Tuesday 28 January 2020

First rule of Feminist Fight Club: know what you're fighting for

A new book aims to teach millennials - both male and female - to navigate the choppy waters of workplace sexism. Our reporter speaks to the author Jessica Bennett

Handbook for women: Jessica Bennett has written 'Feminist Fight Club'
Handbook for women: Jessica Bennett has written 'Feminist Fight Club'
Public eye: Hillary Clinton

Tanya Sweeney

They say that the past is a foreign country, and sometimes, the 'Mad Men'-era office feels like another planet. Sexual harassment, jobs for the boys, typing pools; there's plenty of reason to believe that after years of leaning in, having it all, and hitting the glass ceiling, women and men have reached a sort of parity in the workplace.

Yet Jessica Bennett, then a 20-something working in the dog-eat-dog city of New York (firstly at 'Newsweek', then as an editor at Tumblr), began to notice small workplace micro-aggressions; casual, can't-put-your-finger-on-it behaviour, not necessarily intentional or conscious, that led her to believe that the girl power she was weaned on wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

While we are ostensibly working towards systemic change, Bennett noticed that she was experiencing workplace sexism she calls Death By A Thousand Cuts.

"Taken individually, the affronts don't seem like that big a deal," she says. "But over time, and collectively, they are fatal."

Public eye: Hillary Clinton
Public eye: Hillary Clinton

Bennett and a number of high-flying young cohorts began to meet regularly to talk about their jobs, and thus 'Feminist Fight Club' was born.

"We'd meet every couple of months, and we still do, to share advice, support, and tricks of the trade - as well as the occasional bitch-sesh - from our respective jobs," she explains.

As it became clear that each woman was facing their own issues - being mistaken for admin, being talked over in meetings, having ideas stolen from them - Bennett believed that young women needed a handbook to navigate such choppy waters. This isn't just 'Lean In' for millennials; using pin-sharp wit and a healthy soupcon of humour, Bennett has delivered a hugely palatable design for life.

"The book deals with issues I care about, and one that I think we're hearing more and more about every day," she says. "It tries to invoke humor as a way to bring people in, but it also provides solutions - practical, easy-to-do things that women (and men) can do on a daily basis to try to overcome some of these issues."

One doesn't need to look very far to find the issues she is talking about: from Hillary Clinton's race to the White House (with hairstyle commentary thrown in for free) to the gender pay gap (currently 14.4pc in Ireland), it becomes increasingly clear that our forebears have achieved plenty… but there's much left to do.

"While a lot of what my mother's generation had to endure - literally being barred from jobs for being female; wanted ads segregated by gender - was outrageous, what was clear about it was that it was sexism. It had a name and, usually, a legal definition. Today's sexism is often so subtle that it can't even be dealt with through our legal system. You can't legislate against being perceived as 'bossy' when you try to make a point."

Last month, a report from McKinsey Global Institute found that while women are increasingly asking for pay rises, they are often not getting them.

"First thing's first: this is a great thing, because what we previously thought was that women were not asking as frequently as men," says Bennett. "Not getting it is the problem - and what the research shows is that women are perceived as 'pushy', 'too aggressive' and unlikable when we do negotiate.

"We need to practice asking; we need to know what our peers (male and female) make; and we need to come in prepared with data for why you deserve that raise." (The book, incidentally, offers an entire script on how to negotiate a pay rise.)

Sandra Ondraschek-Norris, senior director at Catalyst (the global expert for accelerating progress for women through workplace inclusion), has her own theories on Ireland's gender pay gap.

"Women do negotiate, and almost as often as men but they don't always get the pay off: Catalyst found: 47pc of women versus 52pc of men negotiated for a higher salary during the hiring process," she says.

"We looked at the traits of a so-called 'ideal worker' and found that even when women did 'all the right things' to advance, it did not have the same pay off. The pay gap is also not to do with women's career choices; or by having children; and finally it's not to do with women's lack of ambition.

"Instead systemic barriers are stopping women from achieving their career potential: a lack of role models for women, not enough sponsors and exclusion from informal networks (for instance, a culture of going for after-work drinks or playing golf at the weekend)."

And so, the double standards continue. Little wonder than when former Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts went so far as to posit that the gender diversity issue in advertising is essentially 'over', there was uproar.

"Their ambition is not a vertical ambition," he observed of his female counterparts. "It's this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy."

