There is a sharp, mildly enraging profile of clothing designer and retailer Eileen Fisher in the style issue of The New Yorker this week. The writer Janet Malcolm, concealing a shiv in her “interestingly plain” Eileen Fisher duds, paints Fisher as frustratingly meek and her business style as passive-aggressive. What’s the mildly enraging part? Fisher refers to this business approach as “feminine,” as if women leaders can’t be straightforward about their demands.
Fisher is maddeningly modest. She claims that “I didn’t know how to run a business” before the current CEO arrived, though she was making a lot of money, selling tons of clothing, and was good with numbers. When she talks about her company, Malcolm notes, Fisher speaks like “a hermetic text written by Judith Butler.” Malcolm sits in on a meeting at Fisher Headquarters (in my hipsturbia hometown, Irvington, N.Y.), where the exclusively female workers speak in incomprehensible code about “facilitating leaders” and “delegation with transparency.” Then the meeting ends with the ringing of a bronze bell. “I ring a bell to remind us of timelessness,” one woman says. Then a gourd is passed around and each woman says something when she gets her hands on it, such as: “I feel humbled and honored.”
The company holds its meetings in circles, because it’s less hierarchical this way. (Malcolm never says which members of the company are in the circle she observes, because no one is taking an obvious leadership role.) It also eschews the word executive, though there are certainly executives. When Fisher goes to a conference with other CEOs, she, and most of the other women there, don’t speak at all. “I had felt frozen and incapable of speech,” she tells Malcolm. “Men and women talk differently. I don’t understand it exactly. Men talk faster. There’s more like a debate style. I felt I wouldn’t think fast enough.”
There are plenty of lovely things that Fisher does for her employees under the umbrella of “feminine” management: profit-sharing, free clothing, attempts to help the Chinese workers who make her garments. But the problem with saying that treating your workers well and caring about their happiness are “feminine” leadership traits, while debate and quick thinking are “masculine,” just doubles down on pre-existing stereotypes and doesn’t challenge men to be more socially aware or women to be more aggressive.
Eileen Fisher’s workforce is only 20 percent male, and when Malcolm asks where the men are, a worker jokes that they’re all in the company’s warehouse in Secaucus, N.J. If this were a company run by a man who joked that the women were all in the secretarial pool, we’d be aghast. Though we probably wouldn’t speak up unless someone passed the gourd.