How neoliberals hijacked workplace feminism

Jun 12, 2023

4 mins

How neoliberals hijacked workplace feminism
Emma Poesy

Journaliste indépendante

Corporate feminism is on the rise. The number of training programs to help women break through the glass ceiling in the business world is multiplying, but have these programs been successful? The book Chères Collaboratrices (Dear Colleagues) by Sandrine Holin, an expert in political and humanistic social science, explains how feminism has been dismantled by neoliberal thought, benefiting only the privileged.

In your book, you say that feminism, once perceived as a revolutionary movement, has become neoliberal. What does that mean?

Feminism has been influenced by various and sometimes opposing movements since it originated. Women with impressive careers who are successful in both their personal and professional lives represent the feminism we see in business today, and this scenario supports neoliberal dogma. When looking at corporate feminism from a neoliberal point of view, a woman is an entrepreneur who sees herself as an entity advancing in a dynamic market. The problem with this approach is that it places the sole responsibility for success or failure on that woman: it’s up to her to break the glass ceiling by learning how to be bold, putting her best foot forward, speaking in public, and so on. While popular in the corporate world, this line of reasoning is alarming because it obscures the inequalities women suffer.

What are the consequences of this?

Women are caught up in new demands on top of previous ones. The book I’ve written is meant to open the debate on the mental burden weighing women down. Big talk like “We can do it,” “We need to be more daring,” or “We censor ourselves too much” is directed at a certain type of woman, one who already has the furnished ability to succeed at home and work. Not only are these mantras unattainable for many women, but they also suggest that women need to nearly kill themselves to complete their work so they can take on more responsibility. I think it’s time to ask, where’s the emancipation in that?


How has feminism which was once frowned upon, become trendy for the privileged?

It became a trend when some of Silicon Valley’s most famous women openly claimed to be feminists. Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Facebook, called herself a feminist in her 2012 book Lean In which went on to become a worldwide bestseller. After that, attitudes began to change. It’s acceptable to be a feminist now because the limits of political correctness have shifted, and companies are offering a wide range of training courses to help women break through the glass ceiling. However, being militant or radical is still frowned upon.

You say privileged women have discarded certain historical struggles for women’s rights to focus on a single goal: to reconcile their own family life and professional life. What’s wrong with this?

The balance between professional and personal life is something privileged women crave. However, does this improve the working conditions for all women? Their entitled goal seems harmful to me. It assumes all women want to work more in order to climb a career ladder and only focuses on women who are considered to be high potential for companies. Other women who hold less glamorous jobs, particularly in caring professions, are not affected by these developments insofar as they don’t have a glass ceiling to break.

In reality, the desire to harmonize work and family life has one purpose: to enable women to perform better in the workplace and therefore to compete more effectively against men for top positions in the hierarchy. At the end of the day, it’s not women’s rights that advance. Employers are the ones benefiting from increased competition between their employees.

The fact that these powerful women openly claim to be feminists is not necessarily a step forward in your opinion. Why not?

Their rhetoric is threatening because it’s dominant and makes other feminist viewpoints invisible. Ultimately, feminism becomes a matter of receiving coaching in your job so you can work better and harder, and this is dangerous because it delegitimizes the feminist question. The fight for women’s rights is based on relationships of power. To suggest that women can’t break through the glass ceiling because they’re subjected to gender-biased education and sexist stereotypes is to forget that our social model, which is filled with inequalities, should be questioned.

You state that gender equality as advocated in business today only increases competition and inequality…

It’s important to understand that the purpose of feminism is to enable women to better compete with men in the job market, but like all markets, the job market is not egalitarian. The structure of work is inherently unequal; as you move up in the hierarchy there are fewer jobs. In that sense, there can be no real equality, so it’s a dead end.


More and more companies consider diversity to be essential, but to who?

Businesses, of course! It’s important to understand that diversity yields a return. When certain groups of people are discriminated against in the workplace, there’s a tangible impact on employees. They become less committed to their work or even burned out, and turnover is higher. This is bad for profit and productivity, hence the emphasis on diversity and inclusion initiatives. Companies want people to feel better because what they really want is for people to work harder.

Why is this harmful?

If companies realize that diversity and inclusion don’t yield a profit, who says they won’t go back on these measures? If businesses diversify for the money and not for the principle of equality, it’s possible they’ll ditch their diversity efforts. It’s happening in the US right now. Corporate progressivism is under attack from conservative circles because a clear link hasn’t been established between diversity and productivity. It’s not because there are more women, more people of color, or more people with disabilities that a company will increase profits, but perhaps it’s because an assortment of opinions and ideas enables these companies to be more creative.

If today’s corporate feminism is amiss, how should it change?

Rather than asking how women can best compete in the job market, we should be thinking more globally about our relationship to work. For example, ecology is rarely linked to feminism, and yet to slow down climate change, we need to disengage from a consumer society that forces us to produce, throw away, and work too much. We should have more time, women and men alike, to engage in domestic chores, consume differently, and so on. We need to think in global terms. How can we change the way we live so our lives are both feminist and ecological, and how can work fit into that picture too?

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

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