Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fourth Wave, Part 2: Women in the workplace

In Part 1 of my musings on fourth-wave feminism, I discussed my history of feminism, said I would address the issue of abortion in Part 2, and planned to address women in the workplace in Part 3. However, the issue of how women view work has popped up repeatedly in my recent reading and so I instead want to address women in the workplace now. I’ll get to abortion in the next episode.

In Part 1, I talked about women in the workplace in passing when I referred to reading Games Mother Never Taught You by Betty Lehan Harragan and Women’s Dress for Success Book by John T. Molloy:

To me, these were both “feminist” reading which I guess shows pretty clearly that I was not really interested in changing the game - I just wanted to play on equal terms.

I also pointed out that an article called The Feminist Awakening: Hillary Clinton and the fourth wave spent some time talking about women not knowing how to dress to run for President. About that I said:

If women had taken Molloy’s advice all those years ago, we’d have a standard “powerful professional woman” dress code established by now and we could all stop worrying about what to wear when running for President.

I also had a bone to pick with Amy Siskind’s article, How Feminism Became the F-Word:

Ms. Siskind wants to know where the outrage is over “the fact that women still earn 78 percent of what men do” or “the fact that our representation in politics, academia, and corporate leadership tends to hover around 16 percent.” Perhaps if women had taken Harragan more seriously and learned to play the games necessary to get ahead instead of expending energy demanding the rules be changed to suit us, we’d be earning more money and accruing more power. Furthermore, it’s been a while since I read Games Mother Never Taught You but I seem to remember that part of Harragan’s argument was that if women learned to play by the rules we would eventually amass enough power to change them.

I knew then that I wanted to cover this topic more fully and was even more interested in doing so after I found a Website called Kim Allen’s Online Presence. This popped up when I did a search for Games Mother Never Taught You and is owned by a woman who self-identifies as a third-wave feminist. I’m not sure the site is being updated any longer but I thought the book review section was a mother lode of jumping off points for discussions of feminism.

As I said, her site popped up when I did a search for Games Mother Never Taught You. In her review, Allen is quite dismissive of this book characterizing it as “a rare look at right-wing second-wave feminism” which “embodies the 1970's version of ‘make it on your own by playing within the system’-- ie, conservative feminism.” She finds the book “offensive in some sections” because “[i]t has nothing to do with making the obnoxious executive world better, and everything to do with twisting the age-old rules to your advantage, just as men have always done to get ahead.”

Obviously, I find her review somewhat naive: as I said in my quibble about Siskind’s article, if women had learned to play the corporate (and academic and political) game to our advantage we would have done much better over the last 35 years. And Allen herself concedes (emphasis hers):

But the general principles were actually sort of useful, I'm somewhat surprised to admit. Her frank assessment of how much of business is based on military and sports models is quite accurate, even in today's "horizontally-structured" small companies. Just because you don't have a direct chain of command and a drill-sergeant-like boss doesn't mean the basic principles have been totally abandoned. (In fact, assuming that they have been would probably be a big mistake).

I admit that I had a somewhat hazy concept of how executives advance, and now that I've tried to spot some of the patterns in my own company-- I was shocked to see that some of the principles apply. Not all, but some. I also learned a few things about salary negotiation and general professional behavior that help one to be fairly compensated in the world of work (an area where women persistently get the short end of the stick, partly because they don't know how these things work).

No women often don’t know - or don’t understand - how these things work which is probably part of the reason - although not the whole reason - women do in fact make less than men and hold only 16% of leadership positions.

What led me from her review to this post, however, was the phrase “obnoxious executive world”. At first I assumed she was referring to continuing grossly sexist behavior but in fact Allen says later in her review:

(Aside: one chapter was out-of-date, but not hilariously so. That is the one on sexual relations in the workplace-- you know, butt-grabbing and tasteless jokes. If the world was really like what Harragan describes in 1977, I have newfound respect for 2nd wave feminists who wanted to kill all men).

So I was left somewhat perplexed by what is so “obnoxious” about the executive world. Then TigerHawk put up a (ridiculous) video of Dr. Helen Smith interviewing Dr. Richard Driscoll about the role of fathers and said:

If you've watched the interview, I would respectfully suggest that Drs. Smith and Driscoll do not mention one of the big sources of female rage, the continuing preponderance in the workplace of men, male values (such as they are) and male behavioral impulses. That anger needs to come out, and the male partner is the most probable recipient. Inside more than a few marriages, therefore, husbands and therefore fathers take some of the blame for the suppressed frustrations of the day job, perhaps just because they are also men. That transference is as sexist, or more so, than the underlying outrage, but there is no corporate compliance program to deal with it.

