Fixing Feminism: Why We Don't Think We're Enough

This is a guest post by Kristen Knepper

Girl on girl crime is rampant.  I am consistently asked during my trainings and coaching sessions why women are often the harshest critics of other women.  The multi-layered problem is driven by the idea of scarcity: that there are only a few spots at the top for women, and in order to obtain a coveted place on the podium, you must compete with other women.  The commodifying language often used in male dominated work spaces further contribute to this myth: Which one are you?  The one from Michigan or Northwestern?  As though the leadership team is comparing tomatoes at a farmer’s market when talking about the few women on the team.

But that talk is benign compared to English as a whole.  Our language reinforces what we value, and a quick stroll around the block or cube farm can give you a hint of what’s important in our society and who’s on top:

It’s man-made.

One giant step for all mankind!

You need to man-up.

Stop being a p*ssy!

I wish he’d grow a pair.  (Hint: they’re not referring to breasts)

We never attribute feminine traits to a man as a compliment, but only as an insult.  Many women attribute their success at work to a disassociation with their femininity.

I think more like a guy.

They associate femininity with weakness, passivity, or an overly emotional demeanor.  Is it any wonder that women compete with other women, disassociate from their sisters, and fail to champion one another?  When a women is promoted it takes more than double the time for the next woman to advance, and the woman who went before her will rarely champion her, because she believes it will be perceived as bias. 

Let’s break that down.  Women are 51% of the population, earn 60% of both undergraduate and master degrees, and have for the last 30 years.  So this is not a pipeline problem.  Yet women make (on average - less if you’re black or brown) $0.77 per white male dollar, and hold a mere 17% of executive positions, and 7% of C level position … and we’re afraid of being the party who is biased? 

We’ve inherited a flawed system.  And while we didn’t start the fire, we are responsible for fixing it, for both ourselves and our daughters.  An attitude of “hell, I had to endure worse” or “that’s just the way it is” is no longer acceptable.  So what can each of us do to ensure that we are the last generation to endure a culture of silence and Stockholm Syndrome?  Listen up: nothing changes by looking at what is.  Things change when we look at what’s possible.

Here’s where to start:

1)    Defining the Feminine

For too long, feminine traits have been deemed as inferior.  We over-sexualize femininity, we associate the feminine with weak, meek, passivity, and victimhood.  Femininity is intuitive, abstract, soft, allowing, creative, collaborative, and calm.  Those traits don’t sound like attributes rewarded in the workplace but here’s how they add value:

Creativity is the birthplace of innovation.  Without innovation, and a new, abstract approach to problem solving, we create more of the same.  Want to go out of business quick?  Stop innovating.

Collaboration is key to making all team members feel valued, and allowing all ideas to reach the light of day.  The same four guys talk at every meeting, because of the leader who seeks opinions from only those who think like him.  If you want a fresh, new approach that sends more new products to market, hence increasing company profits, the feminine trait of collaboration, meaning allowing all voices to be heard, wins.

Good leaders are in many ways like good parents. They intuitively understand how team members needs to be challenged and nurtured.  They are calm with those who need support, understand the strengths of each, and allow individuals to rise to the occasion. 

Yes, masculine traits such as analytical, aggressive, competitive are important, too.  Together, the masculine and feminine creates balance.  Currently, masculine traits are over-valued, and interfering with the humanity of why we work in the first place.

2) Scarcity is a Myth

Ah, the fear of not enough: I’m not smart enough, good enough, likable enough, educated enough, experienced enough.  The tightrope, as it’s called: a form of gender bias that allows men to be both likable and competence, but forces women into one mold or the other.  If you’re competent, you’ll fall into the bitchy, brash, pushy, aggressive, ambitious (as though it’s a bad thing) camp, and if you’re likable you’ll be soft, shy, not confident, inexperienced, can you make me coffee and photocopies? camp.

We’re right to feel like the opportunities are few and far between.  In our efforts to attempt to be seen for all our strengths, we’re pushed aside, or worse reprimanded for not being enough of one trait, and too much of something else.  And sure, you could go to work tomorrow and say, “Hey, I learned about gender bias this morning!  Mind if I share?” but you’re likely to be met with a lukewarm response and zero action. 

Luckily, we live in a time where a laptop and an internet connection allows us to start something else.  In law, women have been graduating at parity since 2001, yet only 17% of law firm equity partners are women (and those who are, are paid significantly less than their male peers).  Rather than being asked to danced, Rebecca Geller choreographed her own.  In 2012, she launched her own firm with the goal of creating a business model that worked for working mothers.  Women across industries are leaving the old boys’ club and starting something new.  Look no further than Ellen Pao and Sallie Krawcheck for inspiration. 

By shifting our motto to “if you can’t join them, beat them,” we create our own opportunities rather than waiting for someone to recognize us.  It’s easy for the stats to get you down, but here the truth: this is a transformative time for women.  We’re not only starting businesses at record rates, but yielding a higher return on investment.  Start-ups with at least one female founder are 63% more likely to succeed. And that allows us to bring our sisters along to succeed, too.  Which leads to:

3) A High Tide Raises All Ships

We need to do more, and “do more” means creating a new level of inclusion for all women.  For far too long, women of color have been excluded from the feminist movement.  Whether studying the Suffrage movement, in which Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that white women deserved the vote before black men (side-eye, Betsy) or Civil Rights era feminists who pressed that same flawed argument, and asked women of color to march behind white women, it is important to understand that feminism has historical been tainted by racism.  More than a mere recognition, it is important to include women of color in the conversation on how to proceed and repair what our foremothers have done.  We may not have started the fire, but it’s ours to put out.  And we must put it out, because we are stronger together. 

For far too long, many white women have attempted to gain equality by appealing to the white men in power.  While perhaps logical at the time, it’s been more than fifty years since women have entered the workforce in mass volume, and not much has changed.  We make less, and we don’t make it to the top.  So, new strategy: let’s widen our circle to include all women, and all allies, meaning other marginalized people who also deserve opportunity.  Listening to learn rather than listening to respond will lead to an honest collaboration on our next steps. 

The Takeaway

In the end, it’s important to understand that complex issues such as oppression call for a multi-faceted approach.  Such an approach will require us all to shift our thinking, try something new, be willing to fail, and to also pick ourselves up and pivot when we do.  But if we can make it to the other side of the awkward conversations, and learn to be comfortable in the discomfort, then we have a chance to implement change.


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Kristen Knepper is the Founder and CEO of Kristen Knepper Consulting, a professional
development firm coaching women on how to mitigate the impact of bias and sexism at work, while also training organizations on how to create a more inclusive workplace. She provides one-on-one coaching, live group classes, and online courses which help women empower and amplify their voice. As a special bonus for F.O.J.’s (Friend’s of Jessica’s!), learn how limiting beliefs may be holding you back - and how to bust through - with our free guide, including actionable steps you can start today! Go to http://kristenknepper.com/limitingbeliefs