Lazy and bad at maths: what TikTok says about women in the modern workplace

We’re in the golden era of new workplace trends - but why are so many of them gendered?

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

There is a new workplace trend in town. Over the past few months, feminised phrases like ‘lazy girl jobs’ (describing a job that requires little effort but offers a stable salary) have risen through the ranks of the TikTok sub-category, #CareerTok, before going viral last month.

The latest addition is ‘girl maths’, which refers to mental gymnastics done to justify pricey purchases. You might also have heard the phrase ‘girl dinners’: where hungry women eat a post-shift dinner of unsatisfactory snacks.

None of these concepts need to be gender-coded. Yet the ‘girl’ phenomenon has found huge success with millions of young users, as TikTockers flock to the comments of these videos to claim that the fad is ‘so them’.

Despite the apparent universal womanliness of these traits, however, I’ve yet to meet a female colleague who embodies them. In fact, after a back-of-the-napkin poll my coworkers unanimously baulked at the idea of being in a ‘lazy girl’ job or eating ‘girly dinners’.

So where does this unmotivated woman who can’t add up and survives on a diet of Muller Corner yoghurts, come from?

It’s a girl thing

In many ways, the ‘girl’ subgenre of working jargon is a continuation of previous monikers for women employees. In the 80s, we had Melanie Griffith’s ‘working girl’, who traded autonomy in the workplace for foot-wide shoulder pads.

Last decade, the main character was the less-than-empowering ‘#girlboss’, a woman who sat just ahead of ‘mumpreneur’ in the ranking for most insufferable social media slogan. As of the latest entry, society has progressed to having a ‘girl’ prefix for multiple office duties (we are multi-taskers, after all).

Together, these colloquialisms begin to sound like a giant Alan Partridge blunder. Certainly, many TikTok users argue that the trend should not be taken seriously. They say the language is an attempt to satire the trappings of the ‘boss babe’ cultural moment, and reclaim traditionally derisive stereotypes that women are bad at numbers and lack ambition.

Still, closer inspection makes these cringey coinages harder to laugh at. Whether cruising by in a ‘lazy girl job’, or excelling as a ‘SheEO’, each of these labels has existed to distinguish their owner from the normal – which is to say male – office worker.

As such, they reinforce the idea that a woman’s success in business is special and rare. This can have a real impact by curtailing confidence amongst female entrepreneurs, leading to imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy.

It’s no wonder that 50% of the women entrepreneurs who applied to this year’s Startups 100 Index 2023 chose to self-fund their company, versus only 32% of men.

Think like a man

Perhaps it’s a consequence of TikTok’s overwhelmingly Gen Z audience, many of whom have come to rely on the app for advice on workplace behaviours. But another reason that the ‘girl’ work craze jars is that it’s simply an incorrect way to describe adult women.

There’s no denying the inherently juvenile quality of the ‘girl’ employee. Its usage turns a respectable, mature job title into a cute bumper sticker. Years of hard work and experience that will have gone into developing a person’s career are dismantled in just four letters.

With any gendered term, I like to play a fun game of Uno Reverse to see how our ears would greet the same, flipped descriptor. The ‘girl’ brand becomes even more irritating when you see how it would be donned by a male coworker.

Imagine how ridiculous it would be to see a grown man filling his LinkedIn feed with the neologism “#boyboss”. And when would he ever talk about taking on a ‘lazy-boy’ job, unless referring to sitting in a reclining armchair for the day?

Most frustrating is the idea of ‘girl maths’, which is a proxy for bad or illogical maths. Cost-benefit analysis is a respected and important piece of assessment that thousands of consultants are paid extortionate amounts to carry out each year.

Economists can spend weeks quantifying the infinitesimal benefits that a product or service brings to customers so they can justify a higher price point. For this, their sums are given a fancy textbook title.

When done by women, however, EMV is reduced to just a ‘bad’ attempt to disguise frivolous spending; a description which also subtly tells us to be ashamed of spending our hard-earned cash.

‘Lazy’ jobs, or flexible working?

‘Girl’ trends have emerged during a period of change in HR. More employees are seeking out ways to engage in meaningful work that brings them personal satisfaction, as the post-COVID workforce debates whether you should live to work or work to live.

Kinder readers might interpret the girl-work movement as a revolt against hustle culture. Official figures show the number of people going on long-term sick leave due to bad mental health is rising.

In this context, the populism of ‘girly’ working could be an example of shared sisterhood. Solidarity between overworked employees who feel burned out and underpaid as the cost of living crisis bites.

‘Lazy jobs’ then start to look a lot more like survival instinct; a search for an organisational culture that strives to protect work-life balance to ensure they can lead fulfilling lives that meet the demands of work and home.

Certainly, over the past few years, we’ve seen how flexible working arrangements promote greater gender equality in the workplace, as a way to help working mums – who tend to take on more childcare responsibilities than dads – balance care duties with work. LinkedIn research has shown that 60% of women consider the availability of flexible working when looking for a new job, compared to 50% of men.

Experts have warned about how the death of hybrid work could shut more women out from the workplace, causing female job seekers to compete for remote jobs that require little overtime and leave space for personal commitments.

These are genuine concerns that threaten women’s participation in the workforce. That women across the globe are turning them into evidence of laziness is not only unhelpful – it’s self-sabotage.

Girl, you’ll be a woman soon

It’s time for the working girls to grow up. Intentional or not, the infantilisation of women affects how we are perceived professionally; and the results are disparaging, not positive.

Rather than smart satire, the ‘girlification’ of women employees is just another example of a failed rebrand. Continuing with tired stereotypes, it looks set to stray towards the same doomed territory of the ‘girlboss’ era.

The TikTok generation has rejected the slog and ceremony of older colleagues and is demanding greater work-life balance. But young women must not get cynical. They don’t need a ‘lazy job’ to find happiness in the modern workplace.

Responsibility also lies with the employer to sit up and respond. Firms should now clarify their common core values and mission statement, to help job hunters view them as a business that respects the changing needs and demands of their employees.

This approach prepares for a more inclusive future, free from the gendered norms that rule and limit women employees; free from the #girlboss.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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