Now we have a committed third-wave feminist and a guy on the conservative side both in agreement that women believe there is something deeply distressing about the workplace. It’s not that I don’t understand that the workplace can be difficult for women. Although sexism is not usually as overt as it once was, it does linger. Furthermore women still often bear all or most of the responsibility for childcare: balancing that with work can be difficult and even heartwrenching. Even given these problems, though, I was struck by the oddness of the term “obnoxious” and the intensity of the term “rage”. I don’t know exactly what either Allen or TigerHawk means but it brought into focus something that bothers me about the view many feminists - and perhaps many women who don’t think of themselves as feminists - have about the working world.

A certain set of feminists has always believed that existing social and business structures - corporations, universities, politics, even religions - were created largely by men (a belief I do not share, by the way). Being male-created, those structures are clearly, perhaps even definitionally, sub-optimal at best, dysfunctional most likely, and awful almost certainly. It never seems to occur to this set of feminists to look around and realize that most of those structures work remarkably well. Of course they don’t work perfectly: violence, poverty, war, discrimination, the whole laundry list of ills do exist in our society. But it seems to me that those ills - in fact the full and fervent expression of those ills - is the natural state of human beings. To ameliorate those ills at all is a condition devoutly to be desired and the simple fact is that such ills are least apparent in those societies where the supposedly male-created structures are most firmly in place. The history of the world is one of hideous brutality interrupted by stretches of relative peace and prosperity. I’m more grateful than I can say that I live in one of the best stretches of history.

This is why I view with skepticism some feminists’ insistence that the existing structures must be changed to fit their ideal of how society should look, should work, should hang together. I don’t know of any society that has done better than the ones currently forming the First World. Does that mean we can’t do better? Of course not. But the existing system puts food on my table and a roof over my head; warms me when it’s cold and cools me when it’s hot; cures my ills and delays my death; lavishes me with goods and experiences undreamed of 100 years ago; and affords me and other women in First World societies greater freedom from and freedom to than at any other time in history. I’m simply not happy about the idea of trying to dismantle a system that works in order to replace it with one that may or may not do a better job, may or may not do even as good a job. My goal for women is to be full participants in these endeavors, not to stand outside and throw brickbats.

Equally important, I do not consider the existing social and business structures to be masculine so much as simply human. One of the common feminist complaints is that such structures should be, as Allen puts it, “’horizontally-structured’ small companies”. This preference for non-hierarchical structures is common in feminism and is usually wrapped in references to the communal, co-operative nature of women and of the activities women historically participated in, like quilting bees and cooking large dinners together. This ignores the fact that women have always organized themselves around the concepts of status, hierarchy, and deference just as much as men have. Some woman had to organize those quilting bees and communal dinners, decide what color the quilt backing would be and whose dining room would host the dinner. Odds are it was the woman considered the leader of the community, probably the woman married to the highest ranking man. And the inverse is true also: men involved in a barn-raising or a community harvest were neither more nor less co-operative, neither more nor less hierarchical than women in quilting bees and kitchens. Given the opportunity, humans organize themselves in whatever way most efficiently allows them to achieve their goals.

Furthermore, women have always embraced more formal aspects of status, hierarchy, and deference. A woman may have taken her status from her husband in the past but that doesn’t mean she didn’t avail herself of it to the greatest extent possible. When Lord Whosis rode off to fight for the king and Lady Whosis was left behind to run the castle, she didn’t sit down with their serfs and discuss who would do what: she gave orders and she expected them to be obeyed. In more modern times, the factory owner’s wife expected deference from the men who worked for her husband and from their wives. The image of Colonels and Colonels’ wives required to dance attendance on the General’s lady is an enduring one.

In a great irony, some of the most compelling evidence that the concepts of status, hierarchy, and deference are important to all humans and not just to men comes from within feminism itself. In another of Allen’s book reviews, she writes about Manifesta, a book about third-wave feminism written by two third-wave feminists. In summarizing the book’s discussion of relationships between the younger feminists and their older counterparts, Allen says:

In particular, young women have begun to speak up about abuse at the hands of the elders in the movement-- being ignored or patronized (I use that term deliberately). The young women make coffee and play the supporting roles while being expected to worship the divas and icons of the Second Wave. This relationship sounds a lot like how men in general expect the women around them to behave.

