Surviving Sexist Workplaces Is Not Enough

Written by
Kelly J. Baker

Jun 5, 2017

Jun 5, 2017 • by Kelly J. Baker

The April cover of The Atlantic—emblazoned with “Why is Silicon Valley so awful to women?”—caught my eye when it landed in my mailbox. Liza Mundy reports on how tech companies are throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at diversity initiatives to improve working conditions for women employees. The question, however, remains whether those programs will work or not. Mundy also profiles women CEOs and founders of tech companies about what it's like to be a woman in tech. As you might expect, the conditions they describe are not good: microaggressions, harassment, inappropriate comments and the constant undercutting of their authority and expertise.

Navigating Sexist Workplaces

Bethanye Blount, the co-founder and CEO of Cathy Labs, describes making “decisions” that helped her succeed, which mostly involved never talking about gender or being a woman. Ignoring bad behavior and slights from men helped her get ahead. She told The Atlantic, “It helped me get through. But in retrospect I feel I should have done more.”

Blount's comment about getting ahead in a toxic environment for women has stuck with me for months. Her story made me think of the survival strategies women routinely employ in the workplace; some of which I've used for more than one workplace. Women continue to face sexism at work, not only in tech, but in many other fields, including higher education. Personal success often requires not changing the working conditions of companies and schools, but navigating hostile workplaces by maneuvering around the men that make them hostile. Sexist workplaces have yet to become a relic of the past (which I document each month in Newswatch), and the so-called gender wars are far from over.

So, what can women do?

Creating a Feminist Fight Club

I hoped Jessica Bennett's Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace would offer some answers. I first picked up the book in November and promptly put it down, but I picked it up again after reading Mundy's article. I wanted Bennett to offer practical advice that WIHE's readers can use. We all have needed a survival manual, and I thought that, perhaps, Bennett would avoid the pitfalls of previous self-help books geared toward working women that focus on changing individuals rather than structures.

Bennett claims her book provides women with a variety of tactics for “combatting sexist, subtly sexist, overtly sexist, and sometimes just oblivious behaviors that exist even in our most progressive offices.” She begins by noting something most of us already know: today's sexism is somewhat harder to identify than that blatant sexism of earlier periods and that “[s]ometimes women exhibit it too.” Her shock that women would be sexist to other women seems naïve. Patriarchy structures women's lives at work and at home, so it shouldn't be surprising that some women uphold systems of men's power and domination.

Feminist Fight Club shows what women are up against at work, especially women of color, in gaps in pay and promotion, the maternal wall, double standards for work and everyday indignities, like being interrupted (or overlooked) and having men steal their ideas. The book has a good start, but takes a turn when Bennett emphasizes how women self-sabotage their careers by not speaking up, bragging or negotiating pay. Women become responsible for their lack of success, even though Bennett points to studies that show how women are punished for those very behaviors in the workplace.

Mimicking the Patriarchy

While she claims to want to fight the sexist system of most workplaces, most of her suggestions for getting ahead in the sexist workplace are tips for an individual woman's survival. Feminist Fight Club never quite gets to the root of the problem: the workplace is still structured for men's success, not women's. Occasionally, Bennett gestures to this truth by noting how masculine styles of speech and engagement are “associated with workplace leadership and power.” But instead of carefully emphasizing how the workplace could change to be more inclusive of women, she offers supposedly funny tips that suggest that women just act more like men.

Frankly, I assumed we had moved beyond this kind of advice, but obviously, not everyone has. This is particularly disappointing in a book that relies on “feminist” in the title. Most forms of feminism don't advocate mimicking the patriarchy, but rather tell us to dismantle it. I wanted to like this book, but I couldn't because her hacks might help individual women but they don't change the culture or structure of the workplace. The advice to act like men is a temporary fix at best. Yes, women can negotiate patriarchal work systems, but the system remains in place. That might help us survive a sexist workplace, but it doesn't let us thrive. I'm tired of surviving rather than thriving.

I want to read a feminist survival manual that calls for a revolution in how we envision work, so that women don't have to comport to hostile spaces but together create a new vision of work that actually is inclusive to all women. I want someone to write that book. It's a book we need. Who's going to write it?

Until next month,