initially hailed as a term of empowerment (despite the movement being overwhelmingly built on white female privilege). Over time, that’s warped into something more infantalising than inspiring. We can’t sit by and let that erode the potential and successes of female founders, especially in a post-COVID world. 2020 only deepened existing gender inequalities in the workforce, as women statistically more likely to work in sectors heavily impacted by lockdown. Female founders have been right there in the trenches and let me be clear: leading a business through a global pandemic is tough, irrespective of gender. Like many, I had to make difficult decisions about the redundancies of close members of my team and determining what to prioritise in order to ensure that our business would survive.
However, hope, grit and determination prevails. I’ve seen myself the hard work, brilliant thinking and revenue generated by female-founded businesses based in our London, Manchester and Dublin workspaces. McKinsey reported that despite accounting for 39% of the global workforce, women actually made up 54% of COVID-19 job losses. Whilst devastating, that so-called ‘pandemic pause’ looks to be fuelling a new gen of female entrepreneurs who are taking the plunge and launching their own startups. I couldn’t be more fired up and ready for them to join us in the ecosystem.
This month, International Women’s Day 2021 called for us to “choose to challenge” gender bias personally, and in our businesses - not just for one day, but for the whole year - and beyond. As a founder, I’ve always believed that change starts with my own actions and the understanding that inclusivity is a choice. I’m proud to challenge startup statistics by consciously building a team which is 50% women - and they work at every level of the business, including 60% of our Senior Management Team. They’re running sites, connecting minds, closing deals, strategising and rolling out major brand campaigns and have big ambitions to become founders (not Girl Bosses) in the future, too.
We’re not perfect, or finished, but these are just some of the ways we’re challenging gender bias:
We’re not perfect but ultimately, we’re truly committed to making change in the ecosystem, starting right here in our own community. The ripple effect is real.
2021 is a chance to kickstart real, lasting change. The language we choose to use truly matters. The more we as a society ‘other’ female founders, or imply our success is noteworthy because we’re women, the more we’ll continue to get less: to put that disruptive idea in the back pocket, to scale down our ambitions and seek less funding - if we even go for it at all. If It’s time to acknowledge that by rolling our eyes and dismissing language as minor, we’re complicit in broader gender bias.
As we emerge from a truly pivotal moment in history, we have the opportunity not to rebuild, but collectively construct a better innovation ecosystem - and it starts here. Female founders aren’t girl bosses, femtrepreneurs or Sh-EOs. We’re innovators, builders and entrepreneurs. Now let us get on with it - there’s £250billion to go after.