Trickle-Down Feminism

By Lewis, Helen | New Statesman (1996), February 26, 2016 | Go to article overview

Trickle-Down Feminism


Lewis, Helen, New Statesman (1996)


What Works: Gender Equality By Design

Iris Bohnet

Harvard University Press, 385pp, 19.95 [pounds sterling]

Lean Out

Dawn Foster

Repeater Books, 87pp, 8.99 [pounds sterling]

What's the point of feminism? With Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton battling it out for the Democratic presidential nomination, the question has been brought into sharp relief Is feminism inextricably entwined with issues of class? Is the feminist candidate necessarily the female one?

For those feeling the Bern, the answer to these two questions is, largely, yes and no. The attitude of many Sanders supporters was summed up by the model Emily Ratajkowski, who told a rally in New Hampshire: "I want a female president so that I can say to my daughter one day, you too can become president of the United States. I believe in that symbolic importance. But ... I want my first female president to be more than a symbol, I want her to have politics that can revolutionise." This is the root of a debate that was much chewed over three years ago when the Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, published Lean In, a feminist self-help book infused with the kind of white-toothed, bootstrapping spirit that Silicon Valley loves and makes British people feel like chewing off their own arms.

Both Iris Bohnet's WhatWorks and Dawn Foster's Lean Out are riding the post-Sandberg publishing boom, though I suspect that only one of them would be happy to acknowledge their debt to her. Bohnet is a behavioural economist at Harvard University, and has been involved in studies of gender equality in business as well as the institution's own hiring programme. The result is a book that is undeniably wonkish, but unusually--aims to provide concrete solutions as well as criticism. She's big on the Daniel Kahneman model of citing studies and extrapolating bite-sized lessons from them. Yes to becoming a "norm entrepreneur". Boo to the "availability heuristic".

My biggest complaint about this book is that much of it seems familiar. Having read Sandberg's book and the recent Unfinished Businesshy Anne-Marie Slaughter, I greeted some of the studies like old friends. ("Ah, posters of Angela Merkel on the wall increasing the time women speak in a seminar, we meet again! And hello to you, blind auditions for orchestras increasing the gender balance of those offered jobs! It's been too long.") However, I am willing to accept that this will not be the case for normal people, and, therefore, that the book provides a useful introduction to all the available evidence showing there is a business, as well as moral, case for diversity.

WhatWorks speaks to CEOs in a language they will understand, taking the emotion out of the argument and making a pragmatic case for reshaping workplace norms to make women feel less alienated (that's where those entrepreneurs come in) and designing interviews and assessments to reduce unconscious bias. That is good news for men, too: the implicit assumptions that harm women trying to get on in science and tech also hold back men who want to become primary school teachers or manicurists. …

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