Unchained Melody: Goodbye girl boss

By Melody Thomas

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In the wake of a pandemic that saw many of us reassess our priorities, people – and especially women – are beginning to question whether traditional ambition is really serving them. Melody Thomas learns about the death of the girl boss, and asks who might step up to take her place.

Apparently the girl boss is dead, though no-one is entirely sure what killed her. Certainly exhaustion played a part, and COVID was the final straw, but her end had already been predicted. Whatever it was that finally took her out, here the girl boss lies, makeup expertly covering the shadows that had come to live under her eyes, thumb still twitching with the urge to post (don’t worry, it’s just the final firing of her overwrought nerves), ready to be buried in her favourite blazer. We are sad to see her go, though we know it was her time.

The girl boss was named in 2014 by former Nasty Gal CEP Sophia Amoruso, but she was made from the same stuff as the career women who came before her: Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5; Melanie Griffith in Working Girl; and later, the ladies of Ally McBeal, Sex and The City and The Good Wife, through to Homeland, Scandal, The Mindy Project, Crazy Ex Girlfriend, Parks and Recreation and Emily in Paris, to name just a handful.

The girl boss was the career woman remade: a phoenix risen from the ashes, having finally combusted from repeated head-hits to a glass ceiling which refused to shatter. No longer happy to wait for a seat at the table, the girl boss promised to build her own table, wresting power from the men who had selfishly guarded it, and  lifting up other women in her wake. It was an exciting prospect, perhaps even worth getting up at 5am for a green smoothie and a full workout for, and if all those women on Instagram could handle it – Sheryl Sandberg and the “what’s your excuse?” Fit Mom with three kids and a full set of abs  – then who’s to say we couldn’t pull it off, too?

Growing up, I had an excellent career-woman role model in my Mum. Despite having four kids at home (at least the equivalent of 2 full time paid jobs), I don’t ever remember a time when she wasn’t striding out to work in her red skirt suit, “face on”, blonde perm bobbing at the shoulder. Mum worked hard at everything she did: selling ads for Te Awa Iti / Porirua News and superannuation from an office in the Hutt which embedded its location in my memory because of its proximity to KFC. At one point she set up a little shop near the tip and flipped restored furniture, soon after that becoming a Porirua City Councillor. Dad was a hard worker, too, building fences, shooting possums and cleaning up after campers as the ranger at Battle Hill Farm Forest Park where we lived. But we weren’t well-off, a fact I was only really aware of when assessing the lunch boxes of my friends at school, biting sadly into Dad’s lettuce-and-vegemite sandwich.

A couple of years ago, when I was describing my upbringing, a friend asked: “Why are you so reluctant to say you were poor?” The thing is, I never considered us poor. We never went without shoes or meals. Our beds were warm and comfy. Mostly, though, I think we were protected from our financial reality by the shine of upward mobility – encapsulated in the sound of Mum’s clicking heels – which promised that better times were just around the corner. When millennials were children, many of us were told we could be whatever we wanted if we just set our minds to it, and driving around Pauatahanui Inlet, seeing Mum’s face smiling out from billboards advertising upcoming elections, I believed it.

My own ambition led me to university, on to the NZ Broadcasting School, and into my dream job at Radio New Zealand. For all of my 20s and into my early 30s I continued to work, and to find great joy in it. I took a year off after the birth of my daughter, but from then on (including soon after my second was born), I was more productive than ever. I launched my podcast BANG!, scooped up a bunch of awards, and enjoyed all the rewards of having both a killer career (except good pay) and a beautiful family.

And then at the end of 2019 it all came crashing down. A project was cancelled, my momentum stalled, and my body took this as an opportunity to remind me of all the things I’d been neglecting in my slow but sure-footed career ascent – serving up close to a year of crippling burnout. The pandemic both helped and didn’t help matters: taking the pressure out of  my inability to work (because lockdowns prevented us all from doing that) and giving me way too much “free” time to despair in my sudden unproductivity.

Slowly but surely, with a diet of rest, creativity, and a rebuilding of my entire identity so that work was merely a part and not the whole, I recovered. But recently, I’ve felt my workload building back up to that same intolerable weight. I know I can’t go there again – my body physically can’t do it – but the cost of living is so high, how can I afford to do less?

