Enough With The Gender Labels -- I'm Not The #GirlBoss, I'm The #Boss

09/16/2016 03:54 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2017

Gender qualifiers may be hurting instead of helping the cause for equality

There is no doubt that women have made significant progress in the quest for equality, particularly in the workplace. Entrepreneurship is one of the few areas where women can chart their own course, without having to deal with the stereotypes or dysfunction of corporate America. An enterprising woman, for example, would be able to choose her own staff and shape the company culture when starting her own business. That said, it's time to stop using the "female" qualifier when talking about entrepreneurial women, as it may be hindering progress instead of helping to advance our efforts toward gender equality in the workplace.

Gender progress so far

The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that women make up nearly 36 percent of all U.S. business owners. The data also showed that women-owned businesses have increased their receipts by almost 19 percent, producing 1.4 trillion dollars in sales in 2012. Women play a critical role in growing their local economies, particularly in some developing countries where up to 50 percent of businesses are owned by women. These same women invest 90 percent of their income back into their families and communities.

Around the world, we are all moving toward equality in business and the impacts are palpable. Let's also not forget the current political landscape at home, where one woman and one man are running for the top office. That is progress in equality! (Despite how exasperating this actual election has become.)

Today, one of the most powerful groups among us are the millennials, who make up the majority of the U.S. labor force. One of the most refreshing things about this generation is that they did not grow up with the same gender baggage that my generation had.

Millennials at large tend to have comparatively neutral attitudes about gender, with more than two-thirds of young people saying that gender does not define destiny or behavior in the way that it used to. A majority of millennial women aspire to attain boss or top manager status, and a significant number of millennials view women as more career-focused than men.

Overall, the younger generation has grown up with the expectation that they could "have it all." Their attitudes have been supported by their families, academic institutions and often their employers, who are seeing the benefits of having diverse teams and female leaders. In fact, a recent Peterson Institute study of 21,980 publicly traded companies in 91 countries revealed that the presence of more female leaders in top positions of corporate management correlated with increased profitability of these companies. More progress!

The millennial attitude on gender

I'd like for women of my generation and those who deem themselves hardcore feminists to take a lesson from our millennial colleagues. What if we stop focusing so much on the existing gender inequality, and instead work on removing any thoughts that women could be anything other than equal? Of course, this is much easier said than done. Even as someone who wants to steer clear of gender qualifiers like #girlboss, I still find myself using them. This mental shift is a struggle, but it's about time we all take on this challenge. And it's a challenge I think we are up to. By overcoming these mental barriers, we immediately open up the possibilities to what is and what should be. Dwelling on the gender gap at the expense of progress is no longer healthy - we must state where we want to go and take the steps to get there.

Assume you can have it all

A former colleague of mine is a young mother of two, soon to be three. She occupies a senior role at her company and recently moved her family to New York City to take a new position. As an impressive, confident and, most importantly, successful professional, I asked what her secret was.

She told me she had always operated under the assumption that she could have it all. For her, it was never a question that she could have both a flourishing career and a rich family life. By shifting her attention from the obstacles she might face as a woman to the ways she could overcome these obstacles, she manifested success at work and at home. Any barriers she faced - and she did face many - were overlooked and worked through. By not giving her challenges more attention than they deserved, and not attributing her female status as the reason for her challenges, she manifested a vision of her life that met her goals.

It's not that problems will disappear if you simply don't acknowledge them. Rather, this is a strategy that directs the majority of our energy on where we want to go, versus where we are or where we have been. The disproportionate amount of attention given to gender inequality is no longer helpful in advancing women's careers; this hindrance is exacerbated when combined with the rising trend of giving gendered names to women's professional accomplishments, as seen in widely used hashtags like #ladyboss, #bossbabe and the wildly popular #girlboss movement. Let's just be the #Boss.

It's important to note that a shift in attitude is powerful - but it must be accompanied by more systematic changes, including equal pay and a commitment to equitable hiring practices, to truly empower the next generation of women over the long haul.

Just call me boss

Women do still encounter gender inequality in the office, and it's only right to acknowledge the achievements of female professionals as they make headway in their careers and progress for all women in establishing a more equal workplace. However, this recognition should be as gender-neutral as our ideal vision of an egalitarian workforce.

Similarly, we perpetuate the underlying assumption that the default for success is male by labeling a woman's business acumen as "female entrepreneurialism" instead of just "entrepreneurialism." Gendered expressions of praise are well intentioned, but they also work to further single out female success as an exception to the male norm. A better way to support female colleagues in their work is to applaud their entrepreneurialism, without a qualifier.

This is not to say that women don't deserve credit for succeeding in spite of the barriers they face. Indeed, female professionals still have to work extra hard to attain the same standing as their male counterparts. But, as the adage goes, "fake it 'til you make it." In order for women's successes to be upheld as standard, we need to speak that expectation into existence.

The next generation of entrepreneurs

Back at the convention where Clinton was made the first female U.S. presidential candidate, First Lady Michelle Obama gave a heartfelt speech about the strength in diversity. She affirmed to us that "all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States."

We must also take for granted that women can be successful entrepreneurs. To eliminate the problem of occupational gender inequality, we need to think beyond it and start focusing on the gender-neutral environment that we wish to see in the workplace. That means doing the heavy work in the form of action, like bringing more women into the workforce.

It also means doing the more subtle, yet equally critical work of shifting our own mindsets. It's time that each of us, no matter what our gender, stops using qualifying terms. Only then can the conversation on gender evolve.