In the past decade, the concept of unleashing women’s inner “boss” has been in vogue. Seemingly everyone was peddling a conference, book, or catchphrase aimed at teaching women how to beat the work-life juggle and get ahead—and many women, long frustrated, were eager to try whatever it took to achieve equality in the workplace.
But the belief that women should reconfigure themselves, while workplaces are fine just as they are, has suffered what may amount to a death blow this year. America’s ultimate attitude towards women in power was unmasked when we tried to elect a woman president—and she and her supporters were greeted with a torrent of sexism from her opponent and his supporters. More recently, the slew of #MeToo stories has revealed a staggering, industry-spanning problem with workplace misogyny. And the anecdotal evidence pouring forth from those stories—workplaces are hostile!—is supported by recent studies. The data show that the forces that hold women back in the office are not their own unrealized ambition or lack of negotiating skills or mentorship. To put it simply, those forces amount to an environment that favors men.
It’s become glaringly clear in these past weeks that, far from merely balancing work, life, and gendered expectations, women working in industries from glamorous-seeming Hollywood to crowded restaurant kitchens have been navigating a brutal minefield of harassment, abuse, and inappropriate behavior—not to mention plain old sexism and bullying—in order simply to keep their jobs, never mind advance in their careers.
So no matter how much self-help women ingest, how many inspiring speakers we listen to at company events for women employees, how many circles of supportive colleagues we form, it won’t be enough. For women who are queer or trans or member of minority groups, this combination of exclusion and harassment rings doubly true. As my friend Rebecca Krevat, who works in advertising, told me: “It does shit to ‘lean in’ and speak up when no one will take your ideas seriously, or the real deals are made by the dudes in the backrooms of fancy bars.” At this point, even Sheryl Sandberg herself seems to agree, noting that, as exciting as the women leaning in may be, the system hasn’t budged much in response. “We are not seeing a major increase in female leadership in any industry or in any government in the world, and I think that’s a shame,” she told USA Today.
It felt like a more innocent time when capitalist bigwigs latched on to the women’s empowerment trend, raising feminist eyebrows. In 2008, for instance, Goldman Sachs launched its “10,000 Women” program to invest in women-led businesses. Mentorship opportunities, summits like Women in the World (founded in 2010) and conferences for women in fields like STEM and tech rode high on this wave, while corporations’ special programming for women was trumpeted in an attempt to recruit workers and paint workplaces as progressive.