Last week, in an interview with Variety, Kim Kardashian said “I have the best advice for women in business: Get your f—ing ass up and work. It seems like nobody wants to work these days.”
The interview, meant to promote the Kardashian-Jenner family’s new Hulu show, The Kardashians, was done alongside her sisters and mom, and like with most Kardashian news, you have probably heard about it whether you wanted to or not.
This comment left Kardashian in a mire of disgust and eye rolls, as women across the internet were quick to point out that Kim and her family not only grew up with more advantages than most—wealthy family, famous lawyer father, access to privileged education—and continue to have advantages—wealth, celebrity, an army of assistants and helpers. Not to mention that women do work hard, and these days are working harder than ever before.
I’m sure Kim works hard. She has established a profitable brand on her person alone, and anyone who has ever tried her shapewear line SKIMS (yours truly included) will tell you that they are no joke. Kim’s comment is strikingly consistent with the ever-growing pressure that women are under, thanks to the establishment of such tropes such as the Girlboss and She-EO—and while the pressure persists for women to embrace hustle culture, a toxic byproduct is an environment in which women can never quite keep up.
Kim's comment is particularly insulting because it fails to address that women in business have been working harder than ever to keep up with men in a gendered work environment before the added pressure of toxic girlboss culture, and the expectation that they should be able to juggle motherhood, childcare, the cultural implications of their femininity, as well as the stress of world events such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sure, some women may want to adjust their work expectations to balance their other obligations—but also, many women are burnt out after burning the candle at both ends and are realizing that there is more to existence and happiness than being a relentless #Girlboss.
The rise of the girlboss
In the mid-2010s, the girlboss culture was born. Branded by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso and embodied in powerhouses like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (her book Lean In solidified the phrase that became a rallying cry for working women everywhere). Not to mention in fashion blogger Leandra Medine, and in the now-disgraced founder of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes.
For me, as a woman who came of age during this era, this movement felt like a seismic cultural shift. Women suddenly had very visible power in the boardroom, as bosses, CEOs and founders. Although I was born into a world where women were legally and socially empowered to do just about anything, this felt different. It felt like we could gain this power and be ourselves at last—no more having to soften our tone or wipe off the red lipstick—we could present ourselves as we wanted and demand the respect we deserve.
I and others embraced the idea that women could have it all and we finally had role models in the business industry—albeit, mostly white ones.
And whether directly related to this rise in the ethos of girlboss culture or not, the 2010s did see positive upward trends for women. In 2021 it was reported that women-owned employer firms increased by 6,861 from 2017 to 2018, a 0.6 percent increase. The number of female CEOs has steadily increased since 2000, although, it is worth noting that women are still the minority in these high-power positions, and women of color are still sorely underrepresented and granted fewer opportunities to rise than white women.
As women have gained seemingly more equal footing in the business world, it felt like the glass ceiling was shattering. However, the way I see it, it was simply replaced by something else.
The ‘mirage’ ceiling
As the 2010s and 2020s have gone on, the girlboss trope has been re-appropriated. Mixed in with an unhealthy dose of perfectionism and comparison, the aspirational, role model quality became a standard that you had to achieve to be considered a feminist, a hard worker, and a woman who had it all.
Women have felt increasingly pressured to monetize all hobbies, make everything profitable. To not be a girlboss became viewed as unvirtuous—and as Kim put it, those who didn’t embrace its ethos or worse failed at it were clearly sitting on their f—king asses, not trying.
Girlboss culture began to crumble as the women who embodied its tenants became less and less relatable. Sophia Amoruso faced allegations of workplace discrimination, allegedly firing pregnant employees; motivational speaker and author, Rachel Hollis’s insistence on remaining unrelatable lost her main fanbase and she was branded as “tone-deaf”; Elizabeth Holmes pushed medical equipment onto the public before it was ready, resulting in her recent trial and guilty verdict.
Further, the implications of the hustle and girlboss culture have proven to be bad for productivity and health. One study found that working more than 50 hours a week decreases productivity and can cause a plethora of health problems ranging from depression, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and excessive use of alcohol.
Women still face serious challenges at work
When you look at the low numbers of women higher up in business or the female CEOs, one could easily fall into thinking like Kim: “it seems like nobody wants to work these days.” After all, if they had only worked harder wouldn’t more women have achieved the same as men . . . or Kim?
However, women are still facing many of the same old challenges, and studies have shown that until the impact of the pandemic, lack of ambition has not been the problem for women. In the 2020 CNBC and SurveyMonkey Women at Work Survey, 54 percent of the 1,068 working U.S. women said that they were “very ambitious.”
Despite this ambition, the survey found that only 15 percent of those women surveyed between 18-44 thought that they would achieve an executive-level job in the next 10 years. This low expectation tracks because, as of February 2022, women only hold 31 (6.2 percent) of CEO positions at the S&P 500 companies.
This number doesn’t reflect the fact that 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees are awarded to women and yet, according to the Pew Research Center, as of the third quarter of 2021, among “full- and part-time workers ages 25 and older, women earned 86 percent of what men earned based on median hourly earnings.”
