The Covid-19 pandemic changed the nature of work in innumerable ways, some of which may not be fully discerned for years. But one casualty is already clear: The era of the leaning-in “girl boss” is over.
The girl boss movement, born shortly after Sandberg’s Lean In and coined by online retailer Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso in 2014, meant welding the professional and personal identity into one and working relentlessly to beat men at their own game. In this world, making it into middle management is an expression of feminism, an act of resistance.
The movement became popular, even as critics derided it as surface-level and ignorant of systemic prejudice. But it began to wane in in the late 2010s after the leaders of the movement were prominently accused of hurting women in the workplace.
Prominent girl bosses — like Emily Weiss at Glossier. Audrey Gelman at women’s members club The Wing, and Steph Korey at suitcase brand Away— stepped down from executive positions following reports of mismanagement and toxic work environments.
Covid reshaped the way Americans approach work and think about office culture in general, further unraveling an already loose movement.
Now the recent resignation of Sheryl Sandberg, longtime chief operating officer of Facebook parent company Meta Platforms and creator of the Lean In movement, closes the door on an era of workplace feminism that put the onus of beating institutional bias on individual women.
In 2013, Sandberg penned the bestselling book and create the subsequent organization, Lean In, which suggests women fail to succeed in the workplace because they don’t assert themselves enough. She posits that women get in their own way in the office by opting not to sit at the table — that to succeed, women need to overcome internal barriers, not institutional ones.
Amoruso hopped on in 2014 with her memoir #Girlboss which claimed that women didn’t need to change the system, they just needed to hack it. If one woman succeeded in a male-dominated industry, argued Amoruso, she could change it for the better.
Proponents hailed it as a way forward for women who wanted a seat at the executive table, but critics said the concept conveniently pushed aside systemic barriers to success.
Lean in “ignores issues of race and class and it ignores single parents,” said Yana van der Meulen Rodgers, the faculty director for the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University. “It was written from a position of elitism and wealth and power.”
The movement, she said, assumed people start with an essentially level playing field, a meritocracy that comes down to effort in being equal to success out. Marginalized groups can easily tell us that’s not the case.
By 2015 the movement has started to fray. Nasty Gal was sued for allegedly illegally firing pregnant employees and in 2016 the company filed for bankruptcy. Around the same time, The New York Times reported that Sandberg allegedly bullied critics of Facebook’s handling of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
That same year, former first lady Michelle Obama declared on her book tour that “it’s not always enough to lean in, because that s**t doesn’t work all the time.”
Then came the #MeToo movement which unmasked numerous toxic workplace situations that no amount of leaning in could solve, and a 2018 study by a group of Duke University psychology professors found that while leaning in may have helped some individuals excel in the workplace, it was largely ineffective for most. Leaning in puts the onus of achieving gender equality in the workplace on the personal success of women, the report said. “The more we talk about women leaning in, the more likely people are to hold women responsible, both for causing inequality, and for fixing it,” the researchers wrote.
Americans faced a great reckoning in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and the deaths of other people of color at the hands of police strongly amplified criticisms the movement had already faced: the playing field isn’t level in America. Lean in culture, said critics, was non-inclusive and failed to recognize the struggles that women of color have in the workplace.
Covid also fueled a reckoning on the entire concept of our working lives: Americans became comfortable with working from home and demanded more pay for front line jobs that exposed them to the virus. The lean in philosophy quickly falls apart when women don’t think of their career as their highest priority or when they no longer want to lean into a system that they don’t believe in.
The pandemic has also exacerbated institutional problems. The majority of women, 59%, experienced harassment and/or microaggressions at work in 2021, up from 52% in 2020, according to a Deloitte report. Nearly 60% of women said hybrid work made them feel excluded from meetings and interactions and about half of women said they didn’t have enough exposure to leaders.
Sandberg’s legacy is complicated, she has long been one of the most visible and vocal female leaders in Silicon Valley. She also pioneered Facebook’s ad model, which was responsible for about 97% of the company’s $117 billion revenue in 2021.
Sandberg also did oversee some improvement in gender equalty at her own company. In 2021, 37% of Meta’s workforce and 36% of its leadership roles were occupied by women, up from 31% and 23% in 2014. But her departure from Meta is the death knell of a movement defined by the economic boom times and expansive creep of capitalism of the 2010s.
Leaning in has fallen out.