Fatima Zaidi: ‘In the Court of Public Opinion, Women Founders Deserve a Retrial’
The frenzied media coverage of the trial of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes and the success of the HBO series on her downfall, The Dropout, makes one thing clear: people love to watch the toppling of women founders. The latest example of this is a recent viral New York Times’ piece, “The Sunsetting of the Girlboss Is Nearly Complete,” which covers the stepping down of Emily Weiss as CEO of Glossier, the billion-dollar beauty brand she founded.
The article is not wrong in its thesis: There has been a stunning rise and fall of many women CEOs who became pseudo-celebrities in the start-up space and whose popularity bled into the mainstream. Sophia Amoruso, founder of fashion retailer Nasty Gal and author of bestselling book #Girlboss, Audrey Gelman, founder of women’s networking club, The Wing, Leandra Medine, founder of the website Man Repeller, as well as Weiss, are part of a cohort of young founders who experienced skyrocketing success in the mid-2010s. These women positioned feminism at the core of their ventures, popularizing the term “girlboss” for showing that women can lead successful global businesses. The piece objectively details the recent struggles of Glossier, including accusations of a toxic work environment and slumping sales.
But where sexism creeps in is when the writer points the finger at the fact that Weiss is a woman, and ties her failures to the “trend” of other millennial women founders who have also fallen from grace following accusations of fostering a toxic work culture and not supporting women of colour within their organizations. (In a statement on Instagram, Weiss clarified she is not leaving Glossier but is moving into an executive chairwoman role.) Why is this considered a trend when countless men founders have left failing start-ups and toxic work cultures in their wake in recent years? Think WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann who stepped down as CEO in 2019 after reports of “erratic behaviour” and tequila-fuelled company parties, or Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick who left in 2017 after allegations of fostering a workplace culture that included discrimination and sexual harassment, to name a few.
The word “girlboss” alone is coded. It went from an empowering moniker that was meant to represent feminism to a catch-all term used to negatively characterize women entrepreneurs. In 2020, after allegations of discrimination and toxicity were made against some high-profile “girlbosses,” like Christene Barberich, co-founder of the publication Refinery29, and Yael Aflalo, CEO and founder of the clothing brand Reformation, the tide turned. As pointed out in Vox, as more stories surfaced, the term came to represent “the sinister process of capitalist success and hollow female empowerment.” The headline of the recent Times article suggests that the eradication of women such as Weiss from the start-up scene is a positive thing.
The article is an attack on certain types of women—those who made their personality and politics part of their brand. The Times’ writer notes that some of these women founders were replaced by someone “who doesn’t brand herself as a feminist icon and who doesn’t seem as likely to become a household name for millennial women” calling Jen Rubio—who replaced luggage-brand Away founder Steph Korey after she was accused of being a toxic leader—“lower-key.”
To be clear, these women did have serious allegations made against them—especially from employees of colour. This behaviour is not excusable or justifiable, but men often don’t face the same widespread criticism for similar actions.
When Jack Dorsey stepped down as Twitter CEO in 2021, allegations of his past poor managerial style, lack of diversity in staff and that “frat-themed” party—which happened during a time when the company faced a lawsuit filed by a former woman employee who claimed promotions were biased towards men—were not linked to gender. Dorsey’s alleged “chaotic” and “distant” managerial style was not described as a symptom of being a man. His move away from Twitter was also largely painted as a positive for Block, formerly known as Square, the financial payments company Dorsey co-founded and continues to lead.
What’s more, women founders don’t often get the second chances graciously bestowed on their men counterparts. Dorsey, recall, was fired as Twitter CEO back in 2008, before earning the top job again in 2015—and this was despite reported trepidation among employees based on his behaviour during his past stint at the company. It seems that CEOs who are men can quickly shake off the shadow of their past mistakes—even within the same company those mistakes were made—whereas women are not as easily forgiven. Following the scandal of Theranos, women tech founders have said they are constantly compared to Holmes and face skepticism even though they have nothing to do with the failed blood testing start-up.
The unfounded notion that women cannot lead successful companies is perpetuated not just by the media, but also investors. Venture capitalists and investors, who are often men, might read the Times’ article and feel vindicated in their funding biases. Last year in the U.S., women received only two per cent of venture capital funds, the lowest since 2016. This is despite the fact that research shows that women-founded businesses deliver more revenue than companies founded by men.
We can’t let the fall of Weiss be evidence that women don’t deserve to be founders. Were a lot of aspects of Glossier problematic? Yes. Does that mean we should pin it all on fallen “girlbosses”? Absolutely not. If Weiss were a man, that would not even be a question.