In the same article from CNBC, Lean In co-founder and CEO Rachel Thomas said that unconscious gender bias plays a major role in why women aren’t promoted and hired at the same rate as their male counterparts. “We know that performance bias—or this belief that men are slightly more capable or competent than they are, and that women are slightly less capable and competent than they are—is so pervasive that it impacts our decision-making,” Thomas said. “Men are typically hired based on potential and what we believe they can do, while women are typically hired and promoted based on what they’ve already accomplished.”
Further, studies have shown that women are more likely than men to report that childcare has a negative impact on their careers. One in four working women are mothers of a child under the age of 14. They are usually the ones who end up shouldering the decision between childcare and work and finding affordable childcare has long been a problem for working mothers.
It’s fair to say Kim Kardashian has not faced these same disadvantages when it comes to finding employment and rising in the workforce. Forbes reported that Kardashian had achieved billionaire status in 2021, with a net worth of $1 billion, thanks to a notable reality TV career, a popular app, many business sponsorships, and businesses including Skims and KKW Beauty.
In addition to thriving businesses and a reality star career, in 2019, Kardashian announced her plans to become a lawyer. Kardashian did not graduate college and has opted to become a lawyer without law school, since in California a college degree is not required to become a lawyer; one just needs to pass the baby bar exam. Kardashian passed the baby bar in December 2021, after several failed attempts.
Kardashian’s achievement is not to be diminished, and her efforts to study law and help the unjustly incarcerated are noble, but her success is not entirely her own. Kardashian not only has regular tutors, but she also has an entire team of caregivers for her four children, cooks, housekeepers, bodyguards, assistants, and more. Further, with her notoriety and name recognition, Kardashian is likely to not struggle as hard to obtain business deals and move up in status as the average woman would. Kim no doubt puts her pants on one leg at a time, same as you and me, but as she has shared many times on her Instagram, she doesn’t HAVE to do it alone if she chooses not to.
COVID's economic impact on women
The burnout from roadblocks already faced by women in a normal economy and non-pandemic world was only intensified and became more evident with the arrival of the COVID pandemic. The world shifted to remote work, people isolated from one another, which meant no more support from family, friends, or caregivers, and many lost their jobs. In fact, due to the more than 5 million women who lost their jobs in 2020, women accounted for 100 percent of the net loss in the U.S. labor market that year.
According to CNBC and SurveyMonkey’s 2021 Women at Work survey, not only do 65 percent of women feel that the pandemic has made conditions worse for women at work, women are feeling less ambitious and more burned out than before.
In the same study, CNBC and SurveyMonkey found, “more than a third of women with children under 18 say ‘difficulty balancing work and family obligations,’ are the main reason for their burnout.”
This increased amount of responsibility has led many women to put ambition on hold out of necessity or from being stretched too thin.
According to CNBC, “more than a fifth of working women say they’ve also experienced a career setback over the past year, which, when combined with burnout, can be tied to women feeling less ambitious in their careers,” with an even steeper decline for women of color.
The Brookings Institution explains: “COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up. Millions of women were already supporting themselves and their families on meager wages before coronavirus-mitigation lockdowns sent unemployment rates skyrocketing and millions of jobs disappeared. And working mothers were already shouldering the majority of family caregiving responsibilities in the face of a childcare system that is wholly inadequate for a society in which most parents work outside the home.”
It’s enough to tell us if girlboss culture hadn’t already started to crumble pre-pandemic, it would have happened anyway. The pandemic has shown men and women that there is more to life than work ambition and that they don’t need to sacrifice a life they love for one that works them to death.
Women are seeking fulfillment with work-life balance
Kim likes to say that she and her sisters act like themselves on screen, and if this is true, then it seems like Kim doesn’t really have much true work-life balance especially because the boundaries between reality and work become murky when your greatest monetary venture is a reality TV show based on your life.
Girlboss culture focuses on the exterior—wealth, status, money—but women have started to desire a balance. Sure, those other things have value, but they become unenjoyable or unattainable when your insides are twisted in a knot.
Forbes reported that the top reason that women were leaving work during the pandemic was a lack of work-life balance. “Only one in five women surveyed believe that their employers have helped them to create clear boundaries between work time and personal time during the pandemic. This is also reflected in the top reason that women are considering dropping out of the workplace entirely: increased workload.”
Over the last couple of years of the pandemic, I have observed the women around me rediscovering hobbies and seeking better employment, and some have quit dead-end or hustle-focused jobs. Women have detached their identities from their jobs and have been better for it.
It would seem that women are coming to terms with the fact that adjusted ambitions do not reflect a lack of virtue. Women work. We have worked hard. If we’re smart, we also know when to rest and take a break from the uphill battle. It’s not throwing in the towel—we are still working our tails off. And we have a ways to go to better serve all range of working women in our multifaceted needs. But if we’ve grown to see that work isn’t all there is to life, that’s a good thing. It would mean we have become empowered with the knowledge that our identities don’t need to be rooted in our work for us to have value.