The book in two sentences: An “official survival manual for a sexist workplace”, this guide aims to help young professionals check both obvious and not-so-obvious sexist behavior at work. It proposes strategies for managing interpersonal relationships to promote equality and create a space that is welcoming for everyone.
Rating: 🏡 Left behind
Long story short: “If your feminism isn’t intersectional, who is it even for?” Jessica Bennett should have repeated this to herself like a mantra and maybe we would have a book that was anti-racist, trans-inclusive, fighting ableism and against classism. Alas, this book is none of those things. While it includes some useful actions, overall it is a poor excuse for feminism.
Long story long: Intersectionality is the idea that different forms of identities—race, class, neurodiversity, sexuality, gender, religion, disability, socioeconomic status—intersect, interact, and impact one another in specific ways. The effect of this interaction can compound or intensify discrimination, and unless feminism takes this into account, it will only benefit White, cis, able-bodied womxn from middle- or upper-class backgrounds.
I will not explain in detail how this book is transphobic, ableist, classist, and racist. Many already know that the feminist movement continues to exclude marginalized womxn† and individuals of different gender expressions and identities, and it is exhausting to continuously confront this. However, I am willing to point to examples from the book and engage in a general discussion about intersectional feminism if you would like to message me in private.
What I do want to talk about is the dangerous idea that womxn need to emulate male behavior to counter sexism and misogyny in the workplace. In Bennett’s words, we should be more assertive, take up space, put our interests over those of the team, and join the office fantasy football league.
The problem is not that womxn are not acting like men; it is that traditionally “feminine” attributes—persuasion, consideration, empathy—are not valued the same as traditionally “masculine” traits—ambition, individualism, assertiveness. Womxn should not have to become like men in order to be successful in their careers. Workplaces should recognize the value and importance of what womxn bring to the table.
In the 1990s, the idea of “emotional intelligence” or “emotional IQ” gained popularity in business leadership seminars. Individuals who were able to correctly identify their own emotions and those of others, and then use those to reach a mutual goal, were highly successful. Ironically, this is what womxn have always been good at, not because we are born with a high emotional IQ, but because society has conditioned us to be nurturing, empathetic, non-confrontational beings. In most cases, our very survival is contingent upon our ability to navigate emotionally-charged encounters.
Still, let us imagine for a minute that we could overlook the problematic language and questionable narrative. Is the book even useful? Not really, no.
For one, most of Bennett’s strategies do not involve actually calling out sexist behavior. Instead, you are told to work around it. I do not believe it is always possible or safe for womxn to confront sexism, but doing nothing all of the time is not a viable solution either.
Second, most of Bennett’s 40-something strategies deal with interpersonal relationships instead of systematic sexism, like addressing hiring practices or dismantling barriers so more womxn can enter traditionally male-dominated fields. While sexism/misogyny is most obvious or relatable on a personal level, addressing that alone is not going to change the fact that very few womxn run companies and countries.
Ultimately, it is not enough that this book teaches a small group of (privileged) womxn how to combat sexism at work. We cannot half-ass feminism. Whether the book has useful information is irrelevant when it proclaims to be a feminist work yet excludes many, many voices. Authors, like Bennett, who have both privilege and a platform need to do better.
† The word “woman” comes from the Old English “wifman”, where wif means “woman” and man means “human being”, implying that a woman is a female human and a man is…just human. So, changing the spelling to “womxn” highlights that womxn are separate beings able to function on their own, and is an opportunity to include the experiences of transgender womxn, womxn of color, and individuals with different gender expressions and identities.