Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook/Meta’s chief operating officer and champion of women climbing the corporate ladder, recently announced she’s stepping down from her role after 14 years with the company she transformed. Her departure comes fresh off the heels of Emily Weiss, founder and CEO of cosmetics company Glossier, who was considered one of the last #girlbosses standing. These high-profile exits feel like the end of an era branded by corporate feminism that asked women to “lean in” and make their mark across male-dominated industries.
Recent years have seen many such departures, including Sophia Amoruso from Girlboss, Man Repeller founder and CEO Leandra Medine Cohen, Reformation founder and CEO Yael Aflalo, and cofounder and CEO of The Wing Audrey Gelman—figures that at one point represented a “girl power” pinnacle for female success. Weiss was one of the few who held onto her title through the reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020, as allegations of toxic work culture and racism surfaced at a number of women-run companies—Glossier included—and ended in several high-profile resignations.
There’s no denying the issues that plagued #girlboss culture. From its inception, the term became largely entwined with a white feminist’s myth of meritocracy and ignored socioeconomic class, disability, and other factors; #girlboss is now tied to hustle culture, gaslighting, and gatekeeping.
But there was hope in what these women were trying to achieve: A work ecosystem in which women weren’t punished for their ambition or forced to navigate biases that favor men. I fear we’re facing a cultural overcorrection by asking women to “step back” rather than “lean in.” And, in doing so, we are failing to both celebrate and properly instill the skills and resilience women need to achieve at either.
I understand women need a break. Two years into the pandemic, they were literally screaming at the top of their lungs from exhaustion. Working women were leaning in so hard, they were on the brink of collapse.
As Amil Niazi wrote for The Cut, ambition, especially for women of color, “takes on a jagged shape, one that seems designed to maim anyone hoping to grasp it.” Indeed, despite overachieving across the board during the pandemic, pay gaps widened and women’s mental health declined, with two-thirds reporting higher stress and anxiety levels since the pandemic.
But the internet’s answer to the declining #girlboss—#thatgirl, a hashtag with over 4.3 billion views—fails to address this burnout in any meaningful way. Its ethos rests on stepping back and slowing down, and is embodied by women who wake up before the sun to journal, drink green juice, and complete 16-step skincare routines to start their day. Aside from setting yet another unrealistic standard for women to live up to, rigorous “self care” misses the point and is likely to deplete women further.
This isn’t to diminish the critical need to care for our mental health and well-being. As a cognitive scientist I know well that journaling can tamp down anxiety and that the affirming third-person self-talk you find in many #thatgirl videos can build lasting resilience. We should continue to equip women to take care of themselves. But, we should do it in a way that doesn’t force false choices between personal and professional success. That’s something that neither #girlboss culture, nor #thatgirl culture, does.
Organizations can start to attempt solving these problems for women by first acknowledging, understanding, and addressing systemic inequities. During the pandemic, the line between our personal and professional lives was blurred more than ever before, and women ended up putting in more hours on both fronts.
The resulting burnout has fueled concerning declines in women’s ambition. This has long-term implications on our workforce and economy. Not only will the talent pipeline for female leaders decrease, but working women stand to lose significant earnings by taking career breaks, which impacts their ability to retire securely.
As companies evaluate ways to alleviate burnout, they should consider the role uncertainty plays in exacerbating anxiety. Studies show that certainty is actually a psychological and biological necessity, making an impending recession or up-in-the-air WFH policies major stressors. This means leaders should be focused on transparency and overcommunication to reduce the cognitive load of being left to wonder.
Feelings of agency also play an important role in dampening burnout. When people feel they have control over their circumstances, research shows that the experience of burnout is less severe. This is a key reason why flexible work policies are so popular—they put people in control of their schedules. In fact, women and people of color reported feeling more ambitious working from home, where they had significantly more control of their physical work environment and colleague interactions.
To keep women in the driver’s seat of their careers, companies need to be intentional about weeding out pervasive gender equity threats, including assigning women non-promotable tasks, such as party planning, or promotion processes that favor men who are more likely to apply and fit stereotypical definitions of leadership. It’s hard to feel ambitious in a rigged environment.
As president of Barnard College and as a mother raising a daughter, I’m also acutely aware of how important it is to reinforce narratives that foster resilience. My research on performance shows that psychological resilience can be strengthened by learning to embrace more than one facet of a person’s identity—the career driven, the slow living, and everything in between.
The version that makes it to the gym before work is not the same as the version that manages professional responsibilities; nor the same version that spends time with friends, takes care of loved ones, or pursues hobbies.
By untethering these identities from each other, women learn that challenges in one area don’t need to bring about the downfall of everything else. For most of us, the juggle is never ending and dropping balls is inevitable.
Sandberg, Weiss, and the many other #girlbosses who have since left the building, were indeed peddling an imperfect dogma. But ambition and an eyes-wide-open acknowledgement that women, for now, will have to do more to build the equitable workforce we all deserve are essential qualities for the next generation of female leaders. To face the challenges ahead—of which there are countless—we don’t need #thatgirl. We need more resilient female leaders who pick up the balls when they drop and start juggling again.
Sian Beilock is a cognitive scientist and the president of Barnard College.