A decade on from Lean In, what can we learn from the fall of the Girl Boss?

Written by Charlie Gowans-Eglinton

When Lean In was published in 2013, it became a powerful manifesto for ambitious women and birthed a generation of ‘Girl Bosses’. A decade on, Stylist reflects on the era’s false promises.

This month marks a decade since Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead topped bestseller lists. In it, Sandberg and her co-author, Nell Scovell, offered a manual for navigating a male-dominated business landscape, just as Sandberg had, going from Harvard to the World Bank, working as the chief of staff for the treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, then joining Google. When the book was published, Sandberg had a reported worth of $500 million (£417m), in large part thanks to her shares at Facebook, where she was working as COO and had recently become the first woman appointed to the board of directors.

Sandberg was uber-successful, confident and powerful: the archetypal career woman. She roped Beyoncé in as a spokesperson for her Ban Bossy media campaign in 2014, aiming to change the way that society views women in business; she gave keynote speeches at universities across America, a role model for all graduates, but women in particular. In fact, it was the huge response to her 2010 TED talk – The ways women are held back—and the way we hold ourselves back – that inspired her to write a book on the subject and encourage women to stop holding back, and lean in. 

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has sold over 4.2 million copies worldwide.

And then came the clincher that sold a million copies in a matter of months: Sandberg also had a happy family at home. Two children under 10 and a husband who shared work and home responsibilities with her. Sandberg called having it all a “myth”, but at the same time, she actually seemed to. The dream had existed as long as women had worked, but here was a woman finally doing it.

Suddenly, there was a whole movement of women modelling their life and work philosophy on Sandberg’s and it came with a catchy, hashtag-able moniker to boot: the Girl Boss. It was fashionable to be hyper-ambitious, to broadcast your goals and your successes, to be your own biggest fan. Sandberg told us that women not only ran up against walls at work, but built some of them ourselves, and that we needed to match men’s ambition. 

“When it came out in 2013, I was a year into my business and the teachings in the book became a firm favourite of mine,” says Bianca Miller-Cole, entrepreneur, business coach and author of The Business Survival Kit, who became a finalist on The Apprentice in 2014. “At the time, it showed the vulnerability that you often feel as a female business owner in a male-dominated environment, but also the need to be astute, courageous and to be unafraid to speak up.”

Privileged, successful women with profiles became the faces of the Girl Boss movement, undergoing sharp rises to power and even sharper declines. In 2015, Elizabeth Holmes was hailed as the youngest self-made billionaire in America by Forbes, based on the success of her revolutionary blood-testing company Theranos, only to be charged with 12 counts of fraud in 2022 when it was revealed much of the company’s claims were false.

Writer Leandra Medine founded the much-loved website Man Repeller, which shuttered in 2020 following accusations she had fostered a toxic, racist work environment. Meanwhile, Audrey Gelman’s millennial-pink utopia, the women-only members’ club The Wing, closed its doors in 2022 following similar accusations against Gelman, leaving its last lingering members to lean in elsewhere.

Founder Audrey Gelman in conversation with Jennifer Lawrence at the women-only members’ club The Wing, which closed in 2022

Sandberg, meanwhile, was the subject of a Wall Street Journal investigation into whether she’d used her position to try to bury allegations of sexual misconduct that her then-partner, gaming CEO Bobby Kotick, was facing. And so the era of the Girl Boss ended.

What’s next for the Girl Boss?

Ten years later, the working landscape has changed drastically. Workers are striking, markets crashing. The Girl Boss generation has been left disillusioned.

Many of the women who bought Sandberg’s book in their 20s and 30s now have children of their own and are realising that what was possible for Sandberg might not be for them. While Sandberg mentioned the need for accessible childcare in her book, she did so from a position of extreme wealth and privilege. Instead, the majority are facing a cost of living crisis whilst under the extreme burden of wildly unaffordable childcare, plus a shift to working from home during the pandemic only exacerbated the gendered parenting-labour gap that still exists for so many couples. This month, the charity Pregnant Then Screwed published findings that 76% of mothers who pay for childcare “say it no longer makes financial sense for them to work”. It is hard to smash the patriarchy when a toddler keeps interrupting your Zoom calls. 

More open discussions of mental health have exposed the depth of burnout among workers, too; a 2020 YouGov poll found that one in four working women felt “unable to manage stress and pressure at work”. Silicon Valley, meanwhile, has seen a decline in women in the top tech jobs, including Sandberg herself, who left Meta in 2022. Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer resigned in 2017; YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced her resignation last month after 25 years with parent company Google.

Many from the younger generations, seeing the work-life imbalance of these Gen X groundbreakers and the millennials who aspired to be just like them, are choosing something else. Quiet quitting is doing as much as you’re paid for, and not a lick more; digital nomads are prioritising travel and experience over climbing a corporate ladder. Social media’s #SoftLife is a rejection of hustle culture, and a choice to minimise stress and ‘masculine energy’ – one viewed 715 million times on TikTok.

The trend’s implication that femininity and career success are at odds, however, is troubling. Sandberg’s manual for success wasn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but women in business needed support, a community – something that, at the time, Lean In offered.

The biggest change is the younger generation’s prioritisation of mental health. Success means something different to us now: health, happiness, creative fulfilment, downtime, balance. Increasing eco-mindedness means that private jets and a fleet of fast cars aren’t the markers of success that this generation strives towards, as the 36 million tuning into QuitTok will tell you. They aren’t less ambitious, but their ambitions have changed.

As we know, this often isn’t the case for women. “If anything, the venture capital industry has leaned out [of investing in female-led businesses],” says Victoria Prew, founder of British fashion rental site Hurr Collective. “Venture for female-led businesses declined from 2.4% (an all-time high) to 1.9% in 2022. Do I think the conversation has progressed? Yes, but the figures don’t back up change. I’ve learned that women are stronger as a community and we need to change workplace and funding policies on behalf of everyone.”

The Girl Boss was, in many ways, destined to fail. So what can we learn anything from her downfall? If anything, we should re-evaluate what success really looks like for womankind. When investment for female-led businesses measures up. When inclusivity is adopted from the top-down. When the gender pay gap is closed. When childcare is accessible. At the moment, it feels hard enough just to stay upright. But perhaps it’s time we found something worth leaning into.

Images: Getty

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