You have to feel bad for a writer who, waiting out the eternity between finishing a book and its pub date, awakens one morning to find that not only is her subject all over the headlines but that the breaking news is landscape-altering. Or so I was thinking when, shortly after my copy of Jessica Bennett’s Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace arrived, former Fox newscaster Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment suit against Fox chairman and uber-creep Roger Ailes, ultimately bringing down one of the most powerful and seemingly inviolable men in corporate America. Not so inviolable after all, it turned out. Sure his severance package was more than most people’s lifetime earnings, but even so, the status quo of sexist office culture had been irrevocably shattered.
When Rupert Murdoch et fils are the public face of workplace gender reform, the world really is in transition. I suppose it’s too early to gauge the extent of the trickle-down effect on American offices, but I’d like to think that handsy, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer bosses and co-workers—a big chunk of the Fox demographic, I assume—have been undergoing collective, painful lightning bolts of self-recognition. “Roger, c’est moi,” I picture them gasping to themselves, fending off waves of self-disgust and thanking God they’d had the chance to reform their nasty ways before they too made headlines.
Anyway, such were my fantasies when I began Feminist Fight Club, wondering what advice Bennett would have given Carlson and the rest of Ailes’ female prey in the Fox newsroom. I found to my surprise that Bennett doesn’t actually address the subject of sexual harassment, which I’d always assumed was one of the main things making sexist workplaces sexist. But no, aside from a brief mention of guys she calls “lurkers”—the sort who spend too much time hanging around your desk for no reason—sexual harassment isn’t on Bennett’s radar.
Nor does pay equity occupy much of the book—it gets one paragraph, in which we learn that if you adjust for comparable colleges and job choices, first-year female college graduates make “just 93 percent of what their male peers do.” I wondered why that “just” was necessary, since a 7 percent pay differential sounds like progress to me. (Overall women make 79 percent of male income, Bennett says, but it’s a hard number to pin down precisely, given men’s and women’s different life trajectories, meaning the children thing.)
So if sexual harassment and pay equity aren’t the problem, what is? It turns out that the forms of workplace sexism Bennett has in mind are the subtler, harder-to-contest varieties, in part because the guys enacting them are often nice enough fellows, not jerks. They’re your friends, progressives even. The offenses range from familiar female complaints—being interrupted, being asked to get coffee and take notes at meetings, having your ideas ripped off without credit by male colleagues—to what seem like fairly minor irritants in the larger scheme of things: air conditioning geared to male body temperature, guys deploying sports lingo (like congratulating you on your “slam dunk”), and being called “kiddo.”
Bennett’s move is to update the familiar complaints with a lot of cute names—male types to watch out for include the Manterrupter, the Dismisser, the Bropriator, the Himitator, the Menstruhater (who thinks it’s always “that time of the month” when a woman gets irritable), and the Stenographucker, who treats you like the office secretary. Based on strategy sessions with her own “feminist fight club”—a group of similarly situated friends who get together to carp about work—she offers advice in the form of “Fight Moves”: “Put the Phucker in His Place,” “Underpromise, Overdeliver,” “Throw to a Bro,” “Womanspread.” When asked to make coffee, turn yourself into a “Bad Barista”—just claim not to know how. The tactics come with more cute names, a fair amount of it female-anatomy based: “#PussyPosse” “Vagffirmative Action” “Reach Clitoral Mass.” There are also drawings; they too are cute.
All this whimsy is heavy going, and weirdly at odds with the larger message of the book, which is that your femininity isn’t going to get you very far at work—in fact it may be your big problem. If certain male behaviors are entrenched, so are certain female behaviors, and Feminist Fight Club is most trenchant when it moves from “Know the Enemy” to “Know Yourself.” In other words, maybe it’s not simply that men are sabotaging women; it’s that we’re sabotaging ourselves. We’re constantly asking “Are we good enough?” and answering no. We panic or babble when talking in meetings (“The Clusterfuck of Speaking While Female,” as Bennett subtitles one chapter). We’re afflicted by typically feminine traits like apologizing, hedging, and excessive use of emojis. Also upspeak. We’re bad at negotiating raises or anything else.
One way to read this book would be as an anti-femininity manual, and in fact the book’s best advice is to succeed by “carrying yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.” Bennett’s example is “Josh,” a former colleague who always seemed to get what he wanted, despite not working very hard or taking anything that seriously. Josh wasn’t an asshole, in fact he was kind of a mensch, but he knew how to put himself first. He knew to grab the seat next to the boss at meetings and schmooze him; he knew how to play the room and jump on the smart ideas; he didn’t give a shit what people thought of him. “What would Josh do?” became Bennett’s mantra, especially when she realized that not only were Josh’s instincts the polar opposite of hers, his were working a lot better.
But Josh is a big picture guy, and a lot of this book is taken up with small bore issues. Bennett understands that with 42 million women in America living on the brink of poverty (the number is hers), some of her concerns sound trivial, but there she is complaining about the AC nonetheless. Believe me, I can outcomplain anyone when it comes to room temperature, though I deeply loathe about myself the ineradicable princess-and-the-pea feminine propensities that leave me far more fixated on the micro-discomforts of heating, lighting, and irritating noise than any man I know. My personal “fight move” is attempting to keep such things in scale, or when that’s not possible, suffering silently.