According to EU statistics published in October 2013, Irish women make up just 10.5pc of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland, significantly below the EU average of 18.6pc. Female representation on Irish State boards is better, at 36.2pc. A survey published by Catalyst in January shows that just one in 10 of Irish publicly listed companies are women. Add to this the grim reality that only 16.3pc of TDs in Dáil Eireann are women, and it's safe to say that those hoping for gender parity are left wanting.

"I would strongly suspect that the reasons would be similar to what we see elsewhere, which is that boards tend to go to their networks to source candidates, and their networks tend to look a lot like them," notes Ondraschek-Norris. "The women aren't as visible or known to the sitting directors, the vast majority of whom are men. More so than elsewhere, it can be a kind of 'closed system' or blackbox - it's not like many jobs where an opening would be posted and people can apply."

Bennett, for her part, believes this perceived 'lack of ambition' to be a cultural conceit: "It's not that women lack ambition, but rather that we are penalised more for exhibiting it," she says.

"Behold the catch-22 of women and power. To be successful, a woman must be liked, but to be liked she must not be too successful: her likability eroded by her professional status.

"We may all know - or at least like to say we know - that women are perfectly capable as leaders. Yet on a deep, unconscious level, we still find the image of an ambitious woman hard to swallow. A structure that still holds women back, from underrepresentation in meetings, decision-making discussions, a lack of mentors, perceiving them to be too aggressive when they exhibit leadership traits."

Says Olwen Dawe, president of Network Ireland (a network of Irish businesswomen): "I think, sadly, we're dealing with an overhang from historical issues and 'norms' in terms of women's roles, their perceived career choices and, as a result, the level of attainment, financially and career-wise."

On this, Bennett is in agreement. "The reality is that persistent sexism is the product of centuries of women being viewed as the 'weaker sex', of being told we don't belong in positions of power, and being expected to be the 'nurturer'," she says. "It takes time to overturn these cultural expectations, to truly internalise the belief that women in fact deserve to be in charge just as much as men, and it can be a challenge for women too. But at the end of the day, we're talking about these issues - now we just need to put them into action."

And it's not so much girl power as girls' power that will affect change: "If you're being overtly sexually harassed? You can report it and you should," says Bennett. "But as we've seen in cases from Fox News to Bill Cosby, if you can galvanise a group of women to come forward, the sad fact is we are more likely to believe their words.

"This stuff is incredibly common, and we need to not only work to combat it, but take women seriously when they come forward."

Bennett has hopes that 'Feminist Fight Club' will become a survival guide for every young woman about to enter the workforce.

"For someone just entering the workforce, I would say recognise that we're all a little bit sexist," she advises. "Yes, even women. Try to notice if women are being interrupted in meetings, and see if there's a way you can jump in to help. Notice if you're automatically feeling competitive with other women just because they're women. Try to catch yourself if you begin to think that a female colleague is bossy or braggy - and ask if you'd think she were that way if she were a man."

As for those further down the road?

"Find yourself a Boast Bitch," says Bennett. "She's like your female hype man. When you don't feel comfortable bragging about your accomplishments, or alerting your bosses or colleagues to the awesome thing you did, it's her job to do this for you.

"Research shows this works - you don't get dinged for coming off as conceited or braggy, and she looks awesome and selfless for helping out a sister.

"Above all, find a posse. It doesn't have to be all women, or all people you work with. But you will have an understanding with these people that you have each other's backs."

Identifying your opponent

The Himitator

Basically, the colleague who restates your good idea, in a bid to clarify what you said. They're not necessarily stealing your ideas outright, but in repeating them get the credit for them anyway.

The Menstruhater

If a woman directly asserts herself, the Menstruhater hits back with an assumption that it must be "that time of the month". See also, those who ask if you're upset after you have expressed some kind of displeasure, or the age-old 'Calm down, dear' brigade.

The Manterrupter

Can you say, 'Imma let you finish?' We've all met the guy who constantly adds his tuppence worth, taking over any and all female speakers. When encountering a Manterrupter, keep talking. Keep your pauses short. Maintain your momentum.

The Bropriator

They who take credit for the work of others. The Fight Moves include a "Thank 'n' Yank," in which the usurped party thanks the thief - publicly, at high volume - for "picking up on my idea."

Irish Independent

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