Common sources of work advice for women, including popular books such as Lean In and mainstream media like Cosmopolitan Magazine, help women understand how to navigate patriarchal structures - but not how to dismantle them.
It is important to understand that the image of the Modern Working Woman is a popular model for navigating the impact of capitalism on women throughout the world. However, the ‘Modern Working Woman’ is a myth.
Anyone interested in understanding how we create cultural myths in our society should most certainly read Roland Barthes. In his book Mythologies, Barthes writes, “myth is a system of communication...[a myth] is a message.” He continues, “myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things.”
When mainstream media and popular culture discuss women’s inclusion in the workplace, they are typically referring to a very specific type of woman. The Modern Working Woman. She is middle to upper class and understands the practices required to make it in the ‘boy’s club.’ Being feminine is seen as a weakness, and self-expression is bad for business.
We see this message over and over again in the Lean In brand of corporate feminism. Speak up, do what they do, don’t let your troubled girlhood and years of oppression be a barrier to your success. Again referring to Barthes, “repetition of the concept through different forms is precious to the mythologist, it allows him to decipher the myth: it is the insistence of a kind of behavior which reveals its intention.”
Although many of the messages that accompany the myth of the Modern Working Woman, such as the acknowledgement of women’s contribution to the workforce, are positive and even feminist, this definition of womanhood exists within capitalist and patriarchal structures, and therefore even seemingly “empowering” messages are stripped of their true progressive potential.
So, how do we decipher the Modern Working Woman myth and further debates about inclusion? The first step is to realize we, as women, have immense agency. Since the beginning of human history, women have navigated patriarchal oppression by outsmarting the system.
Theorist Amyrata Sen defines agency as “the ability to set and pursue one’s own goals and interests, of which the pursuit of one’s own well-being may be only one. Other ends may include furthering the well-being of others, respecting social and moral norms, or acting upon personal commitments and the pursuit of a variety of values.”
Sen theorizes that within patriarchal and capitalist societies, women’s agency is restricted because their actual choices are made based on their current circumstance and may not be an actual measure of their desires.
Proliferated on a mass scale, patriarchal discourses intended to generate particular normative standards can reinforce oppressive structures as well as present new possibilities for resistance. Women all over the world can, and do, use the information found in pop culture texts such as Lean In, Cosmopolitan and the myth of The Modern Working Woman for their own purposes.
However, these approaches cannot offer any complete solutions to women’s oppression, hardships, and insecurities, because doing so would suggest that the problem lies in existing patriarchal structures and not the individual or specific industries.
This being said, if we are to discuss true inclusion and equality in the workplace - we have to think bigger than ‘leaning in’ or making hiring processes more female-friendly. We have to understand that authenticity in capitalism - especially when that authenticity is expressive of female-ness, black-ness, trans-ness, or other-ness (not white straight male) - is discouraged.
In a 2015 article published in the Harvard Business Review, authors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones write:
“Does your workplace reflect a relative balance of males and females in leadership positions? A healthy range of diversity in terms of age, skin color, religious conviction, culture, or/and sexual orientation? Yes? Before you congratulate yourself on how diverse your workplace is, what if we told you it might not be diverse enough — or at least not in the ways that matter most?”
The authors go on to discuss how TRUE diversity means that people within the workplace are allowed “to be themselves: to have a voice, exercise discretion, express disagreement, show what they really care about, feel ‘natural’ or self-fulfilled on the job.”
Now, perhaps there are limits to this. For example, if someone feels that they need to express themselves by writing a manifesto about how women are less than men which then makes the workplace feel unsafe for already marginalized employees, perhaps that is not a valid form of self-expression. However, there is something to be said about biological differences between men and women - and perhaps if a more educated person and expert in the field were to present well-reasoned arguments that could help us better understand the limitations of identity politics…but I digress.
Authenticity is key to breaking down systemic systems of inequality. When our authentic selves, independent yet intertwined with our political identities, are recognized as valued - we can begin to move away from toxic myths of womanhood, success and intelligence that limit our own potential, as well as prevent patriarchal capitalist systems from being dismantled.
When inclusive movements in the tech sector claim to be liberating women, they are only considering a small percentage of women who have systematically gained access to employment, education, and sexual expression. Inclusion - real inclusion - would take into account the flaws in our educational system, the failures of state and city governments to provide adequate resources to the poor, and the continued undermining of women throughout society.
In these ways, I propose that in order to solve the ‘diversity’ problem in tech and in all workplaces - we need to be more authentic. Not just in our means of self-expression, but also how we discuss the true roots of a problem. Most importantly, we need to encourage and allow authenticity not just as a business ‘best practice’ but as a must-have for societal progress.