Thursday 23 November 2017

Why is Ivanka Trump's book about being a successful businesswoman so bad?

Ivanka Trump is her father's favourite, a successful businesswoman who claims to champion the rights of working mothers. So why is her book on the subject so bad? writes Emily Hourican

Ivanka Trump
Ivanka Trump
US President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka
Ivanka Trump, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talk on stage at the W20 conference on April 25, 2017 in Berlin, Germany
Ivanka Trump, with her husband Jared Kushner and their children

There's a bit in Ivanka Trump's new book - Women Who Work, Rewriting the Rules For Success - in which she counsels against allowing your inner circle to become an echo chamber. In other words, don't surround yourself with toadies and sycophants who will applaud your every word and deed as if you have created something glorious.

It's good advice - we should all make a place in our lives for the tough confrontations, the people who love us but are hard to please. The real question is, where on earth were those voices in Ivanka's world, the ones who should have cautioned 'careful now...' when she first came up with the idea for this book? Who should have shouted 'Nooooo!' when she finished it and began the process of offering it to the wider world? And who should have wrestled the book from her carefully manicured hands and burned it before allowing it out.

To say the book has been slated is an understatement. Violently derided might be more accurate, with everyone from The New Yorker to The Huffington Post queuing up to mock and denounce it. Even the people quoted within it, have distanced themselves. And it is indeed a very poorly conceived book, with no big ideas or brave suggestions. But the real problem is Ivanka herself.

President Trump's only daughter by his first wife Ivana is his second, and favourite, child. She is the one who seems most like him, and the one who understands him best. She is also the one who seems most conscious of the family brand. Apparently, as a child, when her parents were divorcing, she asked her mother: ''Does this mean I won't be Ivanka Trump anymore?''

She is remarkably tolerant of her father's behaviour, even when it gets seriously creepy, once sitting calmly beside him when he mused over how he would react if she were to appear in Playboy. It would depend, Trump said, "on what they put inside the magazine", adding: "I don't think Ivanka would do that … although she does have a very nice figure. I've said that if Ivanka weren't my daughter, perhaps I'd be dating her."

He followed that up by saying to Rolling Stone, apropos of Ivanka, "What a beauty, that one. If I weren't happily married, and, ya know, her father..."

Ivanka has worked for her father since leaving college. Most recently she was executive vice president of his company, as well as head of her own clothing and accessories company, and is now an unpaid official adviser to her father in his role as President. She has even been described as a 'proxy wife' to Trump, taking on roles and responsibilities that would more conventionally be tended to by Melania who seems, so far, considered far less of an asset than Ivanka.

She married Jared Kushner, from another big real-estate family, in 2009, converting to Orthodox Judaism to do so, and the couple have three children. Kushner is currently also a senior adviser to the president. The couple personally own around $240m in assets, and are the beneficiaries of a larger business empire worth $741m.

Both are rich and privileged from birth, pretty much the apex of a particular type of narrow, entitled, Ivy League American society. Many of their set are privately wealthy New York bankers and stockbrokers, but Ivanka offers the odd celebrity sighting, too. Chelsea Clinton is a pal, so is Wendi Deng, Hugh Jackman, Karlie Kloss, even Paris Hilton - although Kushner recently claimed to be 'exfoliating' friendships, so quickly were these dropping away since his appointment to Trump's inner circle.

The fact that Ivanka is clearly smart, well-educated and cultured, is what makes her obtuseness so infuriating, and Women Who Work so particularly hard to stomach. The feeling of being condescended to from a great height is pretty insufferable, but we had that with Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, and we lived with it, because there was a pay-off: some genuinely impressive insights into tackling the corporate world as a woman. In Women Who Work, the basic career suggestions given are bland, dated and entirely unoriginal - 'before asking for a pay rise, gather details of your worth to the company', is one top tip. Because hey, no one ever suggested that before - but Ivanka's attempts to present herself as a working mother, and therefore as someone with something valuable to say to all working mothers, is worse.

"Together we will debunk the caricature of what it looks like to be a 'working woman'," she tells the reader cosily.

Except that she is at least 10 years too late for this struggle. The rest of us knew enough to abandon the shoulder-pads and all-conquering attitude a long time ago, and mostly make no secret of the fact that we have kids, and would like to see them as much as possible. The problem is not that women won't step up and admit that they have different gravitational pulls - career, family - but that the formal structure of most workplaces, not to mention the wider economic culture, won't acknowledge this.

But Ivanka, vested as she is in the status quo, won't admit it. She makes a habit of talking about being a working mother - sharing table space with Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde recently to discuss the various challenges. And she is adept at using the jargon - smooth, vague phrases like 'cultural overlap' and 'robust dynamic', trip lightly from her, always in that carefully soft and measured voice that convinces some people that she is a considerate and reasonable person. She has the facts at her disposal - "30pc of US privately-owned businesses are women businesses. Only 16pc have employees beyond themselves". But it's what she chooses to do with these facts that shows the limits of her understanding. She talks about the inequality in terms of opportunity - the opportunity women have to expand as entrepreneurs, saying that this is "incredibly exciting". Her suggestions, almost invariably, are focussed around women doing it for themselves: working out their own work-life balance, setting their own priorities, managing their own timetables to get the best from their days; 'architecting' their lives. Nice, lovely even, but impossible for the vast majority who are subject to the rules and timetables of their employers, with a big fat P45 awaiting them if they do too much of their own architecting.

