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 mourned the loss. Some cursed her for ever existing. Some thanked her for shattering a glass ceiling, while others accused her of having simply reconstructed that ceiling all over again.
The girlboss didn’t live a long life; 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 girlboss was the direct counterpoint to the “boss,” most likely the kind of wealthy white cis man who historically dominated the top ranks of the workforce, and who didn’t just wield power, but usually abused it. Meanwhile, the girlboss was billed as a beacon of hope for working women — for everyone.
It’s easy to see why the girlboss was such an appealing figure; the workforce was starved for new, more equitable leadership. They were supposed to be good bosses. But what last summer’s girlboss reckoning made clear was that the girlboss wasn’t any more virtuous or ethical than her predecessors — often the very men who put the girlboss in power in the first place. In fact, the girlboss rose to the top by exploiting the perception that she came from a disempowered place, and therefore would be sure to prioritize the professional empowerment of other disenfranchised people. But it didn’t happen that way. And that’s not simply because the girlboss wasn’t a good boss — it’s because the “good boss” doesn’t exist.
The girlboss wasn’t the first time a boss archetype was put on a pedestal. In the 2000s, the “creative genius” boss came into fashion, particularly in the tech world, embodied by the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg. (If that sounds ridiculous, remember that in 2013, Mark Zuckerburg was crowned the World’s Best Boss by Glassdoor, where he had 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. Only, that narrative was just a fantasy. Eventually, the stories began to trickle out: These bosses could be abusive, uncaring, fickle, ethically dubious. They cared more about their company’s success than anything else — including their employees’ wellbeing.
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 type of boss wasn’t an obviously “good” boss — she wasn’t kind and she didn’t joke around with her employees. But, she was someone who you knew to respect, because she cared about her work with a fierce passion — and so, by extension, if she criticized you, it was only because she wanted you to succeed. That she was abusive wasn’t supposed to matter, until of course, it did start to matter. Wintour faced a reckoning of her own last summer, as she faced justifiable critique for racist and classist practices at Vogue. She still has her job, but her star has also dimmed.
This isn’t to say that, on an individual level, bosses can’t be nice, caring, or supportive. But people in positions of power — regardless of their gender identity or personality type or intelligence level or purported values — replicate the model of the bad boss, harming their employees in the process. But maybe the problem isn’t the person who becomes a boss, but rather the idea of there being a boss at all, and the system where the boss thrives.
“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 to the boss-employee relationship, because the employer profits by squeezing out ever-more work from their subordinates for ever-diminishing payment. It’s advantageous for a boss to ask a worker to come in early, for example, or leave late or work through lunch, without offering overtime pay. Not all bosses do this, of course, but the system exists in which “they’re better off the more you’re worse off,” Wolff says. And while there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of good bosses — the one who fights for promotions, the one who takes a pay cut to raise the base salary of entry-level employees, the one who never makes anyone work late, the one who listens to and respects everyone’s ideas — those bosses are the rare examples of people who aren’t acting in their own best interests. Meanwhile, there’s a longer, rich history of complaints and criticisms about managers, and justifiable labor uprisings.
“Here we are, centuries later, still discussing all the ways that work is unsatisfying, stressful, and exhausting. This system, despite having recognised the problem and despite some reforms, has, in fact, never been able to really deal with it."
Richard Wolff, PHD
The fight to whittle down the standard workday from 12-plus hours to eight took a century-long battle of American workers fighting, protesting, and campaigning; it wasn’t until 1938 that The Fair Labor Standards Act was introduced, which guaranteed a forty-hour work week for all labourers. 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 of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, essential workers from companies including Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Target, and Walmart went on strike to demand safer working conditions, better treatment, and better pay. The same year, hundreds of workers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Domino’s walked off the job to demand coronavirus protections, $3 ($4.10 AUD)-an-hour hazard pay, and two weeks of paid sick leave to workers exposed to COVID-19. That’s to say nothing of the hundreds and thousands of people who work under intolerable conditions and yet can’t afford to walk out or stand up in protest and risk losing their primary source of income.
