Empowerment is not the ultimate goal for most women

Perhaps there is a quiet defiance in not striving for world domination

It has been nearly eight years since Sheryl Sandberg’s feminist manifesto-cum-playbook, Lean In, exploded into public consciousness. In it, Sandberg (Facebook’s chief operating officer) teaches the sisterhood how to bag corporate success just like the men do, encouraging women to exploit workplace systems for their own gain.

It quickly generated hoards of super fans. But the seemingly radical mantra was quickly exposed as a flawed philosophy moonlighting as feminist empowerment. The criticism? Putting a few more women in corner offices is not an effective mode of improving the lives of all women. It is fine to laud its lessons as an effective strategy for the lucky minority to get ahead, but Sandberg has little credibility in allowing her readers to believe it was a great work of feminism.

That seems fair enough. Lean In went out of vogue as hastily as it arrived. But it has left an indelible mark, as its spiritual successor – “the girl boss” – arrived in our public consciousness. A girl boss is a woman who is financially successful on her own terms; who has absorbed Sandberg’s lessons and knows how to manipulate the patriarchy to get ahead; and who, for a time, was held up to the light as the ultimate paragon of feminist virtue.

And even the name “girl boss” generated flurries of excitement. She’s got all the so-called masculine trappings of economic success (boss) but maintains all the desirable qualities associated with female youth (girl). What could possibly be the failing of this great cultural moment?

Member club

The tragi-comic tale of The Wing is a fairly neat tableau of the decline and fall of the girl boss. The Wing – on its foundation – was an all women’s member club and co-working space that boasted superstars like Alexa Chung, Ruth Negga and the Delevignes among its clientele. (It has since had to accept all genders as members, in compliance with non-discrimination laws, somewhat defeating the purpose.)

The venues (scattered across the major cities of the states, with one in London) were staffed by women, their thermostat set a few degrees higher than expected of a traditional office (to account for women’s need for warmer temperatures, apparently). They were decked out with velvet-y sofas and pink walls and they served wine made by female vintners. Everything the suffragettes would have dreamed of, probably.

But the feminist utopia was just a facade. Last year founder Audrey Gelman resigned as chief executive amid a flurry of allegations about badly treated staff, paltry wages and an employee walkout. The irony of The Wing selling socks emblazoned with the phrase “Pay Me” (as a reminder to women to assert their financial worth to their employers) while its own staff complained of struggling to afford food ought not be lost on observers.

The problem here is obvious: The Wing traded on the aesthetics of bubble gum feminism and flabby gestures towards women’s empowerment, but seemed to fail to meet basic criteria like ensuring its female staff were adequately remunerated and given decent work. The beneficiaries of the project were certainly not its women employees but its already wealthy members and its founders.

But The Wing is not alone. As Amanda Mull summed up in the Atlantic: “Over time, accusations of sinister labour practices among prominent business women who fit the girl boss template became more common.”

And this is the ultimate failure of Lean In and the subsequent arrival of the girl boss trope. It rested on the false assumption that pushing a few women to the top would be sufficient in improving the conditions of everyone. It told us that there is no higher virtue than speedily climbing the corporate ladder. And it sold us the idea that one woman’s “empowerment” was an acceptable trade for the poor treatment of hundreds of others. Somehow we were supposed to believe this was a victory for the movement.

Troubling belief system

But we see this refracted throughout the majority of our mainstream cultural output. It is a troubling belief system that convinces us the ultimate aspiration for womanhood is the type of empowerment Beyoncé or even a later-day Taylor Swift sells: unyieldingly confident, at times hyper sexualised, righteously angry and vocally critical of men. It is empowerment that comes replete with a stadium full of adoring fans, tightly wound choreography and a raft of back-up dancers. And it tells us the platonic form of the modern day, patriarchy-disavowing woman looks more like a superstar than anything most women could ever achieve.

The problem with flogging this hyper-commercial ideology is that it removes space for young women to seek role models elsewhere: why can’t good mothers and overworked but kind and selfless teachers be as ambitious a goal as a female chief executive? Why does this version of “empowerment” have to be the default aim? Perhaps it is sufficient for women to exist as is, and perhaps there is a quiet defiance in not striving for world domination.