The (Feminist) Business Bloggers’ Lament

by cv harquail on January 26, 2010

In the past several weeks I’ve been working with two different groups of businesswomen, developing social-media based movements to advance social change in and around the workplace.

Conversations with these women have been intellectually challenging, inspiring and empowering. And they have also been oddly confessional, about a problem that — in my opinion — it’s time to bring out into the open.

A Personal Authenticity Problem

These women can’t be authentic, and can’t be their most powerful, because they are hiding something. These powerful, dynamic, visionary women are hiding their concerns about equality between women and men. These businesswomen are hiding their own feminist identities.

Here’s how the confession the conversation breaks down:

First, we get the fears:

  • I don’t want to bring up women’s concerns when talking to potential clients about this business issue.   If I raise it as a women’s issue, or — worse– a mom’s issue, it’s treated as a special interest instead of a business concern.
  • I don’t want people to think I’m “only” talking about women’s issues, that I’m a one-trick expert.
  • I don’t want clients to think that I’m bringing up women’s situation because as a woman I’m self-interested and/or because I have an axe to grind.

Then, we get the reflections on experience:

  • Any time I bring this up as a woman’s issue, it gets marginalized and put in a corner because women are a “special case”.
  • Any time I bring this up as a women’s concern, people disregard it and tell me that this isn’t a business issue.

Then, we get The Authenticity Problem:

  • I don’t want my silence to be perceived as me not being feminist.
  • I don’t want my silence about women’s concerns to be perceived as me not being smart enough to see the gendered dynamics, differences and issues that will prevent this business program from being successful.
  • I don’t want my silence to be perceived as collusion.

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But silent we are.

After a few (female and male) colleagues have said to me “I didn’t know you were a feminist,” I realized that I’d maybe dialed back my own authenticity a little too much.

And, I’ve wondered: What am I doing that is chronically inauthentic, if this is how some people see me? (Alternative analysis: they don’t know what a feminist looks like.)

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’ve hedged, myself, on this very blog. Many times. Over and over. Afraid people will dismiss AuthenticOrganizations if/when I drop the f-bomb.

Why is this Inauthenticity a problem?

By not speaking as feminist business people, about women’s issues, gender dynamics, and other intersectional concerns about diversity and inclusion that are important to the business initiatives they lead, none of these women gets to participate in an authentic way.

And, the very initiatives they are advocating are feminist issues — issues where a feminist analysis and the feminist agenda would make a big difference in what goals are set and what kind of social change is achieved. Said one of these businesswomen:

Sexism itself prevents us from covering these topics, even though we know we can’t put this initiative onto already “sexist “organizational cultures, and hope that we will still achieve the change we seek.

Not thinking as feminists, not reminding ourselves to use a feminist lens, actually impedes our effectiveness as business people, as strategists, as consultants, and as leaders.

So, what should we do?

{ 10 comments }

Leila Monaghan January 26, 2010 at 11:20 am

Brava CV! Great post. Your women’s business groups are bumping up the Great Double Bind. If women are authentic and feminine, they are weak and not fit to manage. If they are authentic and strong, they are ball breaking b****es and not someone the boys want to have anything to do with. If they say anything about unjust conditions or even just suggestions for improvement, they are seen as going against the best interests of the business and being unprofessional (a Triple Bind…and I am sure there is more).

What is needed to break the cycle is to set up a separate judging system. As long as others (most often men, and usually white men) are judging women, they will, for one more or less arbitrary reason be found lacking. This connects to your basic point about employers having all the power in the employer/employee relationship. Women starting their own businesses and social groups is one way to develop that separate judging system. One key thing to remember, however, is that the new judging system in itself is fair and in your term authentic. At Bryn Mawr we were all expected to like and respect each other, to establish our own expertises and strengths. This was an unusual upbringing. So often women have been taught to compete against each other for male attention, to vie for affiliation with some male with resources (be it as the girlfriend of the captain of the high school football team or as mentee of a big boss at a Wall Street job). Women can be women’s worst friends in the workplace. Authentic women’s groups with credentials and prestige of their own are almost the only way out of this.

Cv January 26, 2010 at 11:35 am

Leila, I think you ‘re right that one of the most powerful ways to move through this challenge is to work with a posse of likeminded feminist women and men, who could share strategies and help each other stay personally authentic. I’ll bring this suggestion to our next biz meeting– I’m sure it will get some traction
may I say too — what a bonus to have an anthropologist’s perspective — I often think about your work on ASL & cultural diffs … Thanks so much for fomenting cv

Cv January 26, 2010 at 11:37 am

Haha That should be “commenting”! But fomenting works too …

Rachel Happe January 26, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Hi CV –

I have a slightly different personal perspective in that I agree with you that I likely subvert many of the issues and concerns I care about because it never seems to have a ‘place’ in the business conversation inside an organization but I also don’t necessarily see myself as a feminist. Instead I am a person who is complex and has a lot of needs and I don’t think organizations always accommodate people’s complex and competing needs (and I think a lot of people are not even willing to let themselves acknowledge those needs for fear of being seen as a slacker – men and women). I also see a lot of people who are very competitive drive others to extremes because they see more/better/faster as the best way to manage. I think that it a position that lacks perspective and the long view but I think I’m in the minority.

