In a startup economy of self-described "boss babes," Ashley Sumner wants to be known in simpler terms.
While on a run near her home in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles in early March, Sumner was thinking about identity and the peppy phrases that female professionals use to describe themselves online: "girl bosses" and the like.
"I worry about the negative impact of that," Sumner, 32, said. "I worry that it allows investors to see founders who are women as a separate class from the rest of the founders. I worry it allows investors to write female founders smaller checks. I do believe that women need to help inspire other women, but also that identity can be used as labels to separate us."
Sumner is the chief executive officer of Quilt, an audio platform for conversations about self-care topics such as wellness in the workplace, post-traumatic stress disorder and astrology. (Before covid, the company organized work gatherings and group discussions in people's homes.)
She has felt marginalized in the female section of founders' circles. "I am always asked to speak on the female founders panel," Sumner said. "I want to be asked to speak on the panel."
Since she is in the discussion business, she wondered if she could start one with the central question. "When is labeling [successful] in support and celebration of furthering our mission of equality and when is it hurting our mission?"
She ran home, sat sweatily at her computer, banged out a few words and overlaid them on a photograph of herself. "I am a female founder," she typed, then dramatically crossing out the word "female" and adding a caption that read in part: "putting my gender in front of what I am belittles what I've accomplished."
Sumner isn't particularly active on Instagram or Twitter. On LinkedIn, she had never done more than repost someone else's articles or musings. But given that platform's focus on professional life, she thought it was a reasonable place to first share her handiwork.
Sumner's post has drawn nearly 20,000 comments, from men and women in the United States, Australia, Africa, Latin America, India and beyond; from executives, construction workers, health care employees, professors and military professionals.
After reading it, Kate Urekew, the founder of Revel Experiences, a marketing firm in Boston, contacted three successful business owners she knows to ask them what they think. Each said there is not yet enough representation of women in leadership ranks to ignore the gender disparities. "In order to change things and truly achieve parity," said Urekew, 50, "you need to have more visibility for other women."
'OPENED UP MY EYES'
She added: "I love that she started this discussion, it opened up my eyes to many more aspects."
In something of a rarity for a viral social media post, especially one about identity, the comments reflect a range of perspectives and are mostly civil.
"That's what we all need to hear," one man wrote. "Too much identity politics leads to confirmation bias."
"I don't feel we are there yet," one woman wrote. "We are still at a point where we are trying to get equal footing, and that takes awareness, doesn't it?"
More than 150 female founders posted similar photos of themselves, crossing out the word "female," and then shared what was now credibly a meme on the internet.
Faryl Morse, 55, who owns the footwear company Faryl Robin, was also moved to make her own post, listing the social media lingo of "Boss Babe," "WomEntrepreneur," "Girl Boss" and "Mompreneur."
"Let's please stop adding these cute names to women who are ambitious and are going after their dreams with persistence," she wrote. "It is not empowering any woman."
Morse wants other women to see her success and know that they too can aspire to own and operate a thriving business in a male-dominated industry, and she believes that being a woman gives her a different and valuable perspective. "But I am not a female founder," she said. "I am a founder. End of conversation. Gender should not be descriptive in the world we live in today. It doesn't define me professionally."