Over the past decade, feminism has entered the political mainstream. Celebrities, politicians, brands and CEOs now identify as feminists. Feminism is cool, and the movement is being capitalised on by corporate interests and for personal gain. With this increasing popularity and visibility, it’s time to ask: are there political prerequisites to calling oneself a feminist?
This is a contested point as fundamentally it’s a question about what feminism is and what feminists hope to achieve. All women are oppressed under a patriarchy, but the impact of that oppression, when joined with capitalism and white supremacy, is felt to very different degrees.
Corporate ≠ feminist
The number of ‘feminist’ CEOs is rising. This is partly because more women are entering previously male spaces, and also because these women (and some men) have chosen to publicly identify with feminism. Only a decade ago this self-identification would have been seen as a career mistake or faux pas.
These are smart and capable women, who may genuinely believe that men and women should be equal. These are women who have reached the top of the corporate ladder despite patriarchal expectations and misogynistic environments hostile to women’s success. They sound like feminists, right? While the glass ceiling is deeply frustrating for these individual women, to centre mainstream feminism around this issue ignores the overwhelming, crushing inequality faced by the majority of women and misses the point of what feminism should be.
‘Corporate Feminism’ or ‘Neoliberal Feminism’ are misnomers because the movements are fundamentally incompatible. Feminism is not an individualist movement, and women who gain power and wealth through the exploitation of other women are not feminists. Allowing women a seat at the board table is really just allowing a select few wealthy, and likely white, women a chance to participate in the oppression of the poor and the marginalised. What’s worse, is this feminism puts the onus on individual women to liberate themselves from their own oppression – just work harder, for longer, or be smarter – and detracts attention from the systemic power structures that perpetuate inequality.
Smashing the glass ceiling isn’t enough
As Laurie Penny aptly wrote in the New Statesman: “While we all worry about the glass ceiling, there are millions of women standing in the basement — and the basement is flooding.” Feminism cannot be about increasing gender diversity at the top table. If the goal of feminism is to improve women’s lives, we need a transformative movement that destroys capitalist power structures, not co-opts them for the benefit of wealthy women.
Just like trickle-down economics, trickle-down feminism is a false promise. History has shown that gains at the top don’t leave the pockets of the wealthy. Women CEOs are still CEOs, and the profit incentive driving corporations leads to practices that harm workers. At female-led companies or in workplaces with women bosses, we see no change: crippling low wages, insecure work practices and sexual harassment still occur.
An example of this is Hillary Clinton when she was on the board of Walmart, a company with a predominantly female workforce that are so underpaid that many who work full time remain below the poverty line. At no time did Clinton ever advocate for an improvement in conditions for these workers. Clinton’s feminist credentials did not trickle down to benefit the employees at Walmart.
Another example is CEO and founder of Nasty Girl, Sophia Amoruso, who built her clothing brand through associating it with feminism and girl power. Amoruso is currently facing court proceedings instigated by many of her female employees. These women allege that she created a culture of harassment and violated labour laws, including firing pregnant women. Again, Amoruso’s feminism didn’t extend past something she could package and sell.
Most women aren’t CEOs … and more women live in poverty than men
The widespread focus of many feminists on the struggles of women at the top ignore the struggles of the majority of women, who are overrepresented in low-paid and insecure professions. Australian industrial laws are heavily biased in favour of the employer, not the employee. In precarious employment, it is even harder for workers to act collectively as they have little or no recourse to industrial action. In Australia in 2013, 27 per cent of all women employees were in casual jobs compared to 21 per cent of men. Female-dominated professions are underpaid relative to professions dominated by men, and are more likely to be casual or part-time.
Further, poverty in Australia is gendered. Women are twice as likely to retire into poverty as men. Issues of job security and wealth inequality are fundamentally feminist issues, and accepting power structures that oppress the majority of women is incompatible with a feminist position.
If we wait for women CEOs or gender-balanced boards of directors to foster change to the benefit of the majority of women, we will be waiting a very long time. Any woman can identify as feminist, but the feminist movement itself should not be co-opted by the corporate jargon of individual empowerment. A successful movement must focus on the issues that affect the majority, not a small minority with a very different set of issues.
Let’s end the obsession with the ‘feminist CEO’ and instead focus our energies on economic justice for all women.