Lately it seems everyone is talking about women in the workplace. In the U.S., women are wondering what a shift in Washington leadership means for their careers (and more). In France and Iceland, women are protesting unequal pay. People are definitely talking, and one of the boldest voices this fall is Jessica Bennett’s with her new book Feminist Fight Club.
Bennett, an award-winning journalist, New York Times columnist, and contributing editor for LeanIn.org, has written a book that manages to be light while serious, sprinkling cartoon drawings among discussions of some of the biggest obstacles working women experience in their careers. The book was named after an underground group she and some other New York ladies formed to commiserate about office-life challenges.
There's Tanya, for instance, who proposed an idea at a meeting, only to have it later given away to a male coworker to develop. Bennett writes: "She was livid. But she stayed quiet, not wanting to be viewed as too ‘emotional’ (or a poor team player).” Or have you ever experienced the coworker who insists on calling you “kiddo” or “young lady,” names they would never call a male colleague? “His behavior may be malicious or it may be oblivious," Bennett says, "Either way, the result is the same: he undermines your authority.”
If you found yourself nodding along with that, this book will likely feel like a good vent session with your squad. Throughout Feminist Fight Club, Bennett gives a real picture of what women face, and she backs it up with solid, even counter-cultural, research.
It was refreshing, for instance, that she cites what appears to be the real figure about the wage gap. “In their first year out of college,” Bennett writes, “even after accounting for all the things that could affect one’s wages—job choice, hours worked, taking time off, and so forth—women still (still!) earn just 93 percent what their male peers do.” Contrast that to the typically touted figure of 77 cents to the dollar, which doesn't take into account the effects of job roles, experience, and education.
In addition to good data, Bennett shares anecdotes and examples that are exceptionally relatable to women. But while Bennett's intention is honorable, there are moments where the "fight club" approach leaves me feeling like I was just thrust back into the women-need-to-be-like-men mold.
If you missed the reference, Fight Club is a testosterone-filled cult-classic film beloved among young men at the turn of the Millennium and still popular today. Chuck Palahniuk wrote the book, which the film adapted, as a foray into the male psyche in the modern age where masculinity is questioned. The “fight club” begins when men start taking out their pent-up aggression on each other in underground boxing matches and ends with mass explosions.
As a writer, Bennett knows word choice matters. I get that women are frequently working within societal structures that were formed by men and many of them need changing. But I’m not sold on the idea that militant, male-centered metaphors help us get there. The fight club mentality isn't the only element of Bennett's book that gave me pause.
Must we say vagina all the time?
In the early days, Bennett writes, “we practiced strict vag-cronyism.” As in, “membership was not based on merit by vagina.” Later in a section called the “Ten Commandments of Vagffirmative Action,” Bennett lays down ground rules of the Feminist Fight Club: “Thou shalt employ a strong vagina-first policy*. Hire women. Mentor women. Support women’s ideas. You needn’t be anti-penis, but you must consider a woman first.” First, there’s something about prioritizing women over men that doesn’t sound so much like equality-based feminism as it does reverse sexism. But second, why do we have to continually reference sexual anatomy to make these points?
I am one of the feminists who thinks vagina means something; I think it gives women unique strengths and vulnerabilities that are inherently different from men’s. I’m not afraid or ashamed to use the term, but I don’t understand the value of making sport out of saying vagina every other second in silly ways. For me, it suggests not only a watering down of its meaning and importance, but also an apathy or a willful offensiveness toward women who prefer not to casually throw the word around. And, yes, I am one of these women—someone for whom the desire to avoid joking and casual references to my sexual anatomy in public conversation reflects an attempt to keep an intimate part of myself private. I understand there are differences of opinion on this between many women, but I think an intelligent perspective can see even feminist reasons for not wanting to shout vagina left and right.
The questionable femmebot-ified language ends up obfuscating some of the serious problems Bennett identifies. For instance, she calls out something she calls the “lacthater”—that’s some combination of “lactate” and “hater”—to refer to the real phenomenon of colleagues who view their coworkers who happen to be moms as less committed and serious about their work.
Bennett cites: "Female job applicants with kids are 44 less likely to be hired than childless women with similar qualifications, while just three additional little words on a woman’s resume—’parent-teacher coordinator’—make her 79 percent less likely to be hired, half as likely to be promoted, offered an average of $11,000 less in salary and held to higher standards of punctuality.” All this, despite that studies show women with kids are more productive than those without and actually get more productive the more kids they have. As it turns out, Bennett reveals: "being a mom is an asset" to companies.
Wording issues aside, these are the moments where the book really shines—when Bennett uses insight and data to identify the issues that, in the office, are nearly invisible to the naked eye. Because the truth is sexism isn’t any less real for being hard to quantify. Much of the sexism women experience in workplaces is not “blatant sexism," says Bennett. “Today’s sexism is insidious, casual, politically correct, even friendly...None of that makes it any less damaging.”
I have witnessed sexism enough to know for sure that it doesn’t have to be intentional to be problematic, and we don’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist just to maintain niceties. So what does this subtle sexism look like for many women on a day-to-day level? As Bennett puts it: “It’s having to work twice as hard to prove you’re once as good.”
We're all a little sexist.
Bennett admits as much. "It’s what scholars call ‘unconscious bias'—the result of cognitive shortcuts made by our brains. The good news is that if we acknowledge our inner sexist we can check it. So the next time an ambitious woman rubs you the wrong way, ask yourself: "Would I dislike her if she were a man?”
But in all this, there are some moments where Bennett's inner sexist risks coming out in an unhelpful way, particularly when she degrades certain tasks that women often choose. “Duck as many ‘motherly’ tasks as possible. That means notes, mailings, lunch orders, party planning, or anything else you know a man wouldn’t be asked to do.” Bennett also explicitly tells women to say no to volunteering opportunities as a general rule.
I’m all for giving women a head’s up about the consequences of saying yes to certain commonly female-assigned activities, but to tell women never to do these activities diminishes the integrity of women who actually like to do them. It also reinforces the problematic thinking that women dictate their actions based on what others’ think, rather their own preferences.
Bennett also misses that sex differences can be stubborn, and can't just be fixed by ignoring it or willing it away. When you face a rejection on a proposal or project, FFC recommends, “Don’t take it personally...In situations where a man and a woman each receive negative feedback, the woman’s self-confidence and self-esteem drop to a much greater degree. Don’t let it.” Later Bennett cites a woman called Kyla, who has a different psychological response to hearing bad news of her husband’s volatile job situation. “She starts looking for cheaper apartments and thinks about what will happen if they need to cut back...she goes full doomsday—all while her husband is seemingly nerves-free. Kyla is not an anomaly: women worry more than men.” These commonly female psychological responses might be better resolved with advice that doesn’t simply tell women not to have them—or, perhaps, to not perceive every typically "feminine" response as the wrong one.
This gets back to my greatest criticism of the book. FFC claims to be for women and blasts the "womenemy" who get in the way. But at the same time it takes on a masculine, militant, and divisive tone to sell its message. To that extent, it seems to be aimed more toward winning a game than serving women. I know a lot of women who could use the helpful suggestions from the book but who will not even touch it because of the title and all the vagina-shouting.
For us to really help women today, we need to stand together. We need to acknowledge women’s differences and not instinctively shut each other out. We need to get real, vulnerable, and less quick to use caricatures of each other. Feminist Fight Club gets some important things right: Yes, it's an important time for feminists to stand up for ourselves; yes, we need to fight sexism and unequal treatment. But to do so effectively—while embracing and empowering ourselves as women—requires we not fight silly battles with each other in the process.
Photo Credit: Feminist Fight Club