Featured Illustration: Kelly Caminero
Feminism in the workplace is a touchy subject. We love to hear success stories of women who built up empires, became “self-made” millionaires, and have now devoted their lives to teaching other women how to follow in their footsteps. But for each one that makes it big, hundreds of thousands do not, for no fault of their own. Professional opportunities that are inclusive of all women have been too scarce for too long, and while networking and personal connection continue to become an increasingly crucial component of any job or internship search, they pose yet another hoop to jump through — a hoop that was specifically designed to weed out those who do not fit a company’s coveted image. Hiring processes are gravely broken, and instead of seeking out solutions that will reform the way women are treated and welcomed into the workplace, many companies rely on a superficial form of corporate feminism to mask their biases.
It’s become natural to expect female executives to devote a respectable portion of their seminars and keynote speeches to teaching a crowd of admirers how to rise through the ranks of male-dominated fields like finance and technology. But there are these undertones, this unspoken negotiation they hint at throughout their lessons and words of advice: be humble or you won’t get very far. That is to say, with enough grit and sacrifice, you can succeed as a woman in an industry where you are a rarity, but not if you actively recognize that the gender disparity stands in the way of further progress. Even in circles with other women, there often ensues a competition of who can downplay their achievements the most, of who can speak most vaguely about their professional endeavors. Maybe it’s because we have this little voice whispering in our heads that any company, any department only has a predetermined minority quota — reserved for women, people of color, or if they really want to amp up the diverse facade, women of color. It seems like the more we share about what we’re doing to get our foot in the door, the bigger the potential applicant pool gets — while the number of spots stays frustratingly low. We wonder if telling the women we’re friends with, the ones we interact and study and hang out with, are going to ultimately hurt our chances in this twisted game. Deep down, we all want to be the exception — the woman excelling in her field as more than an obligatory diversity hire. But who is this forced humility helping?
It feels repulsive to use the word “GirlBoss”, but it feels the most genuine to illustrate my point here. In 2014, entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso constructed this caricature of a Powerful Working Woman and we accepted it as the standard that we hold ourselves, our female friends, peers, and coworkers to. The GirlBoss is chic, she is feminine, but most of all she is fearless. She is sappily sweet, confident, meticulously put together at all hours, the envy of every woman in her office, gentle but fierce, sassy yet patient. Her millennial pink throw pillow and succulent-adorned office are often featured on the Instagram of her #feminist brand. She effortlessly finds time to work out and take her kids to school, eats healthily, stays in shape, and she’s never doubted herself along the way. She peppers her emails with exclamation marks and apologies for taking up too much space. Those damn exclamation marks.
So sorry to bother you! But I wouldn’t have to if you hadn’t been ignoring my ideas.
So sorry to email again! Because you didn’t answer my question the first time around.
Thank you for getting these in on time! That’s what you’re being paid to do.
She is never cocky, she doesn’t talk money, doesn’t push to be promoted, she doesn’t handle the dirty work, or at least not in the public eye. The GirlBoss was created by privileged, wealthy white women who want nothing more than to tell others: if I can do it all flawlessly, why can’t you? But a big part of being so talented at juggling work and personal life obligations is that it is a prerequisite for career advancement.
Amoruso’s idea of female corporate supremacy may work for her and other already affluent female executives, but it’s a slap in the face to the working class, to women of color who don’t look the part for jobs they’re overqualified for.
It is a taunt to women who cannot afford to drop everything to go back to school and chase their dreams of an obscure graduate degree, or to take a year off finding themself and their passion. Nobody wants to hire a woman for a leadership position when she looks like she’s at the ripe age for marriage and childbearing. Nobody wants to hire a creative who recognizes the value of their art and demands a higher commission. Hardly anyone wants to hire a woman who knows her worth — and at her core, the GirlBoss is weak. Even as she sits at the perfect place to dismantle biased structures, her silence is deafening on issues that will never affect her. She doesn’t talk about how she made it to the top to avoid acknowledging all the poor women, the queer women, the women of color she trampled over to get there. Vulnerability looks ugly on the GirlBoss. She looks a hell of a lot better swathed in blissful, intentional ignorance.
No matter how many shocking pink T-shirts, stickers, and tote bags I see printed with empty corporate feminist slogans, I am reminded of how cruel their purpose is. They hide the truths that recruiters, male colleagues, even your GirlBoss manager, won’t explicitly tell you.
A lengthy paid maternity leave isn’t very fierce of you! they whisper.
Be happy that they even gave you the job, they snap.
Ask for a raise and pack your bags while you’re at it.
Fortunately, young college students and recent graduates have been making strides to provide as many women as possible with the resources they need in order to successfully find fulfilling jobs and internships, and to equip them with the confidence to speak up when they’re struggling. Employers will not stop speaking over women until a collective movement forms and they realize they have no choice but to listen, and the best way to do that is for women to be open and vulnerable with each other about their fears, insecurities, and desires with regards to their careers. I am elated to see that this generation of women has become more receptive to asking other women for help, for not gatekeeping job openings, and giving each other access to the resources that they used to advance their careers.
When the system works against us, progress is made when we create a new system that caters to the needs that have been oppressed for so long.
Jamie Vinick is the Founder and President of The Women’s Network, an organization that spans 42 college campuses across the nation and connects over 7,000 young women to female leaders in various industries. What sets the network apart from the myriad of pre-professional groups on nearly every campus lies in its founding mission and the redirected focus on women shaping opportunities for other women, instead of teaching them how to change themselves to fit norms that often feel inauthentic. The network was created after Vinick decided to initiate conversations about vulnerability and overcoming gender-specific obstacles in the race for career advancement and recognized the vitality of being inclusive in efforts to open the door for more women to enter various different fields.
She mentions to me that the network does not charge dues for undergraduate members, allowing students of all socioeconomic levels to participate in workshops and events. No initiation processes, interviews, or hyper-selective applications are imposed on young women who want a chance to forge authentic relationships with professional leaders. Vinick herself has led workshops that teach members how to build their resumes, utilize LinkedIn, and make themselves the best candidates they can be for any position they apply for. So many of these resources were once confined to women who came from families that already worked affluent corporate jobs and grew up seeing adults in their life networking. For many, the unspoken tips and tricks that are essential to making an impression on employers were never taught in schools and weren’t easily observable in their working-class families. Moreover, the network does not discriminate by field of study and welcomes members from all disciplines to learn from each other.
“It’s about a common connection,” Vinick says. “You remember people who are like you, who look like you, who talk like you…if I can’t contribute to a conversation, then they’re going to remember my male peers.” At the end of the day, she tells me, “It comes down to who is in your network.”
It is wonderfully refreshing to see that at last, we are building networks that go beyond GirlBoss culture, white feminism, and empty promises. Networks of diverse, powerful women who aren’t afraid to show off their accomplishments, who recognize that juggling work and personal tasks means some balls get dropped along the way. Networks that strive for a future where it won’t be quite so lonely for women at the top.