“Here we are, centuries later, still discussing all the ways that work is unsatisfying, stressful, and exhausting,” Wolff says. “This system, despite having recognised the problem and despite some reforms, has, in fact, never been able to really deal with it. That’s a sign that the problem runs deeper than this or that adjustment.” The true solution to America’s work problem, then, might just start with abolishing bosses altogether.
Getting rid of bosses isn’t a new concept. In the U.S., the first recognised worker cooperative — a company that gives equal power and ownership to each of its employees, effectively eliminating the hierarchical structure that creates bosses — was a mutual insurance company in 1752. “In this arrangement, there is no single boss,” Wolff says. “All the workers in an enterprise, whether it’s a factory or a store or an office, collectively, democratically, decide all of the major business decisions.”
It’s estimated that there are around 300 worker cooperatives in the U.S. today, a small number compared to other countries. In Bologna, Italy, two out of every three residents work in a cooperative — a reality that’s supported by the government through the Marcora Law. This law went into effect in 1985, and offers a choice to unemployed workers: Collect an unemployment check every week, or come together with nine other unemployed workers, cash in two years worth of unemployment checks as a lump sum, and use the money to start a worker cooperative. In Spain, as of 2012, there are an estimated 18,000 worker cooperatives, including the largest one in the world, Mondragón, which employs 70,000 people. These cooperatives offer proof that boss-less organisations can not just survive, but thrive. Without the normal hierarchical structure of the capitalist workplace, employees can come together to make the big decisions.
If this organisational structure sounds unfeasible in its commitment to equality, ask yourself why it’s any more reasonable for so many companies to operate in ways that only benefit a select few. And there are examples of how it can work in the U.S., including in industries that are notorious for their untenable business models, and infamous for their bad bosses — like digital media, for example.
Defector Media, an employee-owned sports and culture website, is one such example of a worker cooperative. At Defector, the entire staff decides what to cover and how to handle issues like ad placements, with the help of specific committees (every employee must be on one committee). And while there are people at the “top” of Defector’s masthead — an Editor in Chief, a VP of Revenue and Operations, etc. — the rest of the staff has the power to fire them, if a supermajority votes for it.
“[So] much of our conflict was because of bad situations created by our corporate overlords. Once you remove that pressure and that stress and those situations… it’s just so much easier now to really be engaged with my job.”
If this sounds like a dream situation, know that starting a worker cooperative in media wasn’t easy. “Since we are doing something new, it’s not like there’s a thing that we can point to and be like, ‘oh, well that’s the answer, that’s how it’s always been done’,” says Diana Moskovitz, Investigations Editor at Defector. “We don’t really have that. It’s just an ongoing conversation we’re all constantly having.”
But still, Moskovitz says it’s all worth it. “It’s been really fascinating to see how much easier it is to do my job and easier to get along with all of my colleagues and coworkers and just work with them,” she says. “[So] much of our conflict was because of bad situations created by our corporate overlords. Once you remove that pressure and that stress and those situations… it’s just so much easier now to really be engaged with my job.”
Worker co-ops do have cons. It can be difficult to create change internally or to reach decisions, because every voice must be heard. All employees must fully buy into the cooperative structure for it to truly work, which can be a tall order for bigger operations. And since co-ops still have to exist and compete with traditionally structured businesses, some argue that many of the same issues seen in a hierarchical workplace structure — unpaid overtime, low wages — may still exist inside the co-op. And yet: “It’s not that a worker cooperative system wouldn’t have its problems. It would, but it would find its own solutions, just as capitalism doesn’t have a solution to all its problems,” Wolff says. “I think we are at the point, in the U.S. especially, where people are done with capitalism.”
While Defector’s model is being closely watched by others in the media industry, which has grown increasingly unstable, joining or forming a cooperative isn’t the only way media workers, for example, have asserted control over their unequal work situations. Many editorial staffs — including Refinery29’s — have unionised 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.
This groundswell of a movement might not have changed most people’s work realities yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. Wolff, for one, has hope. “I have never, in my life, seen this amount of questioning of capitalism,” he says. “For the mass of the American people, it isn’t working well — it hasn’t been — and there’s no prospect that it’s going to be. I think it’s over.”
If the future of capitalism is uncertain, so too is the future of the boss — no matter how “good” or “girl”-y that boss may be. This time, let’s not bring the boss back at all.