As Ivanka seems to see it, little needs to be fixed by the State; everything is within the gift of women themselves, if they just plan better and aspire more. "Honour yourself by exploring the kind of life you deserve," she recommends. Which, again, is perfectly good advice, although it would come much better from someone who had succeeded in carving such an existence out for themselves, having confronted the same set of challenges and limitations as the rest of us, rather than taking the many benefits of immense privilege and rearranging them into the pattern that most pleases her, which is what Ivanka has done.

Where the book really falls flat - actually, scrap that, makes you want to scream and tear pages out of it - however, is where Ivanka tries to be 'relatable'.

She practices the usual formula for gaining sympathy - the self-deprecation that all women do: 'oh this old thing, I bought it 25 years ago for €1...', 'Me, good at my job, oh Jesus I'm barely able to function…', and so on. This kind of self-deprecation serves various functions, the nicest of which is a genuine attempt to show other women (it's nearly always women) that the person in question is human, fallible, insecure, just like everybody else and therefore strike a blow in the battle against perfection. However, that's not why Ivanka is doing it. She's empathy-signalling: ''Look at me, I'm just like you really,'' in an attempt to get us to respond to her and like her more. Except she's so out of touch that she's really, really bad at it.

"I began to wonder whether I had been doing women who work a disservice by not owning the reality that, because I've got an infant, I'm in my bathrobe at 7am and there's pureed avocado all over me," she muses, all serious self-reflection. Now, any regular woman's first response to that is, 'who eats pureed avocado for breakfast?' followed swiftly by an image of Ivanka's nanny and housekeeper hovering at her shoulder, one to swoop the infant away, the other to clean all surfaces of any green gunge.

The veil of obscurity Ivanka draws over the entire question of paid help is a major failing. Because she barely acknowledges the various nannies and housekeepers who make her soignee career-woman act possible, we are left to believe that she doesn't value their work, and suspecting that really, all the heavy lifting is being done for her - that is the real "disservice" she is doing.

There is a funny kind of cluelessness to Women Who Work, surprising in someone apparently so sophisticated. Apart from the vapidity of the book's content, even her motivation seems formulaic. "I realised that it might be helpful in changing the narrative… to, for example, debunk the superwoman myth by posting a photo that my husband candidly snapped of me digging the garden with the kids… my hair in a messy ponytail, dirt on my cheek." Now, I'm only guessing here, but I reckon there is no way on earth that Ivanka's garden is something that can be managed by her and her kids doing a bit of digging at the weekends. Neither - again, I am assuming - is it likely to look like the kind of garden held together by a few hours of amateur weekend digging. In which case, I suspect Ivanka of a) justifying the cutesy pictures of kids and family life her Instagram is full of, by claiming they are there to let the rest of us feel better about ourselves, and b) of staging photos. You know the type - the adorable 'see me, so natural with a picturesque smudge of dirt streaked carefully across my perfectly made-up face…' That 'messy ponytail?' Artfully messy, I am willing to bet $100.

But OK, so far, I guess she is no more guilty than pretty much anyone who has ever posted a photo on social media. What is really awful is the way she makes this into a mission statement - ''I've been careful not to pretend it's easy because it is not.''

Life, of course, is never exactly easy - it wouldn't be 'life' if it was - but there are many degrees of difficult, and the problems that Ivanka may face are a very far cry from the stuff that keeps most women awake at night. Given that most of us now know that we are, at any given moment, about two pay-cheques away from disaster, the idea that Ivanka Trump shares our pain is laughable. The fact that she has no idea how laughable this is, is depressing.

Yes, it would all be hilarious, except for the fact that it isn't funny at all. Ivanka stood by and allowed her father to use her youth, her beauty, her sheen of sophisticated perfection, to counteract the crass reality of his 'locker room' talk. She lent him credibility as a man rather than a monster, in a way that will have persuaded at least some of the 53pc of white women who voted for him. Now that he is in office, despite the outraged protests of hundreds of thousands of women who see all too clearly that their lives will be made worse by his victory, she has watched him chip away at the healthcare initiative that would have benefited so many lower income women and their children.

Ivanka has said that she wishes to play a key role on those policy issues she particularly cares about, namely childcare and paid maternity leave. These issues are "not on the Republican agenda and I have to get [them] there", she apparently told a friend recently. And, maybe, she will - in which case, snaps to her - but if she is serious about this stuff, the first thing she needs to do is self-efface a little. And understand that her role as Daddy's Favourite Girl is fundamentally incompatible with that of champion of the rights of working women.

The highs and lows of Ivanka’s life

Highs

  • Dancing The Nutcracker in front of Michael Jackson as a child, thanks to Papa Trump.
  • Persuading her boarding school to allow her time off to model, aged 14, by using the precedent of another girl’s Olympic ski training.
  • Being appointed adviser to the US president.
  • Being dubbed a ‘proxy wife’ to Papa Trump and sitting in on meetings with heads of State, including prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe.

Lows

  • Getting roundly booed at a conference in Berlin for saying she was “very proud” of her father’s commitment to improving maternity rights for working women.
  • Putting herself forward as proof of her father’s enlightened attitude towards women: “I wouldn’t be the person I am... if he hadn’t encouraged me, emboldened me.”
  • Posting a snap of herself wearing a €4,000 silver dress on Instagram on the same day a fire storm of protest erupted over her father’s executive order temporarily banning refugees from entering the United States.
  • Artist Alex Da Corte responding to a photo of Ivanka posing in front of one of his paintings with: “Dear Ivanka, please get my work off your walls. I am embarrassed to be seen with you.”
  • Her brand being accused of copying a pair of Aquazzura shoes, prompting the tweet “Imitation is NOT the most sincere form of flattery,” from Aquazzura.

Sunday Independent

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment