The search for female role models usually brings our attention to women on top. The first female nominee for the US President Hillary Clinton, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, International Monetary Fund Chief Christine Lagarde and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg are some of international media’s favourite case studies of women who have ‘made it’ in a man’s world.
These women’s iconic status is based on their exceptional achievement of shattering the glass ceiling – that invisible barrier hindering women from reaching top-level management. Even though there is an increasing number of women entering the workforce and electoral politics, women still occupy less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEO positions and only 20% of parliamentary seats around the world.
For some, this signals the need for women to take a more aggressive position in public life. ‘Until women are as ambitious as men, they’re not going to achieve as much as men,’ argues Sheryl Sandberg. ‘Jump at every opportunity, don’t just stay within your comfort zone,’ dares Time Europe editor Catherine Mayer. Mary Barra, General Motors’ first female CEO tells women to ‘be a standout’ by delivering value to the workplace every day.
These female executives suggest that there are simple behavioural changes women can make to become successful in their fields. With the ‘right attitude’ and equal opportunity, women can shatter the glass ceiling.
The obsession with the glass ceiling, however, needs to be problematised. As feminist writer Laurie Penny argues, ‘While we all worry about the glass ceiling, there are millions of women standing in the basement – and the basement is flooding.’ For every female executive joining the elite club of the world’s 1%, there remains a huge number of women – the 99% – who are underpaid, abused and voiceless.
Feminism for the 1%
There are many ad campaigns by global brands that encourage women to whip gender stereotypes in the workplace. Pantene’s #ShineStrong and #SorryNotSorry campaigns are exemplars of this approach. I agree with the ad’s premise but I find its focus troubling. The ad, together with campaigns that make celebrities out of exemplary career women such as Sandberg’s Lean In Circles and other female executive coaching programs promote what I call Fortune 500 feminism. It is the type of feminism that wants more women in boardrooms and parliaments but does little in challenging cultural norms that promote the aggressive individualistic pursuit of ambition just for the sake of getting ahead. It is the type of feminism that encourages women to go for the killer instinct without interrogating why workplaces have to be cutthroat in the first place.
It is the type of feminism that wants more women in boardrooms and parliaments but does little in challenging cultural norms that promote the aggressive individualistic pursuit of ambition just for the sake of getting ahead. It is the type of feminism that encourages women to go for the killer instinct without interrogating why workplaces have to be cutthroat in the first place.
Perhaps the allure of these well-branded campaigns is that they promote comfortable narratives rather than confronting ideas. By underscoring personal success stories of women who can have it all, the narrative can be shifted away from the uncomfortable stories of women who have none at all.
Challenging the label ‘selfish’ attached to career mothers who work late hours does little in challenging the questionable corporate culture that demands employees to be tied to their desks and be on call 24/7. These campaigns go viral because they fit well with the popular myth of “if you work hard enough, you will succeed” and do away with a broader conversation about, for example, changing the way work has colonized our personal time or dismantling the myth that women who did not make it were not “as passionate” as those who did.
These narratives are problematic because they reinforce insidious ideas that perpetuate deep-seated structural inequalities that deter underprivileged women from getting a fair shot at pursuing professions that are meaningful to them, their families and their communities. For example, to say that women in the Philippines have access to political power because they have had two female presidents undermines the fact that in the Philippines and in other countries with weak party systems, the influence of female politicians like Cory Aquino, Gloria Arroyo, Benazir Bhutto and Aung San Suu Kyi are drawn from the nepotistic brands of their aristocratic family names. Without structural changes that allow women to meaningfully participate in politics, the system will continue to be dominated by dynastic female politicians.
Similarly, an all-female boardroom gives no guarantee that corporate policies will promote the interests of women. Some women on top deserve critique not because they are ‘bossy’ or ‘vain’ but because they have a bad track record of promoting women’s rights.
The Philippines’ Gloria Arroyo sold out women’s reproductive rights in exchange of the Catholic Church’s support for her corrupt administration. Christine Lagarde enforced IMF’s austerity measures in Europe that cut ‘low-skilled’ public sector jobs mostly occupied by women and slashed social services like childcare which were instrumental in putting women to work in the first place. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was one of the Iraq war’s chief architects which killed hundreds of American servicewomen and Iraqi mothers.
If we see women’s struggles as more of an individual rather than an interconnected pursuit, then we fail to recognise that some women’s empowerment comes at the expense of other women’s oppression.
These women represent the idealised values of Fortune 500 feminism. They were tough, educated, fierce and aggressive but definitely far from being progressive.
And this is where the problem lies.
The problem is not just labels and glass ceilings but the individualistic approach to female empowerment. The solution offered by Fortune 500 feminism places the burden of reform on a woman’s behaviour so they too can be the first female CEO of a male-dominated company or the President of a patriarchal country. Feminist campaigns can be appreciated for encouraging women to be more confident in the workplace, but this must not be confused with the thinking that the struggle ends in getting more women on top.
If we see women’s struggles as more of an individual rather than an interconnected pursuit, then we fail to recognise that some women’s empowerment comes at the expense of other women’s oppression.Women may feel economic power by purchasing designer bags using their own income but this is far from advancement in women’s struggle as long as these bags are produced by under-aged girls in subhuman factory conditions.
The troubling truth is women’s successes today are contingent on other women’s oppression.
Women may successfully climb up the corporate ladder but, often, this success is parasitic on the feminised industry of care. Perhaps it is not an overstatement to say that behind every successful woman is an underpaid nanny, together with droves of helpers, carers and cleaners who neglected their own children so that children of career women can be cared for and lived in substandard houses so privileged women’s homes will be polished and perfect.
The troubling truth is women’s successes today are contingent on other women’s oppression. These struggles are rendered invisible by Fortune 500 feminism because they do not fit the comfortable paradigm of changing labels and individual behaviours so women can get ahead. They cause anxieties rather than promote a celebratory ethos that women can have it all.
The challenge of Fortune 500 feminism is for women’s gains from the top to make meaningful impact to those at the bottom. Women in positions of power must not only ensure that the glass ceiling remains permanently shattered but also consistently fulfil their responsibility of lifting up the status of underprivileged women by paying them living wages and according dignified status to often undervalued domestic labour.
Ultimately, the test for successful career women is how they respond when cleaners, factory workers and carers actually become ambitious, assertive and more organised in demanding for gender justice.This piece has been re-published with permission from Rappler, and can be found here.