Four years ago, Alyson Saxe ran into an old friend at Costco, who--upon learning Saxe had children--inquired whether she worked outside the home. Saxe explained that she'd founded a PR agency. "My friend said, 'How great! You're a mompreneur!'" recalls Saxe. "'You get to work and have time for your kids and family!'"
Saxe was surprised her friend made that distinction. The term mompreneur, she believed, bore the whiff of ambition sacrificed to work-life balance. "It's like I'm being bucketed into this category of a person who is just trying to keep her foot in the door and earn a little money," says Saxe, who recently raised north of $2 million for her second company, the brand-management platform IrisPR, based in Phoenix. "I work every bit as hard as male entrepreneurs.
"I am not a mompreneur," says Saxe. "I am a mother. And I am an entrepreneur."
Business language--like much other language--is de-gendering. Chairperson. Salesperson. Key person. The word entrepreneuress never existed, thank goodness. But if it had, it too would be gone. Yet, at the same time, some women founders are embracing female-forward descriptors, like mompreneur, and titles (boss lady, girl boss, boss babe, she-E-O) as badges of pride. Meanwhile, marketers, bloggers, and support organizations adopt these terms as shorthand for their focus or mission. The fact that girl boss and she-E-O are closely associated with controversial founders who stepped down from leading their companies--Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal and Miki Agrawal of Thinx, respectively--has barely dimmed their currency.
Many women find such titles empowering: at once a bold challenge to leadership stereotypes and a cheeky assertion of female attitude. Others say they make their teeth hurt. Whatever one's reaction, the terms send conflicting messages: Separate but equal has always been an iffy proposition.
From a semantic viewpoint, the words or phrases express meanings antithetical to their intent. The word entrepreneur derives from the Old French: to undertake an enterprise. Subbing in mom for entre suggests--roughly--undertaking maternity. As for she-E-O, the word being replaced is chief. Why would any woman want to eliminate chief from her title? Isn't occupying that top slot one reason women--and men--start companies in the first place?
Meryl Draper grew up wanting to be a CEO. At first, though, she found the title intimidating. "I just used president, because I was more comfortable with it," says Draper about her early days as co-founder of Quirk Creative, a $3.3 million video advertising agency in New York City. "It took me a year to say, why am I nervous about putting this on my business card? You have to own it."
Draper sees merit in terms like she-E-O and girl boss as signifiers for boundless opportunity. "They try to show women they can be anything, and I applaud that," she says, though she prefers to expand perceptions of who a CEO can be by being one. "I think it's tremendously important for women who have the CEO title to use it often and say it loudly. I take that title very seriously."
These terms also depend on supposedly surprising conflations. She's a mom and an entrepreneur! She's a boss and a lady! It's as though someone decided to de-mothball such shoulder-pad-era-isms as "career woman" and "working girl" and kick them to the corner office. (You go, Tess McGill!) If we're striving for a world where women with power are the norm, doesn't calling them out defeat the purpose?
Brenda Schmidt is uncomfortable with anything that suggests a distinction between herself and a male entre-preneur. Eight years ago, when applying for government funding for her first company, she declined to identify it as a woman-owned business--even though that would have helped her chances. "I wanted to compete on an even playing field," says Schmidt, who is now founder and CEO of Solera Health, a Phoenix-based company that connects people with wellness programs and which just raised $42 million. Schmidt also turns down speaking engagements "if they use phrases like 'I found you by asking around who is a woman who is a leader in this field.'
"The ability to grow a company is gender-neutral," says Schmidt. "Titles should be too." (Speaking of: Even without the woman-owned designation, Schmidt landed $8 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
But these are complaints about abstract words, not the real women who adopt them. If the descriptors don't always elevate their users as intended, sometimes the users elevate the descriptors.
Jessi Roberts, the co-founder and CEO of Cheekys, an $11 million Western fashion brand based in New Plymouth, Idaho, balked at her publisher's insistence on the title Backroads Boss Lady for her 2019 memoir-slash-business book, but only because she thought it sounded arrogant. Roberts was tickled when, years ago, she first stumbled across boss lady inscribed over a reserved parking spot at a car wash. Back at the office, she told her employees, who promptly conferred that title on her.
At Cheekys, boss lady is a term of affection, of good humor, and of trust that the leader is always looking out for her people, says Roberts. She uses the title in her email address but not in her email signature, and certainly not when conducting official business. "These terms--she-E-O, boss lady, mompreneur--are no different from nicknames that lead you to understand something fun about a person," says Roberts. "They create relationships and bonds."
That includes bonds with other women leaders who, in the nomenclature of empowerment, recognize shared experiences and sensibilities. They feel less alone. They rally around one another. "My job is to be confident in my work," says Roberts. "If I want to put a label on that so other women can celebrate that success with me, there's nothing wrong with it."
Of course. Meanwhile, Saxe takes a different tack. "If a label makes you feel good, sure, then, own it," she says. "For me, it doesn't feel good. Particularly in the tech world, and the venture world, women get typecast. It's in the culture." And, she asserts, "it doesn't help."