A look at the inbox of any journalist who’s ever written about women in the workplace leaves no doubt: Women mean business these days! They start companies, and run them!
And PR firms are all over that stuff, branding the heck out of them. Mompreneur. Fempreneur. Girlpreneur. ShEO. Girlboss. Ladyboss. Boss lady. Mom boss: So many options, so much creativity!
There is one other thing all of these labels have in common, and that is: They are absolutely terrible.
Worse than that, they achieve the very opposite of what they purportedly set out to accomplish. Instead of highlighting what an accomplishment it is to have overcome all the obstacles that typically stand between women and such positions of leadership, the monikers patronizingly seems to underline just how cute it is that mothers are trying to be entrepreneurs, or that women are bosses.
What does one call a father who is an entrepreneur? An entrepreneur (or, in a different context, a father). And what about a man who is a boss? That’s a boss, isn’t it. Then why is a mother who is an entrepreneur a mompreneur? Why are there lady bosses?
The answer, whether conscious or not, is bias. Bias studies have found that “entrepreneur” is a label people unconsciously associate with someone male (and white).
That’s both a cause and a consequence of the shortage of representation of women (or people of color) among notable founders, or in positions of leadership in the corporate world. Though women own nearly 40% of America’s businesses, those business tend to be small, and altogether account for only 4% of total private industry revenue—while only about 2% of venture capital is given to women. Among the Fortune 500, you’ll find fewer than 5% of companies have a female CEO. And the number of Fortune 500 companies with both a female CEO and a female chair? That would be exactly one.
As these numbers go—very slowly—up, the powerful move is not to create separate categories for women entrepreneurs to make them sound even more atypical than they are, but to expand the common perception of an entrepreneur to include women (even moms).
But there is another, more subtle problem with these labels, especially as they refer to mothers. Much as we talk about working mothers, but not about working fathers, using the label mompreneur or boss mom implicitly denies women the freedom to exist professionally independently from their role as a mother. There already is plenty of social scrutiny of women’s “work-life balance,” and the answers to the inevitable questions they are asked, with so much more frequency than men, about how they manage to have both a career and a family. This scrutiny needs no further avenues to manifest.
A female boss is called a boss. A female CEO is a CEO. A female entrepreneur, an entrepreneur: It’s good for women, good for business, good for gender equality.
Not to mention, good for English.
This story is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work.