Chances are, if you’ve given your social media newsfeeds even a cursory glance over the last year, you’ll have noticed terms like ‘girl boss’, ‘boss babe’ and ‘boss bitch’ pop up from time to time. On the surface these expressions seem to describe a woman who is confident, successful and empowered by her feminity. One could intimate from these neologisms that they are clearly meant to be a positive expression; celebrating women and inspiring them to achieve their full potential. I don’t agree. I think these terms are problematic and quite honestly, a little silly. Let me explain why.
When I was a child in the late ’80s/early ’90s in Ireland my general practioner was male. That, of course, is not unusual and his gender was never something I even thought about. After all, my mother was a nurse and going to the doctor was such a rarity, I barely knew his name. On one occasion however, I have a distinct memory of being brought to a different doctor. My parents seemed to be making quite a big deal of the fact that this was a different doctor (I assume my usual GP was on holidays) and chatted about it to me for the entire journey.
So what was so special about this doctor? Well, she was a Lady Doctor. Yes, that’s what my parents actually called her. Not to make her seem more appealing to me, not to make her sound as if she was some kind of aristocratic and elegant doctor, but to distinguish her from the actual doctors (you know, the ones with penises). They made such a big deal of this that I was actually expecting her to have fairy wings and a wand. She did not. She was just like my other doctor, a scary person in a white coat poking me with needles and talking over my head to my mother. My parents seemed amazed by the fact that she seemed just as competent as her male counterpart. They couldn’t have been overly-impressed, however, as I was back with my male GP for my next visit, lamenting the fact that he didn’t have a cool prefix before his title.
You must understand that my parents were born into and grew up in a society where it was highly unusual for women to have such high-status jobs. Doctors, barristers, judges, politicians, guards and principals were men. Women were cashiers, nurses, clerks and even teachers but they rarely held positions of authority. Until recently, the Irish language had a word to distinguish female police officers from their male counterparts (they were called a ‘Bean-Garda’* meaning ‘woman guard’). Many people still use this term, and not to cause offence, I might add.
But times have changed. In most western societies, you will find female lawyers, doctors, judges, detectives, principals, politicians, CEOs and entrepreneurs. Of course, there is still progress to be made, but we have come a long way. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone who walked into an office and saw a female employer did not make assumptions or prejudge her abilities because of her gender? We shouldn’t have to differentiate ability based on someone’s gender. Whether you’re male or female, the only thing that should matter is whether you have the ability to do your job competently.
Judge ability not gender.
This is why terms like ‘girl boss’ are problematic. We should be aiming to normalise the idea of women in positions of authority instead of distinguishing them as an anomaly by using these terms. In an impressionable young girl’s mind, there should be no difference between a male or female boss. Both should be equally unremarkable. The word ‘boss’ should have no gender-specific connotations. A young child should see any kind of authoritative position as achieveable no matter what their gender.
We must also consider the somewhat unflattering stereotype that these terms represent. Let’s face it, ‘boss bitch’ sounds at least vaguely aggressive. Why are females in positions of power often perceived or depicted as shrill, truculent, combative and quarrelsome? When a man is competitive in business, he is audacious and determined. When this applies to a woman, she is selfish and cold. I personally dislike the term ‘boss bitch’ because to me, it sounds arrogant and puerile. You wouldn’t use the term ‘boss-prick’ or some variant to describe a man in position of power (unless, you know, you really didn’t like your boss). It would be seen as a pejorative term. It would also be deemed superfluous, as there has never really been a trend of distinguishing male employers.
I know it’s important to celebrate female empowerment. It’s important that we are aware of our progress as women. But expressions like ‘boss babe’ don’t propel us forward. They trivialise and devalue female empowerment. These are terms you would print on a slogan t-shirt or a wine glass. Let’s face it, a CEO of a company is unlikely to have ‘Boss Bitch’ written on the door to her office. These expressions seem to serve a decorative function; something you can post in a glitter font on Instagram to show how confident you are. But they don’t serve a real-world function. Let your ability do the talking, not some expression that only serves to depreciate your worth.