In the summer of 2020, the girlboss was officially pronounced dead. (Since then, she’s been pronounced dead over and over, as if she only gets resurrected to be killed yet again.) Some people cried over the loss. Some cursed her for ever being here. Some thanked her for shattering a glass ceiling, while others accused her of having simply reconstructed that ceiling all over again.
The girlboss did not live a long time. The term was coined by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso in 2014, and was intended to describe, well, someone very much like Amoruso: forward-thinking, powerful, inclusive – a boss, but, like, a cool boss. The “boss” was most likely a wealthy white cis male who dominated the top ranks in the workforce and didn’t just wield power but often abused it. The girlboss, on the other hand, was seen as a beacon for all working women.
It is easy to see how the girlboss was so appealing. The workforce was desperate for more equitable leadership. They were supposed to be good bosses. Last summer’s girlboss reckoning revealed that the girlboss was not more ethical or virtuous than her predecessors, often the same men who brought the girlboss to power. The girlboss rose to power by exploiting the notion that she was from a place of disempowered and would therefore prioritize professional empowerment for other disenfranchised persons. It didn’t work out that way. It’s not because the girlboss was not a good boss, it’s because there is no “good boss”.
It wasn’t the first time that a boss archetype had been placed on a pedestal. The “creative genius” boss was popularized in the 2000s, especially in the tech industry, where he was represented by Mark Zuckerburg and Steve Jobs. You might find this absurd, but in 2013, Mark Zuckerburg was named the World’s Best Boss. He received a 99% approval rating). This boss was supposed to be a brilliant strategist, a forward-thinking leader whose companies exploded with success thanks to their fearless innovation, constant hustle to change the world, and eagerness to bring their workers along for the ride. This was a fantasy. Eventually, the stories began to trickle out: These bosses could be abusive, uncaring, fickle, ethically dubious. They were more concerned about the success of their company than any other thing – even their employees’ well-being.
Then, there was the Machiavellian boss, popularly embodied in fiction as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, but acknowledged to be a thinly veiled version of Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. This boss was not an obvious “good” boss. She wasn’t kind to her staff and didn’t laugh with them. You could respect her because she cared deeply about her work and would criticize you if she wanted you to succeed. It wasn’t supposed that she was abusive. But, then, it started to matter. Wintour faced a reckoning of her own last summer, as she faced justifiable critique for racist and classist practices at Vogue. While she still holds her job, her star has declined.
However, this doesn’t mean that bosses cannot be supportive, kind, and caring on an individual basis. People in power, regardless of gender identity or personality type, intelligence level or purported values, can replicate the bad boss model and harm their employees. Perhaps the problem is not the person who becomes boss but the notion of a boss and the system that supports it.
“The way capitalism works, the job of the employer is to get the most effort – the most use of brains and muscles – from the worker as he possibly can, and at the same time pay that worker the minimum necessary to get that worker to come to work each day,” explains Richard D. Wolff, PhD, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, current visiting professor in the graduate program in International Affairs of the New School University, and co-founder of the non-profit Democracy at Work.
This tension is inherent in the boss-employee relationships. The employer makes more money by getting more work out of their subordinates receiving a smaller payment. A boss may ask workers to work overtime, during lunch, come in earlier, leave later without providing extra pay. Wolff states that not all bosses will do this. However, the system is one in which “they are better off the more they’re poorer off.” There is plenty of evidence to support the idea that good bosses exist – the one who fights for promotions and the one who takes a pay cut in order to increase the base salary of entry level employees. The one who doesn’t make anyone work late and the one who listens to everyone’s ideas. Those bosses are rare instances of people not acting in their best interests. There are many complaints about managers and legitimate labor uprisings.
American workers fought, protested, and campaigned for a century to reduce the work day to just eight hours. It wasn’t until 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. This law guaranteed all workers a 40-hour work week. There have been hundreds of other strikes, movements, and protests in the name of making capitalism more tolerable, but workers are still striking and pushing for more humane working conditions. The United Auto Workers labor union for General Motors went on strike for 40 days for higher wages and better healthcare in 2019. In the midst the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, essential workers at companies like Walmart, Instacart and Whole Foods went on strike to demand better working conditions, better treatment and better pay. In the same year, hundreds of workers at Domino’s, Taco Bell and McDonald’s went on strike to demand protections from coronavirus, $3-an hour hazard pay, and two weeks’ paid sick leave for workers who were exposed to COVID-19. This is to not mention the thousands and hundreds of people who are forced to work in unacceptable conditions, but cannot afford to protest or walk out and risk losing their main source of income.