Bennett’s lack of attention to scale becomes the default politics of her book. One of her big demands (or “asks,” in corporate-speak) turns out to be dedicated lactation rooms in offices, the absence of which leaves nursing women to figure out how and where to pump breast milk at work. No, a supply closet won’t do. The lactation issue comes up repeatedly (avoiding repetition is not this book’s strong suit) and gets many pages, though in fact it’s a battle won, at least formally, as per the 2010 Affordable Care Act, according to which bathrooms can’t serve as lactation rooms either.
Yet somehow she devotes zero pages to the far larger question: what you’re doing with the kid while you’re pumping at the office. The universal child care “ask” gets not a mention, despite the fact that the months of her working life the average woman spends pumping milk make up a minuscule slice compared with the years she’s going to spend raising and tending children.
Universal child care would change vast numbers of working women’s lives significantly—women of all classes. It would also mean a deep structural overhaul of the rules undergirding the American economy. Nothing would show more real commitment to working women than reallocating resources to child care, to be funded by—as has been proposed—closing corporate tax loopholes. Whereas the “woman-friendly” workplace measures Bennett supports—flexible hours, parental leave policies (I noted she didn’t say paid leave)—are ones that won’t in any way disrupt the existing distribution of resources. In fact, Bennett tries to sell such measures by citing research indicating that they increase productivity. Here’s the question she doesn’t take up: Where would the benefits of that increased productivity go?
Bennett and I clearly get irked about different issues, but here’s something else I find super irritating about the American workplace: those outrageous CEO salaries. Even more than I want the AC turned down, I want caps on off-the-charts CEO compensation. I wondered if maybe resource issues escaped Bennett’s attention because she’s a protégée of billionaire Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg, whom she deifies to an embarrassing degree—“Seriously, this woman is good at everything”—and whose best-selling book, Lean In, Bennett touts to the point of product placement. She even suggests leaving copies of it “casually placed on the desks of male bosses” as one of her “fight moves.” We learn at the end of the book that Bennett parlayed a casual acquaintance with Sandberg (Bennett had once interviewed her) into a job with LeanIn.org. (The marketing campaign for Feminist Fight Club also lists “Cross-promotion with LeanIn.org.”) Schmoozing the boss and touting her ideas—I guess this is what Josh would do.
I was never able to bring myself to read Lean In; my feminist heroes wanted to bring down corporate America, not run it. Also I’d read the various critiques faulting Sandberg for her “neo-liberal faux feminism,” meaning—so say her critics—that she touts an ethic of individual responsibility while ignoring structural and racial inequalities. But I have watched Sandberg’s 2010 TED Talk, which allegedly sparked Lean In. Like Bennett, Sandberg has much to say about female self-sabotage, which she laments because female progress to the top echelons has stalled, and “a world where half of our countries and our companies were run by women would be a better world.”
She never says why. Is Greece less immiserated because Angela Merkel, as one of the most prominent voices in the eurozone crisis, is a woman? Am I supposed to cheer if an anti-choice female candidate gets elected to Congress or because Carly Fiorina got to run Hewlett-Packard? Equality is one thing, and a legitimate demand, but a few millennia of oppression doesn’t mean that if women ran things we’d necessarily do it any better, and to think otherwise is sentimental drivel. Nor does a history of inequality make the dumber elements of feminine culture any less grating than the dumber elements of male culture. Remind me why sports metaphors are somehow worse than nonstop cutesiness again? Reading this book felt like clawing my way through snowdrifts of saccharine. My brain felt gooey afterward. An hour of ESPN would have been like a power cleanse. I found myself wondering who Bennett’s target audience could be, since it seems doubtful that anyone who needs to be told to make lists, take time for herself, and find a mentor—advice so familiar it’s like career gal Muzak by this point—hasn’t already learned all this from Lean In.
That’s not to say that the appeal of cutesy feminism to many women is hard to understand, even in a workplace culture that contains the ferociously not-cute sexism of Ailes and his ilk. This book may have sprung from the same impulse that has propelled coinages like mansplainer into the cultural conversation—the push to turn every gender-political issue, no matter how woolly, into a pat little portmanteau that makes for a convenient bloggy shorthand. Women who know that other women crave advice, and that content matters less than form (bullet points, listicles), often go far. Think of Helen Gurley Brown, who built an empire on the relentlessly upbeat message that everything—namely you!—is fixable. I understand the appeal: I too want to be fixed; I too like a little fake uplift now and then. But I also resent, on behalf of my gender, the fact that we apparently need so much fixing.
Not unlike Brown, Feminist Fight Club wants us to see that femininity can be toughened up, weaponized even. The tension is that even at its toughest (“womanpropriate that!”) there’s still a fair amount of self-abnegation, which can be as much of an impediment to women’s equality as the remaining tatters of patriarchy. Which is in tatters—in this part of the world anyway—partly because it’s starting to cost too much. Check with Rupert Murdoch, latter-day slayer of sexist dragons. Fight move (with a fist bump to Gretchen Carlson): Get them by the balls—or wallets, if you can tell the difference—and their hearts and minds will follow.
Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace by Jessica Bennett. Harper Wave.
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