In a start-up economy of self-described “boss babes”, Ashley Sumner would like to be more easily known.
During a run near her home in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles in early March, Ms. Sumner pondered identity and the upbeat idioms that female professionals use to describe themselves online: “girl bosses” and the like.
“I am concerned about the negative effects,” said Ms. Sumner, 32 ,. “I worry that investors may see female founders as a separate class from the rest of the founders. I worry that investors can write small checks to female founders. I believe women need to help inspire other women, but also that identities can be used as labels to separate us. “
Ms. Sumner is the managing director of Quilt, an audio platform for conversations about self-care topics such as workplace wellness, PTSD, and astrology. (In pre-pandemic days, the company organized work meetings and group discussions in people’s homes.)
She felt marginalized in the women’s department of the founding circles. “I am always asked to speak on the founding committee,” said Ms. Sumner. “I would like to be asked to speak on the podium.”
Being in the discussion business, she wondered if she could start one with the central question. “When does the label to support and celebrate the advancement of our mission of equality succeed and when is it ‘different’ and violates our mission?”
She ran home, sat sweaty at her computer, dropped a few words and superimposed them on a photo of herself. “I’m a founder,” she typed, then slipped the word “female” dramatically and added a heading that read in part, “If I put my gender before who I am, what I have achieved becomes what I have achieved , reduced. “
Ms. Sumner is not particularly active on Instagram or Twitter. She’d never done more on LinkedIn than post someone else’s articles or thoughts. However, given this platform’s focus on professional life, she felt it was a reasonable place to share her handicrafts first.
Ms. Sumner’s post has received nearly 20,000 comments from men and women in the United States, Australia, Africa, Latin America, India, and beyond. by executives, construction workers, healthcare workers, professors, and military professionals.
After reading it, Kate Urekew, the founder of Revel Experiences, a Boston marketing firm, contacted three successful business owners who she knows will ask what they think. Everyone said that there was not enough representation of women in leadership positions to ignore the gender differences. “In order to change things and really achieve parity,” said Ms. Urekew, 50, “you need to be more visible to other women.”
She added, “I love that she started this discussion, it opened my eyes to many more aspects.”
A rarity for a viral social media post, especially about identity, the comments reflect a range of perspectives and are largely bourgeois.
“We all need to hear that,” wrote one man. “Too much identity politics leads to affirmative biases.”
“I don’t think we’re still there,” wrote one woman. “We’re still at a point where we’re trying to become equals and that requires awareness, doesn’t it?”
“Success in business means you do great things and in some cases outperform a man,” wrote one man.
More than 150 female founders have posted similar photos of themselves, crossed out the word “female” and then shared what is now credibly a meme on the Internet.
One of them was Antoinetta Mosley, the founder of I Follow the Leader, a consulting firm specializing in diversity, equity and inclusion strategies, initiatives and education, initiatives and education in Durham, NC. She said of Mrs. Sumner’s job. “I immediately clicked to see what she said and I found it really noticeable.”
Ms. Mosley, 34, said in the unconscious bias seminars she leads, she urges people to reflect on how race, gender, and other characteristics influence the narratives of people’s professional skills and how to perpetuate inequalities. “When people see me as the leader of a black woman,” she said, “they assume that my blackness and a woman influence my leadership style.”
She believes these labels can sometimes discourage women from being equal to men. She said that being a black woman is an integral part of her identity, but, like most people, she has far more dimensions. She believes her professional traits can be attributed most to being an athlete and the oldest of four children with motivated parents.
Faryl Morse, 55, who owns the Faryl Robin shoe company, was also encouraged to write her own article in which the social media jargon of “Boss Babe”, “WomEntrepreneur”, “Girl Boss” and “Mompreneur” “Is listed.
“Let’s stop adding these cute names to women who are ambitious and persist in pursuing their dreams,” she wrote. “It doesn’t empower a woman.”
Ms. Morse wants other women to see her success and know that they too can strive to own and run a thriving business in a male-dominated industry, and she believes it gives her a different and valuable perspective, one To be a woman. “But I’m not a founder,” she said. “I am a founder. End of conversation. Gender shouldn’t be descriptive in the world we live in today. It doesn’t define me professionally. “
Rayy Babalola, the founder of Agile Squad, a project management and consulting firm in Kent, England, was intrigued by the responses on LinkedIn, but says it’s not that easy for everyone to drop the labels and fight and persevere forgetting the ones needed to find professional success.
Ms. Babalola, 30, believes the fact that she claims to be the founder of a black woman means that she has overcome the dual obstacles of sexism and racism. And she feels obliged to signal to other black women that they too can find a way to own business.
“Being a black woman influenced my treatment and that drove me to become a founder,” she said. “And you can’t be selfish,” she said. “Just because you found a way doesn’t mean it’s okay, now you can be silent.”
She believes identifiers like “founder” and “black-owned company” are still important. “Until these terms stop confusing the mind,” she said, they must be used to remind the world that they are something of a novelty and remain in the minority.
Nikki Thompson of Overland Park, Kan., Said she never shares her opinion on social media, but when she came across Ms. Sumner’s post she couldn’t stop. “The labeling perpetuates the differences that we should resolve,” she wrote.
As a trained nurse, Ms. Thompson is responsible for training and paperwork for patients, among other things. Questions about race, gender, generational demographics, religion, and ethnicity are asked in many forms. She understands that data collection is essential to diagnosing and treating disease. However, it questions the value of this data collection in the many other facets of daily life. (Ms. Thompson was happy to answer the question about her age – she will be 41 next week – but noted that labeling people’s ages is part of the problem.)
“What if we drop the labels, the prejudice could subside,” she said. “This is a daily thing in my career and I think a lot about words and bias and unconscious bias and how we could reduce them.” (She also said the pendulum can swing either way: she has heard relatives of her male colleagues say, “I had a male nurse and he was very good.”)
Surprised by the response to her post, Ms. Sumner admitted that being a white woman influenced many of her experiences, “with all the privilege that comes with it,” she said. “But how do I see myself? How do I identify myself? As a founder and as someone who starts discussions. “