End Fauxminism at the Workplace

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There’s been a lot of talk. Maybe too much talk about Lean In, the corporate-feminist/self-help book that’s being shilled from all the rooftops of the business world.

The most disturbing aspect of this faux-minism is that it convinces a lot of (younger) women that our culture is increasingly taking women seriously in the workplace when in reality our culture is just repackaging patriarchal mechanisms of power. It sends the message that books about women getting ahead are as important to women in the workplace as actual equal compensation and opportunities to enrich and advance.

Firstly, Sandberg’s is not anywhere near a typical American experience for a typical American girl or woman. The story of her rise is an exception to the rule. You cannot emulate her experience if you are a working-class female with working-class parents. Add to that any skin color whatsoever and it’s almost a miracle you even make it out of college without debt. (If you can actually afford college without becoming a slave.) Her success is simply not possible for most women in America without it having anything to do with their “Will to Lead.” Her rise has nothing to do with brave new female politics and almost everything thing to do with being privileged. Like many American girls she was surely a hardworking student worthy of the acceptance to Harvard. There is a stringent criteria to be sure, but you don’t get there unless you are bred for higher education. The benefits of an Ivy education with some good old-fashioned who-you-know at the alma mater, she rose quickly through the ranks of prestigious organizations in the world of power.

Just like most of the women you know.

No, Sandberg’s success had nothing to do with some sort personality secret that she is now successfully marketing as “leaning in.” In fact there is no methodology she can truly impart to the many women rushing out to buy her book. It works out to nothing more than a distraction for all the women in middle management, the ones forwarding links to the book, organizing book clubs around the title. Women are feeling so “empowered” and finding it so “great” and “interesting” that there is a voice saying they can get the promotions they deserve if they just “lean in girls.”

All this motion creates a stir that looks like “something’s changing” when nothing at all on the ground is. There is still virtually no support for new mothers in the form of adequate leaves or “reboarding” programs after a leave. Seasoned mothers still have it hard obtaining flex time and are penalized and passed over if they can’t meet during off hours or stay late all 5-6 days. The corporate culture still steadfastly gives very little help or opportunity to a woman returning to work when her kids are older and she is bringing back with her not only all the skills she left with but now with a host of new skills that include task management, time management, delegation and how to keep drama low for the greater good. But the corporate culture doesn’t actually reward “leaning in.” In real life, women who demonstrate leadership skills are usually iced in favor of the women that know how to dutifully stay behind the men. Fawn.

What is true leadership?  Challenge and change.

Two things also known as “being a bitch” if they come from a woman. But usually men with these characteristics in the workplace will be known as  “savants” or “trendsetters” or “creative geniuses.” But the catchall “bitch” is usually the one used if the exact same behavior is demonstrated by a woman. The message remains the same as it has since the archetypal 50s, only worse because it’s coming from fellow women:

Dear woman – here is what you are still doing wrong. Here are all the attitude adjustments and life views and perspectives you should shift about yourself to be successful at work. You don’t have to give up anything. You can be whole and you can be amazing just by pushing forward this corporate agenda that still places the yoke of change on the oxen, I mean women.

Women don’t need to change. They don’t need to spend uncompensated after-work hours to proactively attend seminars entitled “Communicate Powerfully Without Being a Bitch.” Men need to be attending seminars after work called “Stop Calling Women Bitches And Give Them a Raise.”

For corporate culture to change we don’t need women to have book groups at work about how women need to do more. Simply change policy. Champion smart women. Not the women that toe the line with men of which there are legions.  Women that spin themselves as feminists while really sending the message : stop challenging the whims and defects of the men in charge of you and let’s talk about a book written by woman who truly has nothing to share with your experience.

Instead:

1. Change policy today.

2. Create leadership teams that have equal amounts of women in equal titles and compensation.

3. Create parent-friendly systems for both genders.

4. End the corporate fauxminism programs that promote books and seminars for women about success.

5. Start communication seminars for men that explain things like, you don’t assume the female in the meeting takes the notes or brings the copies.

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2 thoughts on “End Fauxminism at the Workplace

  1. Interesting essay. I must admit, I take a different view. I worry that when people like Sandberg are criticised for being part of the system and not representing the majority of women, we’re in danger of splintering. It’s not that what she says isn’t important or worth hearing, it’s that we need more action at all levels. That shouldn’t undercut her significant achievement.

    There are plenty of men who had Ivy league backgrounds who haven’t achieved what she has, and even when they do, they’re not dismissed because they’re not bringing working class men up behind them when they speak about leadership.

    We know that women in powerful positions aren’t necessarily good for the women around them. They don’t automatically turn into mentors or door-openers. But it’s important generally to see women in these high roles, and discuss both how to get there, and what holds women back. I’ve seen a number of women make the classic mistakes you talk about – they’re the ones who whip out their notebook and take meeting notes, while the guys relax around them. Identifying these behaviours is helpful.

    These problems aren’t nearly of the magnitude of the problems of access, equity and child care, but they’re still worthy of discussion. The more conversations about equity – at all levels – the better!

    I completely agree with you that corporations need to change – well, that society needs to change to become family friendly, for the benefit of everybody.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I actually do believe that books like this cause actual damage to women in the workplace. We shouldn’t worry about splintering! I think her book would be just fine for her to write and sell if somehow it stayed in the category of “business bio” – it’s when corporations can mask their actual sexist policies by having this genre to dip in, and create book clubs in and look like they are being progressive towards women. I just wish they weren’t calling it feminism because it’s hindering not furthering feminist agendas. That’s really what I was trying to say. We are in agreement ultimately.

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