*This post originally appeared on the blog of The Digital Dames under one of my pseudonyms.
The website for Jessica Bennet’s book, Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace, describes it as “an illustrated, practical, no-bullshit guide to battling sexism at work.”
But the Feminist Fight Club began as a gathering of professional women in the home of one of Bennet’s friends. Bennet explains at the start of the book that the group would meet regularly to relax and swap stories about sexism they encountered at work and how to get around it.
The book makes liberal use of clever puns to describe sexist behaviors that you or I might encounter at work. Some examples:
manterrupting – Interrupting women on the assumption that whatever the woman has to say is not as important in this exact moment as whatever the interrupter has to say. Both men and women interrupt women more often than they interrupt men.
bropropriating – Restating or repackaging an idea originally expressed by a female coworker, and receiving (and accepting) credit for having the idea.
In addition to being hilarious, these puns give names to the insidious little things that women don’t mention because we don’t have proof, or we’re afraid we’ll be told we’re misperceiving things, or we worry that maybe we are misperceiving things. Having a name to apply to what we’re witnessing validates our observations. It communicates that those observations are real, and that others have observed the same thing.
Bennett works her way through a list of things that get done to women in the workplace and things women do to themselves in the workplace, as well as countermeasures to combat these things. I can picture a gang of ambitious ladies commiserating about these things over drinks, then putting their heads together to come up with ways to get back.
Seven years after the founding of Bennet’s Feminist Fight Club, her book reads like an organized compendium of the FFC‘s conversations.
And with that come some limitations. So it’s important for us to take a look at who was in the original FFC and who their message will speak to the most.
Who is talking, and who are they talking to?
Bennet describes her dedicated girl gang as “women in our twenties and thirties, struggling writers and creative types, most of us with second jobs.” So we’re looking at early-career and mid-career women who are pursuing, or navigating, traditional employment. These are folks who have faced corporate sexism for less than ten years. They have not climbed the ranks to the top tiers of the companies they work for. None of this is bad, but it’s a particular point of view.
That point of view—young, early-career, without having successfully climbed a company hierarchy yet—is one that has the energy to fight individual sexist microaggressions.
This is reflected in the content of the book, which largely places the burden on women to do the work of dealing with sexism in the workplace rather than dismantling the sexism in the system.
One good example of this appears in the way the book instructs mothers to market themselves: as a mom, Bennet advises, make sure your boss knows you are willing to make sacrifices for work. Otherwise, they may not hire you. Is this a pragmatic strategy? Yes, it is, and sadly we’ve seen evidence that without it mothers have trouble getting hired. But it places a woman in the workplace on her boss’s terms. It asks a woman to accept the narrative that her boss will only want her there if she believes that her role as an employee is more important than her role as a mother. Is it? Not for all women, it’s not.
The book suggests that you have to be a particular kind of career woman to belong in the workplace—the kind that prioritizes work above all else. This is also the message of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. It is a message for which Sandberg has received criticism, and rightfully so. It’s also a message that Sheryl Sandberg took back after she became a single parent herself. It ignores the lived experiences of women with children, of women who support their parents or extended families, of women who compete as poorly-paid professional athletes, of women who do a lot of social justice work, of women who have any major obligations outside of the work sphere. It asks those women to present themselves as Don Draper, only with an ‘F’ in their corporate profile instead of an ‘M.’
And sometimes it doesn’t just ask women to present themselves as Don Draper, but also to act like men when they get into the office.
Bennet’s book contains an entire section called ‘What Would Josh Do?’ This section pokes fun at a fictional mediocre white dude named Josh and suggests that readers should act and react the way he would act and react in the workplace. It’s funny, I won’t lie. But underneath the narrative lies the assumption that inherently feminine thought patterns and behaviors are inferior to inherently masculine thought patterns and behaviors, and so women need to act more like men to do well at work. Is this pragmatic? Yes! And it’s easier than fighting a system that views feminine thought and behavior patterns as inferior to masculine ones.
But based on this advice, it won’t be much easier for the next generation of women to advance in the workplace versus this one.
It leaves the sexist structures in place and talks to women about how to navigate them. But the structures are still in place. Is the ultimate goal to teach women to play by men’s rules? Or is it to revise the system to include everybody’s rules? Aren’t we saying that feminine intuition would help companies make better decisions? If we discourage women from listening to that intuition, then ultimately we’ll have more women in power, but they’ll be boxed into following a decision-making process that centers a masculine mindset. Just like it does now.
Look, I’m not saying the book is bad. In fact, the approach it suggests is extremely pragmatic—for young women with a lot of energy who are still at an early stage in their careers. At that point, women still depend on gaining the favor of their superiors. From their position, maybe they can’t change the system. So first they have to infiltrate it. I totally get it.
What I want, maybe in fifteen years or so, is for Bennet to write a sequel to this book after the FFC have acquired power and influence in their chosen fields.
What strategies have worked for them in earning repeated raises and promotions?
At what point in their careers did they have enough power and influence to go from assimilating the male-dominant system to adjusting it according to their feminine intuition? And how did they decide, yes, this is the time?
And most importantly, how exactly can women in power dismantle sexist structures and/or help the women working beneath them?
Who I wish this book were talking to
As for Feminist Fight Club as it stands, I do wish it contained a section about talking to men in power about dismantling sexist structures and helping the women working beneath them. Yes, most CEOs and senior leadership are male. Yes, their voices, individually and collectively, carry more weight than women’s. But there are theoretical feminists among them who don’t know what they can be doing to change the system. How do we reach them?
Overall, Feminist Fight Club is a fantastic read; it’s funny, validating, and insightful. It speaks to the plights of dedicated professional women in the first ten years of their careers. It fails to provide the important contextual grounding for the advice it offers. This book’s advice is for step one: infiltrate the system. Step two: transform the system is not discussed at length here.