Oddly enough, Allen does not draw from this what seems to me the obvious conclusion: the organizing principles of status, hierarchy, and deference are as meaningful for women as they are for men. She cannot see that the young feminists’ dislike of their role is not a matter of some feminist ideal of community but of the universal rebellion of the young against elders who hold the status the young want, command them through the hierarchy established by that status, and demand deference. The young feminists’ reaction to their elders is no different from the reaction of male junior executives to their bosses: compliance mixed with resentment.

Furthermore, by pointing out that the elders in the feminist movement expect the same behavior from their juniors that men expect from women, Allen makes an important point although again she does not see it. The problem with the way men treat women (or at least have historically treated them in the workplace) is not that status, hierarchy, and deference is intrinsically wrong; it is that tying status, hierarchy, and deference to gender is wrong. Failing to make this distinction is a problem for many feminists and perhaps for many women in the workplace. The goal often seems to be to create communal, co-operative enterprises where women think they will feel comfortable and get a better deal. When enterprises are competitive instead, women react badly. Far better for women to understand that the only realistic goal is to achieve more status and demand more deference within a hierarchy: flat social structures are not the human way.

For a final dose of irony, we need only look at the very recent NOW election. First, the fact that there is an election at all should give anyone enamored of the flat, communal, co-operative ideal pause. If the most powerful self-identified feminist organization in the world feels the need for leaders who hold ranked offices, exercise real power, and get paid serious money, why on earth would anyone believe that entities dedicated to making profits and crushing their rivals would see - or in fact derive - any benefit from exchanging their hierarchies for a more egalitarian model?

Second, the stories that are coming out about how the NOW election unfolded seem to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that women are just as willing to fight for power, just as willing to use whatever means are necessary, just as willing to destroy their opponents as any man clawing his way up the corporate ladder at Really Humongous Corp, Inc. These are not women sitting around a quilting frame discussing how to make everyone feel good about the outcome. These are ruthless competitors determined to end up on top. Although I can’t say I approve of some of the tactics used, I can point out that these women embraced the reality of their workplace and went after what they wanted with all guns blazing.

Would that more women in corporations, universities, politics, and religious organizations followed their leads. While women sit back and sigh that their working lives would be much better if only the working world would embrace its feminine side, the guys who work at the next desk over are plotting to take over the world and thanking their lucky stars women aren’t doing the same. As far as men are concerned, the less competition the better and if women are willing to take themselves out of the running without men having to so much as lift a finger, that’s fine with them.

And this, to come full circle, is where I think Allen made her biggest mistake in her review of Games Mother Never Taught You:

I called this book sexist because it is by 90's standards. Harragan unabashedly declares that men and women are at war in the corporate setting, and we will triumph by beating the men at their own game--gathering arsenals, performing espionage, strategically moving around, and always keeping our friends close but our enemies closer.

It’s not that men and women are at war with each other in the corporate setting; it’s that so long as women want to advance in the corporate setting they are at war with - competing with - everyone else in that setting. There are a hundred entry-level positions; 25 managers; 5 VPs; and one CEO. If a woman wants that one top position, she is going to have to compete for it with men and, yes, now with other women.

Does that mean a woman can’t be a feminist and still climb the ladder in corporate - or academic or political or religious - organizations? Of course not. Let’s say Sally is a feminist and is competing for a job against Bob and Nancy. Sally can feel free to make sure her boss knows Nancy is an incompetent idiot who couldn’t do a financial forecast if her life depended on it - provided she’s willing to say the same about Bob. Heck, Sally can even tell her boss that Nancy shouldn’t get the job because she has small children - provided she’s willing to say the same about Bob.

What Sally can’t do is attack her female competitors on sexist grounds - or stand by while others do so. If someone else says Nancy shouldn’t get the job because she has small children, Sally will either point out that the same is true of Bob or point out that Nancy is the best judge of how to balance her work life with her children. If someone refers to Nancy with any of the hundreds of sexist - and often sexual - slurs reserved for women, Sally will call them on it. Sisters may fight with each other but when it really counts they have each other’s backs.

And after the dust settles, Sally and Nancy can go out for a drink and talk about how they really need to get going on standardizing that “powerful professional woman” dress code.

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