So it was a relief when I started seeing tweets, op-eds and articles proclaiming the end of hustle culture,the death of the girlboss, and decrying Gen Z’s annoying habit of refusing to offer up their whole lives to their jobs. Turns out, the girl boss was lacking in imagination. As  often  happens when a group strives to achieve something denied to them, many working women and girl bosses simply copy-pasted from the working man: mimicking their leadership styles, removing passive language from their emails and promoting a work culture based on bullying, gaslighting, and overworked, underappreciated staff.

And while the gender makeup of some companies began to change, wider society didn’t. The gender pay gap in New Zealand still yawns embarrassingly large, especially when ethnicity is taken into account, and for every $1 a pākeha man earns, a pākeha woman earns $0.89, a Māori woman earns $0.81 and Pasifika women earn $0.75. The housework gender gap is the same: women working the same amount as their male partners nevertheless find themselves shouldering the majority of the domestic labour. As I suspect the working mothers that raised us did, we millennial working women have found that instead of having it all we have in fact been doing it all, and we’ve begun to ask if it’s all worth it.

I remember learning at Uni that one of the most common deathbed regrets from men was working too much. It’s understandable that women and others who’ve been excluded from the workplace might crave recognition for our talents; might want to explode the gendered thinking which celebrates our marriages more than our PhDs; to form our own companies, support our own families, make an impact with our work; but are we OK with inheriting this future regret along with it?

So RIP to the girl boss, buried here underneath a mound of earth still warm and freshly turned. While I am grateful for what she gave me, I welcome the death of her eternal rise-and-grind, endless productivity, and inability to rest and recover. Soon, another woman will rise to take her place. What will she look like? My hope is that she will do good work for no longer than she needs to, her weekends free for adventure, play, and dance. That her refusal to lay down her life for the relentless machinery of capitalism will inspire others to do that same, as Gen Z is doing for the rest of us now, and that the generations that follow will come to expect this kind of balance as their birthright. That on our deathbeds, our only regret will be that the wonderful lives we’ve been given the privilege of leading are finally coming to an end.

What I’m reading

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I started this book with no idea what I was getting myself into, which is probably for the best, because had I known I might never have read it. The first clues that I should steel myself came about a third of the way through, when friends started to tell me “you’re brave” and “I just couldn’t bring myself to do it”, but by then I was too invested to stop. The book follows four friends from college through their adult lives in New York, increasingly focusing on the story of Jude, and the relentless, horrifying traumas of his upbringing. A Little Life contains vivid descriptions of physical and sexual abuse, including that of a child, and so is a harrowing read. And yet I haven’t been able to put it down. Even when I’ve sensed that as bad as things are they will only get worse, I haven’t considered stopping. I can’t abandon the characters. I’m now about 50 pages from the end (surely no more tragedies can befall them!) and I’m still not sure if this is a recommendation to read it or a warning not to, and I’m not alone: there seem to be as many passionate criticisms of the book as there are endorsements. I think I’ll go with Good Reads reviewer Emma, who said: “This is an excellent, maybe perfect book, and I will never recommend it to anyone.”

What I’m listening to

Wind of Change by Crooked Media, Pineapple Street Studios & Spotify

For a podcast-maker I’m pretty slow to get around to listening to new shows, and this one has been out for a couple of years now, but if you haven’t heard it yet it’s a rollicking, fascinating ride. In Wind of Change, New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe explores the possibility that the power ballad of the same name (this one, released by the Scorpions in 1990) was written by the CIA as a piece of late Cold War cultural propaganda.

Next on the list for podcasts is The Sunshine Place, about Synanon, the Californian social experiment-turned-cult, which should plug the gap left behind for those who binge-listened Stuff’s The Commune.

What I’m cooking

 Cauliflower Steaks

We’ve been watching the new season of Queer Eye as a family (highly recommend), and in Episode 7 Antoni Porowski makes some delicious-looking cauliflower steaks with a gochujang dressing, which we just had to try. AND THE RESULT WAS INCREDIBLE. The thing is – we can’t find the actual recipe anywhere (links that look like the right one are slightly different), but I did find this cute video of someone talking you through it, and this Ottolenghi version, which is different but bound to be as – if not more -– delicious.

Bonus: If you buy gochujang specifically to try this, you can use it again to make the Honey, soy and ginger braised tofu from Meera Sodha’s East, an incredible meal bound to bring round any tofu-haters.


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