Part of the problem is that regardless of gender, to demand that your needs be accommodated, you have to be fairly self-assured. I happen to think that the majority of people are not – at least not on that issue and it’s easy to see why – many people live paycheck to paycheck. It is a luxury to not fear being laid off or fired. I’m not really sure how to solve the problem. The people that have the luxury to demand work that accommodates them also typically have the luxury to go out on their own and create new models for themselves. So, not sure how to really systemically address this issue. If large organizations want people like you and me back in the fold, they will have to change quite a bit but I’m not sure they really do want mavericks (an issue for a whole different post).

So yes, there is a feminist issue here but there is also a humanist issue here and until people feel like they have good alternative options, they are going to suck up the existing power structure whether they like it or not.
.-= Rachel Happe´s last blog ..The New Diplomats: Community Managers =-.

cv harquail January 26, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Hi Rachel-

Regardless of whether or not someone claims a feminist lens, it is important to see what you do- that organizations don’t accommodate the needs of their employees and members. One challenge is to see that organizations’ failure to consider members’ needs is a systemic issue, one that usually can’t be addressed by one person working to fix his or her situation. Individual action usually isn’t strong enough to influence the system (unless that person is pretty powerful anyway). So it’s important to find ways (1) to reveal the systemic problems, and (2) to get individuals to work together to fix them for themselves and each other.

We are though struggling to find more effective change levers… ‘opting out’ doesn’t work… although I have high hopes for those who go off and create their own organizations and maybe create these different/ly.

I am looking forward to relationship-based changes (e.g., social media, social capital), because I think that in terms of conventional organizational change these are the bright shiny objects and will be so for a while. I think they might make good Trojan horses for other change initiatives. we’ll keep working on this.

Elsie Maio January 26, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Timely. Just yesterday a related lightbulb went off for me: I can’t pretend any longer that the current course of business will not snuff out life on this planet. It snuffs out The Feminine in all of us, men and women alike. Even the status quo “best business practice” is acquisitive, destructive to natural systems, exclusive and on a collision course with Life.

You could say it is the perfection of ‘patriarchal’ values, just as ‘collaborative, cooperative, compassionate, inclusive, life-enhancing’ are feminine impulses. I have been working since 1998 to nurture the Feminine in the transnational C Suites. I’m getting tired of the lack of results. I’m getting ready to burn my bra again. Women? Where are you? Where is your threshold of tolerance? Let’s give the Feminine its due. If we don’t, who will? If not now, when?

cv harquail January 26, 2010 at 8:16 pm

I am *so* with you on this Elsie!

Leila Monaghan January 26, 2010 at 3:21 pm

CV– Fomenting is good!

Rachel–Your comments on the inequality of the workplace are right on and profoundly feminist. Those who fear losing positions, those who live paycheck to paycheck and have others dependent upon them, are in a far more delicate position than those who don’t fear the loss of their livelihood. But that fear can also stop people from taking actions. I am reminded of the early strikes by the men and women of the labor movement. Poor people, who desperately feared losing their jobs, put their jobs and sometimes lives on the line, to rewrite the conditions they worked under. As Elsie says, the entire culture has to be rewritten so that it is not just those who compete ferociously/act like those in charge/look & think like those in charge and (probably most importantly) are accepted by those in charge who have some control in a situation. Possibilities for alternate employment, from general increase in the economy and from feminist, authentic organizations, are one possibility for increased security for those who feel trapped and unable to speak.

joe gerstandt January 26, 2010 at 11:13 pm

Great post.
Couple of thoughts come to mind as I read this… I think that our organizations and communities are in desperate need of a new way of leadership. I think that a big part of this change involves integrating more of the feminine dimensions of leadership (which are not necessarily exclusive to women, but maybe more prevalent there)…we certainly have increased opportunity for this with more women moving into leadership roles, but there is still the matter of whether or not they will apply those attributes or simply try to fit into the old model. I attempted a blog post about this issue earlier in the year: (http://www.ourtimetoact.com/our-time-to-act/2009/2/19/a-new-way-of-leadership.html)
And the second consideration that comes to mind is related to my own work and how I present myself. I consider myself a feminist. I consider myself an activist and and advocate for social justice and equality. I am a peace lover. But. (and it is a big but!) Do people know that about me? None of this will surprise my friends and family, but what about my clients…sure they know that I believe strongly in the business significance of diversity and inclusion, but that is about as far as it goes. Do I let me clients off the hook to some extent? Do I adjust the level of my advocacy and activism to fit the culture of the companies that I work for? Yes, I do. So…I have to think about what that says about me and what I claim to stand for.
Good gut check, thanks for the post.
-joe

Shayna April 28, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Thanks for pointing this out — I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one frustrated by the ‘rock and a hard place’ that women in business are caught between…

Now we just need an answer!
.-= Shayna´s last blog ..Break Out The Hair Dye – Blondes Have More Fun – And Money! =-.

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