I wrote this explanation of Feminism at Work back in Feb of 2013, but never posted it. In advance of our panel at In Good Company on June 1, I’m sharing it as pre-reading for folks who’ll be attending. Want to join us? Sign up here: Everyday Leadership for Women Entrepreneurs
It’s time to use the f-word at work.
Sheryl Sandberg’s forthcoming book, “Lean In”, may finally get us all to talk about what it will really take for women and men to achieve equality at work.
As we talk, we’re going to use words like ‘ambition’ and ‘power’. We’re going to explain how to ‘lean in’ and why not to ‘leave before we leave’. We’re going to tell the truth about the kinds of support we need from our partners at home and our mentors at work. We’re going to do a lot of talking about what to do.
But if any of this talking is going to make a difference for ourselves, for our colleagues, for our businesses and for our economy, we’re going to have to use some words. Words you don’t hear often in the cube farms and conference rooms of corporate America.
We’ll need to use words like ‘fairness’, ‘privilege’, ‘inclusion’, ‘class’, ‘racism’, and ‘living wage’.
Most of all, we’re going to need to use a word that some people dislike, and that many people misunderstand.
We’re going to need to use that f-word, feminism.
I can see your reaction already.
Feminism? What has feminism got to do with business? With work?
Just about everything.
Consider for a minute all the different kinds of women who work. How can we talk about transforming the world of work unless we use words like ‘race’, ‘class’, and ‘justice’?
Compare the situation for women at work to the situation of men. How can we talk about work unless we also talk about ‘family’ and ‘life’ and ‘community’?
We have to broaden our vocabulary and talk about more.
We have to find words that include all women of all races, that include men, that include work, family and life, that help individuals empower themselves at work, and that help leaders change the systems at work.
The only word, and the only perspective, that includes all of these concerns at once is feminism.
Yes, I know that a lot of people don’t really know what “feminism” is. They may reject feminism outright, misunderstand it as being ‘against men’, and criticize it appropriately for historically emphasizing the concerns of white women. People may even criticize the women and men who are in the early stages of learning how to use feminism and are a little didactic or simplistic as they use it.
Yet even with all the ways people misunderstand feminism,
Feminism is still the most powerful way to transform organizations to make them better for everyone.
By taking a feminist perspective and putting feminism to work, we can change not only how we act as women and men, but also change the ways we lead and the goals we are leading towards.
Putting feminism to work helps women and men together push for changes in their organization’s systems, in employees’ behaviors, and ultimately in each other’s beliefs and values, so that women and men — regardless of their position in the organization, or their race, ethnicity, class, family status, physical ability, gendered self expression and sexual orientation — can achieve the same rewards for the same amount of contribution at work.
It isn’t enough to for each of us to “lean in”, and use the energy of feminism to advance our own individual careers.
We also need to use feminism at work, through our own personal, individual behavior, so that we challenge:
- Unequal treatment of women and men, especially in terms of wages, promotions and authority
- Gendered expectations of who leaders are and how leaders should behave
- Gendered expectations about what is good work and who are good workers
- Interpersonal behaviors that devalue women and men and that dehumanize us all
- Behaviors that exclude and fail to include certain kinds of people simply for what we presume about them
Using feminism at work means that we lean in to our leadership positions and our influence within our businesses, so that we challenge:
- Hierarchy and bureaucracy that create status without wisdom and authority without responsibility
- Jobs and products that we can’t take pride in
- Work systems that advantage of employees instead of respectfully engaging us
- The devaluing and overvaluing of certain kinds of work, where employees’ compensation doesn’t match the value that their work creates
- The ways that organizations take advantage of employees through overwork, intensified work, 24/7 demands, and the expectation that work comes before anything or anyone else.
Using feminism at work also means we lean in to our roles in specific departments and functions so that we make a difference.
Whether we’re in line management, human resources, marketing, production, customer service or strategy, using feminism at work means that:
- We challenge and change who is hired, who is recruited, and who is seen as capable for a job
- We challenge and change the ways we market our products to make ads less sexist and to promote inclusiveness
- We challenge and change the products we create to address real customer needs, and we use inclusive design to make products usable by anyone who wants them
- We challenge and change our manufacturing and production systems to reduce waste in the supply chain, promote energy conservation, and more towards sustainability
- We challenge and change our corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives so that they are genuine contributions to improving the world, not just pinkwash or pr.
- We treat our customers and suppliers with respect, looking for relationships that create more value for everyone rather than more value for just us
- We challenge and change how we interact with our communities to embrace them as partners in each others’ success
Some might say that we don’t really need feminism at work.
After all, we’ve got the EEOC, affirmative action laws, and laws against sexual harassment. We’ve got HR departments sponsoring diversity and inclusion programs, we’ve got work-life flexibility programs, and women’s leadership development programs.
In spite of these efforts, we still have gender-related differences in interpersonal treatment, know as ‘benevolent sexism’. We have gendered norms in corporate culture that create ‘ambient sexism’ and we have unchallenged, unspoken scripts about how men and women ought to behave that’s known as ‘aversive sexism’.
What we don’t have at work is a big picture understanding that there is no single solution — not mentoring, not training, not promotion, not ‘leaning in’ — that will create workplaces where women employees at every level, and male employees at every level, are paid well for their contributions, are working on jobs with meaning and dignity, and are treated with respect.
We can’t change work systems, businesses, or organizations without a point of view and a plan of action that includes everyone — women and men, managers and workers, typically and differently-abled employees, people with families and personal lives, and more.
Feminism offers an inclusive point of view. Feminism offers an inclusive plan of action.
If we want to make work better, more just and more fair, we need to claim the power of the F word.
We need to start using feminism at work.