The girlboss can't fix business for us

Jul 29, 2021

You have probably not missed the DOWNFALL of the girlboss.

Last year several high profile female founders stepped down after accusations of their companies being toxic workplaces - particularly for the people of colour they employed.

Last week Leigh Stein published an essay arguing that we shouldn’t tear these women down the way we have. The piece is called Sympathy For The Girlboss.

She argues:

1.    We must allow women to learn from their mistakes, make amends to those they’ve harmed, and start over. Why are we so unforgiving? What’s up with all the glee?

2.    There’s an inbuilt conflict between the expectations of venture capitalists (who had invested in these businesses) and the demands of the socially conscious consumers they served.

I found the piece interesting. I do think we take particular pleasure in tearing down publicly visible women and there’s very little mercy for female error (as we have talked about before ).

ON THE OTHER HAND.

None of this means people shouldn’t criticise female founders when they do wrong. The history of feminism is full of instances where women of colour have been told to stay quiet about what white women have done to them all in the name of “sisterhood”. That needs to stop.

“Girlboss feminism” was essentially the idea that women could make capitalism more virtuous. The girlbosses attracted socially conscious consumers who then expected them to do business DIFFERENTLY. As Leigh Stein points out, this is tricky when you have investors from the world of venture capital who demand GROWTH at all cost.

But should companies be virtuous?

The whole girlboss debate has actually made me think of a book from 2007 by the American economist Robert Reich. In Supercapitalism he argues that the spheres of politics and business must be kept distinct.

“Pressuring companies to be more virtuous is an unaccountable mechanism for deciding complex social issues better left to legislators.”

I’m sure Robert Reich wasn’t thinking of girlbosses when he wrote this 15 years ago.

But I still think it applies.

Take Beyoncé. She’s a female founder who hasn’t been cancelled (obviously…) but she has certainly been slammed for not living up to her feminist standards in business.

Beyonce’s clothing brand Ivy Park was criticised for the working conditions in its factories in Sri Lanka a few years back. The debate then turned into a discussion about the purity of Beyonce’s feminism. How could she talk about female empowerment if she simultaneously exploited female workers? (Ivy Park denied the claims)

But this is actually precisely the type of “complex issue” that Robert Reich talks about. Is it better for the women to work making clothes for Beyoncé or to stay working for even less money at the family farm?

It’s obviously outrageous that the workers are not allowed to unionise but let’s say this changed and their wages increased, that would mean increased costs for Beyoncé. THIS is what we should talk about more. That if you want to “do good” as a business it will often COST YOU MONEY.

Robert Reich writes:

“Corporate executives are not authorized by anyone least of all by their consumers or investors- to balance profits against the public good. Nor do they have any expertise in making such moral calculations. That’s why we live in a democracy, in which government is supposed to represent the public in drawing such lines.”

In other words: it shouldn’t be up to Beyoncé! Or any other corporate leader for that matter. We need to set rules together as citizens and then make sure all businesses follow them.

Because there are REAL conflicts of interest here.

Say you want to create a “truly inclusive workplace” at your feminist member’s club. Then you need to start by paying everybody who works in the kitchen decent wages. And probably the venture capital guy who gave you all the money for the club is not going to like this…

We live in an age where a lot of people think that outrage against a founder or individual company is “political”. But is it? Does it mean that someone is elected? That any laws or regulations are changed? That the financial system now works differently?

Among all the outrage against female founders, how much time have we actually spent talking about what the best inclusive labour market/workplace policies should be OVERALL? Or have we spent all the energy discussing whether a particular founder is morally virtuous or not?

Because that’s not really politics.

Happy Thursday!

Katrine

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