Woman behind barbed wire photo via Shutterstock
By Beth Lalonde
Walk into any bookstore, and the evidence will arrest you at once: row upon row of glossy hardcovers, each one bedecked with an impossibly beautiful portrait of an impossibly wealthy woman. Big, aspirational verbs leap out at you in capital letters.
Ask for it.
“Nice girls don’t get the corner office,” one manual chides, and you’re tempted to pick up the volume. You don’t, after all, want office courtesy to be your career’s downfall.
Beneath talk of boosting confidence, achieving one’s full potential, and finding personal fulfillment, what are these books really peddling?
Feminism has never been a glamorous or attractive cause. To this day, many women don’t want to be associated with the label; it calls to mind “hairy, man-hating lesbians,” as the popular homophobic saying goes. For many, the idea that women ought to be equal to men is a terrifically un-sexy concept. There’s no way to make a long, arduous social and political battle for women’s freedoms fun.
That is, unless you ever-so-slightly modify the end goal of feminist advocacy. Think back to those shelves full of Sheryl Sandberg and Arianna Huffington’s thick tomes. The thinly veiled message behind titles like “Lean In” and “Thrive” is simple: embrace feminism, and profit.
Under this philosophy, long-standing feminist doctrines are tweaked so that the almighty dollar becomes a sort of stand-in for the vaguer goal of equality. Women are just as skilled as men – so lean in, and demand a man’s salary! Women shouldn’t be limited to the kitchen and the nursery – so hold off on starting a family, and climb the corporate ladder! Systemic discrimination is keeping women out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – so major in those high-paying areas, and forget about that useless liberal arts degree!
The effect of all this? Feminist messaging is reduced to a get-rich-quick scheme that would make even Gordon Gekko flush with pride. Greed, so we’ve heard, is good. So lean in. Thrive.
But feminism is not, and never has been, about making money. And something is terribly wrong when the figureheads of the movement are massively wealthy business executives whose lives couldn’t possibly be more different from those of the working-class women buying their books.
Take Sheryl Sandberg, for instance. Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer has an impressive biography: she graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1991 and, after a brief stint as Larry Summers’ research assistant at the World Bank, returned to Harvard to pursue a Master’s degree in business administration.
Halfway through her twenties, Sandberg already had the type of credentials most women can only dream of. Credentials that open doors. Credentials that grease squeaky wheels. Credentials that make it much, much easier to ask for a higher salary, apply for a competitive job, or assert oneself in the workplace without fear of being dismissed.
This begs the question: how valuable is Sandberg’s brand of feminism to, say, a working mother of colour with no college education? Does the philosophy of “Lean In” do any favours for a lesbian living in a state where employers reserve the right to fire her on the basis of her sexual orientation? Can Sandberg’s advice really help a woman with a physical impairment, already struggling to find employment in a world of work stacked overwhelmingly in favour of the able-bodied?
All of these women are facing professional obstacles much larger than their own ability or inability to “lean in.” The trouble with feminism as career advice, or feminism as a money-making strategy, is that it tends to assume women are individually capable of and responsible for clearing every hurdle in their paths. When we place too much focus on individual acts of leaning in, or asking for it, or thriving, we perpetuate the notion that women who don’t or can’t do these things are failures.
More often than not, women are up against obstacles much, much bigger than themselves – and individual acts of heroism are not enough to tear those obstacles down.
Demanding a higher salary is not going to close the pay gap. Waiting to have children is not going to dissolve the nuclear family. Asserting yourself against a discriminatory boss is not going to eliminate the structural, institutionalized discrimination that prevents all women from winning economic and social equality.
But, hey, it’ll probably make you a little more money.
The real value of feminism is not its ability to enhance the career prospects and take-home pay of individual women. Feminism is most successful when it empowers women collectively. Good feminism looks critically at the factors that created the pay gap and mandatory motherhood and discriminatory bosses and asks:
“How can we end this?”
We includes wealthy women, and it includes poor women. It includes privileged women, and it includes disadvantaged women. And it recognizes that, while all of us have been thrown under the bus, the bottom of the bus looks significantly worse for working-class mothers than it does for Sheryl Sandberg.
About the Writer
Beth Lalonde is a political science and queer theory major based in Toronto. She writes about the cultural, the political, and the sexual. Visit her online at lalond.es.