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.
Seminars for how to negotiate, how to pitch, and how to find a mentor popped up everywhere, because individual women were eager to get on the empowerment train. Books of varying depth and quality—most notably Sandberg’s 2012 Lean In but also self-help memoirs like Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, by Lois Frankel, and How Remarkable Women Lead, by McKinsey consultants Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston, as well as shallow imitators like #Girlboss, by the (now semi-disgraced) Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, and yes, Ivanka Trump’s derivative, empty Women Who Work—were showing up regularly on shelves, creating a booming subgenre of working women’s self-help.
Many of these books acknowledged structural issues, like Allyson Downey’s Here’s the Plan, a feminist blueprint for new moms released in 2016. Downey depicted a painful reality and helped women deal with it, as did Debora L. Spar in Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, which ruefully admits, as a New York Times review notes, that “we privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations.” Yet the focus on how women behave, and the choices women make, made the critiques in these books hard to hear. Even the sane work-life solutions that might help women “have it all,” raised by Anne-Marie Slaughter in a major 2012 Atlantic cover story, were overshadowed by the public debate that article’s title provoked.
At the time, feminists pointed out that even the most reasoned discussions of finding “balance” and advancing to the corner office meant little to the waitress or Walmart employee with no benefits or paid leave, who needed basic protections from bosses’ exploitation, not tips on being a badass at meetings. And yet it turns out we were also being premature by focusing so much on ourselves in the first place. It turns out that the women in offices and cubicles also faced far more entrenched sexism to contend with than the public discussion acknowledged.
All this churning discussion prompted researchers to ask the question: What was holding women back at work, really? Were women stymied by their failure to take the proverbial initiative, or as a book like Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office claimed, being too accommodating? This fall, a Harvard Business Review study went so far as to put actual sensors on a group of subjects to see if male and female employees were behaving differently: “Perhaps women had fewer mentors, less face time with managers, or weren’t as proactive as men in talking to senior leadership,” the study’s authors wrote of their hypothesis. It wasn’t so. “But as we analyzed our data, we found almost no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women,” the authors concluded. They looked at how connected employees were to the office social network and decision-making, and determined that “Women had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership, and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role. And in performance evaluations men and women received statistically identical scores. This held true for women at each level of seniority. Yet women weren’t advancing, and men were.”
So what could be the reason? The authors concluded, not shockingly, that “gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior” and recommended that companies ask themselves, “What about our company culture has limited women’s growth?”
We don’t need to equip employees with sensors to come to a similar conclusion. In recent years, a number of similar studies looked at what actually happens when women take the popular advice—as suggested by Lean In and dozens of articles—and consistently negotiate for better compensation: They are penalized across the board, often perceived as being less “nice” and harder to work with, which is a much more significant factor for female employees. In one study, “the negative effect of [asking for more money] was more than 5.5 times greater for women than for men. Interestingly, whether the candidate asked simply…or assertively…had no effect on the relatively larger social cost for women.”
And as illuminating as they are, these studies only skim the surface of the kind of discrimination women routinely face at work. While white-collar women were encouraged to lean all the way in—to be more like men and navigate the office #likeaboss—the reality for many of them was a dark one that we’re just beginning to examine in the light. Young assistants quitting in tears after being propositioned by bosses. A litany of harassment complaints ignored. And those are just the high-profile stories—not the quiet ones of ideas being stolen or promotions passed over, women leaving the industry or a city.
Back in 2012, I was one of many women who criticized Sandberg’s ideas as falling far short of the feminist panacea they were hyped up to be. But was intrigued by them too, as a kind of personal guide. I admit that I wondered: Had I “left before I left,” to use Sandberg’s words? Had I not sprinted hard enough up a career path because I knew that on some level, I’d be ambivalent about working as hard when I was a mom (spoiler alert: I am now a mom and ambivalent)? Was I not negotiating hard enough when I freelanced or got a job offer? Sandberg recognized that many professional women stewed over the feeling that something was “off” in their professional lives, felt scared or anxious, and wished they could take control of that feeling. So was there wisdom in her advice I could use?
Once in a while, I would stop and think about how painful and tiring it had been to be an outspoken feminist on my high-school and college newspapers, which were feeders for the mainstream media industry. I’d recall that even in my adult jobs at independent, feminist publications I perceived as “safe,” I witnessed harassment, undermining of women’s ideas and clear preferential treatment for male colleagues. I’d take a minute to ponder whether the journalism industry’s pervasive sexism had influenced my choices. But mostly, I looked into my own soul and tried to make over my ambition.
But now, thanks to Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Glenn Thrush, Leon Wieseltier, and lesser-known figures—and thanks to these studies debunking all the girl-power advice—I’ve been talking with friends about nothing but media-industry sexism, both the highly publicized kind and the quieter, more insidious forms. You don’t have to be a direct victim of harassment to see how the condoned behavior of men at the top of an industry trickles down through its ranks. Instead of asking what I should have done differently, I’ve been asking: Why was I spending so much tortured time trying to improve myself?
In recent days, talking to friends who work in science, film, advertising, and other fields, I’ve realized that my feelings aren’t unique. “I’m always telling myself I should go to this career panel and networking thing, but I can’t take the empowerment anymore,” said a friend of mine who works in the sciences. “Why don’t dudes need to do all that empowerment bullshit?” Instead of speaking at endless women’s empowerment conferences, perhaps male executives should be forced to attend their own conferences, where they are trained to recognize ingrained bias and also to keep their hands to themselves, just for instance.
As the fallout from the Weinstein revelations lays bare pervasive sexual harassment or discrimination in nearly every single field, it may be time to put the nail in the coffin of some of those “empowerment”-based ideas about what women, and companies, should do to achieve equality. As many of us knew all along but are seeing even more clearly now, workplace inequality isn’t about a problem deep within ourselves. It’s about the sexist, exploitative hyper-capitalist minefield that comes with working in 2017.
In fact, as much as I appreciate the advice in some of the working-woman articles I’ve read, I’ve come to think that I should throw them all out. Because focusing on the introspection and overanalyzing our own behavior without really, deeply acknowledging the structural problem is not only unproductive—it might actually end up being counterproductive, putting even more of a burden on women and members of other disadvantaged groups. So many of us have spent the last decade doing the work not only of putting up with discrimination, but trying to counter it with our own pep talks and self-work. “There’s only so much cheerleading we can do,” my scientist friend said. “We’re drowning in cheerleading.”
If there is one bright side to this moment of disaffection, it is this. If unadorned sexism, exploitation, and harassment are the biggest problem white-collar women face, then it turns out women across most industries are actually up against some of the same enemies. A book like Lean In focused on professional workers to the exclusion of most of America’s workforce. But tackling the deeper structural reasons that women are held back at their jobs—power imbalances and outright sexism—does not exclude anyone. It will require a kind of solidarity that goes far deeper than any self-help book could prescribe.