Girlboss is a catchy phrase in English, and in addition to being an identifiable brand name, it has caught on as a sort of cultural movement (although it has not yet been added to the English Dictionary). What is it about this new word that makes it such a powerful concept? And why is it considered poor etiquette (and possibly worse) to use it in the workplace?
In English, the term “girl” seems pretty straightforward. Used to refer to a young person of the female sex, “girl” is part of a collection of naming words – “girl”, “boy”, “man”, “woman”. However, the way “girl” is used in certain contexts in English can be loaded with additional cultural meaning, and it might evoke a very negative reaction if you use the term inappropriately.
4 uses of the term “girl” and (how not to use “girl” in the workplace)
“You throw like a girl!”
English-speaking children (especially boys) will sometimes use the term “girl” as an intended insult, to belittle their ability (usually in the context of sports). This is not always a scathing insult, and can often be used in a good-natured way.
“She’s my girl”
Referring to a romantic partner as a “girl” is usually considered appropriate, as long as the woman is relatively young. It would be unusual for a woman over the age of 50 to be referred to romantically in this way.
This phrase can also be used by a parental figure as an affirmation or expression of pride: “That’s my girl!”
“The girls in the typing pool”
In 1960’s corporate workplaces, professional women were referred to derogatorily as “girls” (for example, refer to the TV show Mad Men). Any modern reference to a professional woman as a girl would today be seen as highly offensive.
Adult women may refer to their close female friends as “girls” in a familiar way and to express solidarity and group cohesion.
As an adult (male or female) in the workplace, you should approach this use carefully. I would advise you not to refer to a collection of women as “girls” unless you have heard members of that group refer to themselves in this way and if you have a familiar relationship with members of the group.
What makes Girlboss so powerful a concept (and brand name) is the way it makes use of so many of these different contexts. The initial emotional response to putting “girl” together with “boss” flies in the face of what we typically think of in a professional context. Girls aren’t supposed to be bosses!
Aside from the cultural friction of thinking of bosses as women (and women as bosses), the use of the term “girl” is a clever turning on its head of the historically derogatory workplace term.
The purpose behind the Girlboss brand brings forth the use of “girl” as a term of solidarity, marking out the brand space as a sort of “clubhouse” for women.
Girlboss is not the only brand to play with our cultural connection to uses of a word or phrase in the English language. “Slack” is another great brand example, bringing forth the interplay between phrases like “to slack off” (meaning laziness or the shirking of one’s responsibilities), “cut me some slack” (meaning to give me a break or to make an allowance), and “slack in the rope” (referring to an extra length or a section to work with, as in “less taut”).
For non-native English speakers, the meaning of some of the most powerful brand names or cultural movements may remain hidden without an exploration of its linguistic origins. “A female boss” is not really an adequate translation of the term “Girlboss”, as the word comes loaded with cultural-linguistic context.
If you encounter a word or phrase whose usage seems to carry more meaning than you are getting from a simple translation of the word, ask a native speaker. Starting a conversation about our emotional connection with words and their cultural significance is great practice for your English skills, and it’s a great way to gain a new English-speaking friend!
For more context and advice about language and women in the workplace, see these excellent articles:
Why Calling Women ‘Girls’ Is A Bigger Deal Than You May Think
Forbes, Aug 2021
7 words you should avoid using about women in the workplace
News Blog, June 2016
Dealing with microaggressions — like being called ‘girl’ — at work
Seattle Times, June 2019