Several months ago, I wrote this opinion piece on post-feminism. It outlined my position on rights to feminism and touched briefly on the role of motherhood in this matter. It is a piece that I have wanted to come back to for some time. Not least to give it greater context and acknowledge that its underlying argument, we are past feminism is written from a position of significant privilege. My rights to education, employment, my own body and various other fundamental human rights that are, to this day still not universally granted to women are granted to me and I did not have to fight for them. The world is not past feminism. The world is not past equality.
This piece was written within the context of a profession and of a first world generation who is actively pursuing more women in leadership, more mothers in the workplace, greater recognition for paternal responsibilities and desires, and a better approach to who has rights to feminism. It has taken some time to sit down and write part two. Partly because time itself has not been in great supply. Equally, the time lapsed has seen some fundamental changes and transitions in both my professional and personal development that I believe the writing of part two will be better for having experienced. I argued that we should be past feminism and perhaps disengaging from the word altogether so as not to alienate men and further the gender polarisation of a generation who increasingly identifies with and is accepting of ‘non-genderfication’ altogether. And while my position is still much similar if changed at all, I have needed to write part two (for myself if no one else) on femininity and the wolf pack.
On the quest to prove my professional capabilities, for a long time I intentionally disassociated myself from anything particularly ‘girly’ - whether it was wearing a dress to work, growing my hair long, allowing the door to be held open for me or owning anything remotely pink, I didn’t want it. Inherently, I am not that girly anyway. I enjoy amateur programming, building models and drinking scotch. However, I will bow down to an impeccable manicure and well tailored leather jacket. I had assumed that in associating with things girly or expressing a feminine nature would have my male colleagues assume that I was ‘less able’ in a professional environment.
This in part is a socially cultivated bias owing to a concept that Grayson Perry coins in his book The Descent of Man, 'Default Man'. As he outlines, we are far from the default image of a lawyer, fire fighter, business manager being anything other than white and male and they certainly don't wear pink. I too had adopted a default uniform that would perceivably declare my non-femininity and therefore, ability in the workplace.
Recently I moved to a new architectural practice that is switched on to equal opportunity and enables career development based on one’s professional strengths and weaknesses, rather than through perceived strength. In this environment, I began to see the difference between the culturally perceived feminine as weak versus feminine as soft. Feminine as characteristic, not as capability. Herein lies the can of worms that is defining ‘feminine’ and this piece is not the place for it. So for the purposes of what follows, read feminine as the expression of characteristics associated with (but not limited to) women. Expressing myself, as I best identified with as a woman had for a long time been fraught with the internal struggle that in doing so, I might undermine my potential in the workplace and frankly, rightly so.
The cultural misappropriation of 'feminine' extends far beyond fashion and capitalism. In an article for The Telegraph in March of this year, Sanghani detailed some of the English language that is used exclusively to describe women, particularly in the work place: frigid, feisty, bossy, ditzy, pushy and emotional are amongst the top contenders. None of these words are used in a positive light and none of these words are used to describe men. Similarly, feminine is a word often exclusively used to define characteristics of womanly nature. At the same time, femininity is frequently wrongly sexualised and women continue to be objectified, harassed or abused in professional (and non-professional) environments in a way that men simply are not. So it is not far fetched to begin to see why, when we employ words that are used exclusively to describe women in negative light, women want to run a mile from all things 'feminine' in their professional lives.
Dr Vivienne Ming, a neuroscientist and tech entrepreneur who is transgender discussed with the BBC how, in transitioning from male to female she "lost her male privilege" within her industry, effectively over night.
"What's interesting is how quickly people start to presume that you don't know the math behind your own work. And I'm always taken aback by that strange presumption, which I will frankly say I never experienced before (transitioning) and I never see my male peers go through, which is, maybe I'm good at leading science projects but surely I don't know the technical details."
So Ming decided to calculate exactly how much the 'gender tax' is. You can watch the interview and follow Ming's work to see exactly how it stacks up but in short...it is a lot of extra work, hefty additional tuition costs for prominent universities and a lesser salary once employed to have the same professional opportunities as their male colleagues. Am I suggesting that all male management is bad management or that women deserve more opportunities offered to them because men 'owe it to us now'? Absolutely not but I am highlighting the cost of 'feminine' in many career driven environments.
Yet, here I am in a new workplace that sees my potential for what I bring to the project beyond how I associate with my gender and hey, if you want to wear a dress while doing it, go for it. In this environment I am not bossy, I am decisive. I am not feisty, I am persuasive. I am not ambitious, I am capable. I am not emotional, I am empathetic. In realising this, not only did the urge to cut my long hair falter, more importantly I feel confident in my personal and professional identity, enabling me to better deliver in the workplace.
So who are women's biggest critics? While women have a hard time fighting against Default Man for our equal opportunities and rights to our own professional development, often it isn't men that are our most difficult audience. Women give other women a really hard time. Often.
Strauss refers to a 2004 study that found women who were identified as workplace bullies targeted other women 68% of the time. He also cites research that found women rated other women's effectiveness of leadership lower 58% of the time, while other men's effectiveness only 14%. Furthermore, 95% of women in a 2011 survey of 1000 working women identified with being bullied by another woman at some point in their career.
It is as if in fighting so hard to swim upstream of socio-cultural norms, that other women have become our biggest enemy. 'She' might take the place we have wanted so much. 'She' might let the team down and make other women look bad and thus, we set the performance bar high. Much higher for women than we have for men.
If we want to have equal opportunity, we need to have equal expectation.
I address this section as the wolf pack because on the one hand it connotes the natural behaviour and sorting procedures that establish a pecking order but simultaneously, it reminds us that there is strength in numbers. A workplace requires hierarchy and leadership in varying degrees. But good leadership is not exercised through the belittling of others, particularly those more vulnerable than oneself. Good leadership fosters a degree of comradery and guides a team through the cohesive delivery of a brief or vision. A good leader also quickly resolves any bickering amongst the ranks.
Who am I to assume that the girl who giggles the most correction, the woman who is enjoying herself in the work place is letting the team down or is less capable. Often I catch myself and other women using the same language that is used against us, against our female colleagues.
She is so ditzy. She is so high maintenance. She is so abrasive. She is such a girl.
Often, she is just another me, striving for equal career opportunity and I should be more like my workplace - accommodating of diversity and empowering other women into positions of confidence and professional development. Because when one woman leads confidently in the workplace, we all do.