Wolff states, “Here we sit, centuries later, still discussing the many ways that work can be unsatisfying and stressful.” “Despite acknowledging the problem and making some changes, this system has never been able really to address it. This is a sign that the problem goes deeper than this or another adjustment.” America’s true solution to its work problems might be as simple as eliminating bosses.
It’s not a new idea to get rid of bosses. The first American worker cooperative, which gives equal power to its employees and eliminates the hierarchical structure that creates bosses, was established in the U.S. by a mutual insurance company. It was founded in 1752. Wolff states that there is no boss in this arrangement. “All workers in an enterprise, regardless of whether it’s an office or a shop, collectively and democratically decide all major business decisions.”
There are approximately 300 worker cooperatives in the United States today, which is a relatively small number when compared to other countries. Bologna, Italy: Two out of three residents work in cooperatives – this is a fact that the Marcora Law supports. The 1985 law was put into effect and gives workers a choice: You can either collect a weekly unemployment check or you can join nine other unemployed workers to cash in two years’ worth of unemployment checks in one lump sum. With the money, you can start a worker cooperative. In Spain, as of 2012, there are an estimated18,000 worker cooperatives, including the largest one in the world, Mondragon, which employs 70,000 people. These cooperatives are proof that boss-less organisations can not only survive but thrive. Employees can work together without the traditional hierarchical structure of a capitalist workplace to make big decisions.
This organizational structure is unfeasible because it is committed to equality. Ask yourself why it’s more feasible for many companies to operate in ways that benefit only a few. It can be done in the U.S. in certain industries, such as digital media. These industries are known for their poor business models and bad bosses.
Defector Media is an employee-owned website that covers sports and culture. There are also people at the “top,” as Defector’s masthead states, such as an Editor in Chief, Vice President of Revenue and Operations, and so on. If a supermajority votes in favor, the rest of staff can fire them.
This sounds idyllic, but it was not easy to start a worker cooperative in media. “Because we’re doing something completely new, there’s no way to point to a precedent and say, ‘oh that’s the solution, that’s how it always has been done’,” Diana Moskovitz (Defector Investigations Editor) says. “We don’t really have that. It’s an ongoing conversation that we all have.”
Moskovitz insists it is all worth it. It’s been fascinating to see how much it is easier to do my job, and easier to get along and work with my coworkers and colleagues,” she said. “So much of our conflict was caused by bad situations created and facilitated by corporate overlords. It’s so much easier to be fully engaged in my job once you have removed the stress, pressure and stressful situations.”
Worker co-ops do have cons. Because everyone must be heard, it can be hard to bring about change or reach consensus internally. For a cooperative structure to work properly, all employees must buy in. This can be difficult for larger operations. Co-ops must still exist and compete against traditional businesses. Some argue that co-ops may have many of the same problems as traditional workplaces, such as unpaid overtime or low wages. But, “It’s not like a worker cooperative system would have its problems.” Wolff states that it would have its problems, but it would also find its own solutions. “Capitalism doesn’t have the solution to all of its problems,” Wolff said. “I believe we have reached a point in America, especially, where people are fed up with capitalism.”
Defector’s model is being closely monitored by other media professionals, which has become increasingly unstable. However, joining or forming cooperatives isn’t the only way media workers have taken control of their inequal work conditions. Many editorial staffs have unionized in recent years, in an attempt to ensure employees have a seat at the table when big decisions are being made and have made progress in areas like salary increases and holding leadership accountable.
Although this movement’s momentum may not have made a significant impact on most people’s work lives, it does not mean that it will. Wolff is one of those people who has hope. He says, “I have never seen such a lot of questioning about capitalism in my life.” It isn’t working for the majority of Americans. It hasn’t been. There’s no chance it will. It’s over, I believe.”
The future of capitalism is uncertain as well as the future for the boss, no matter how “good” and “girly” that boss might be. Let’s not bring back the boss this time.