DECEMBER 21, 2016
JESSICA BENNETT’S cheeky guide for stamping out workplace sexism was published in the halcyon days of early fall 2016, when everyone was pretty much in agreement that come November we were going to elect our first woman president. The glass ceiling would be shattered; the patriarchy once and for all smashed! Under madam president, working gals would be forced to deal only with so-called micro-aggressions. Overt, Cro-Magnon misogyny would be a thing of the past. In that spirit, Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual (for a Sexist Workplace) offers detailed “hacks” (you know, advice) and “fight moves” about what do when dudes interrupt you during a meeting, ask you to get coffee, and appropriate your ideas. Serious workplace irritations, people! It goes without saying that there’s not a peep about what to do if a guy at work grabs your pussy — indeed, in other contexts Bennett refers to it as the “p-word” — because back when she was slaving to make her deadline, the likelihood of this happening was up there with the possibility of a Trump presidency. Those were the days.
Similarly, the tone-deafness that pundits and post-election analysts pointed to as part of the Democrats downfall is pervasive. As feisty, smart, and well researched as this book may be, it can’t help but seem like a sweet artifact from another time. In one passage Bennett writes, “I was recently invited by an Internet company to curate an exhibit of female photographers in Los Angeles.” Before the election this would have read like the innocuous sentence it is; now it seems precious, and smacks of blue-state cluelessness. Bennett worked for the start-up Tumblr, and, as we learn in the introduction, the brilliant members of her own feminist fight club support group all held similar jobs, the kind that might show up on Girls: assistant on a TV show, project manager at an ad agency, web developer, documentary filmmaker. None of Bennett’s FFC compatriots are factory workers, hospital orderlies, secretaries, grocery store checkers, or postal workers — women who are really beleaguered, pissed off, desperate for a revolution, and too busy trying to pay their overdue medical bills and not get evicted to register micro-agressions.
Despite all of this, in a post-election interview in The New Yorker, President Obama said, apropos of how quickly laws can be implemented under a new administration, “But you know, the federal government and our democracy is not a speedboat. It’s an ocean liner.” Fortunately, our work culture, if not an ocean liner, is at least a very large yacht, and the issues Bennett addresses are those that will continue to bedevil woman at work. Our POTUS-elect may be an out and proud misogynist who models Mad Men–era office place mores, but there are still HR departments, and the problems Bennett tackles are still depressingly relevant, and will be for the foreseeable future, and beyond. You can bet that even when the zombie apocalypse is upon us, and the last ragtag survivors are huddled in an abandoned warehouse with thousands of undead clawing at the door, and a woman says, “We’ve got to get the hell out of here, now!” there will be some man telling her to stop being shrill.
It’s unlikely that anyone looking for a serious discussion of the huge systemic problems that plague working women, especially those with kids — paid family leave, affordable child care, unequal pay, flexible working hours — will be seduced by the black, white, and hot pink dust jacket of Feminist Fight Club, the title graffitied across the cover, and that’s a good thing. One of the worst habits of readers and reviewers alike is complaining when a book doesn’t turn out to be what it never claimed to be in the first place. Feminist Fight Club is all about focusing on how to avoid being victimized by sexism, even from nice guy co-workers, one workplace interaction at a time, and in that Bennett succeeds brilliantly.
She advocates for knowing our enemies (including the ubiquitous mansplainer), but also knowing ourselves. Female self-sabotage is rife in the world of work. No wonder, since according to psychologist Carol Dweck, the female fear of failure begins early: “even in elementary school, girls tend to give up more quickly than boys — and more so the higher their IQ” (Italics mine). I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that our penchant for self-sabotage is a bid for control; at least when we shoot ourselves in the foot, we’re the ones pulling the trigger. She goes on to identify and offer remedies for a bunch of behaviors which, depressingly, will seem all too familiar: letting co-workers take advantage of us, failing to take proper credit for a job well done — you worked your ass off, girl, you’re not #solucky or #blessed — and becoming the “Office Mom.”
“F You, Pay Me (A Negotiation Cheat Sheet — Tear it Out and Stuff It in Your Bra)” is fundamental and should be reprinted and passed out to girls along with whatever information they’re receiving these days in middle school vis-à-vis puberty and sex ed, especially Negotiating Tactics for Women. As long as women are getting paid 79 cents for every dollar their male colleagues make, this remains a more critical issue than whether your team leader relies on sports metaphors, or assumes you’re going to be the one to take notes in the weekly meeting. We’re talking our livelihoods, people, and maybe for that reason, the advice on offer seems more Legally Blonde (feminine wiles for the win!) and less Fight Club. Whatever works, and regardless of how we’d like it to be, successful negotiation tactics for women look a lot different than they do for men.
When women haggle, it turns out we’re more successful, and viewed as less pushy when we emphasize the success of our collaborative projects, justify asking for a raise, and play to our boss’s ego, all strategies men don’t need to bother with, apparently. Bennett also advocates hedging:
Yes, in the same way we are not supposed to hedge our language, but research has found that hedging can offset the likability penalty women face when they do negotiate. One script that negotiation expert Hannah Riley Bowles suggests: “I don’t know how typical it is for people at my level to negotiate, but I’m hopeful that you’ll see my skill at negotiating as something important that I can bring to the job.” Basically, you’ve reframed your greedy, unfeminine need for money as a professional asset.
What Bennett does especially well, and I’m guessing inadvertently, is convey the degree to which women can’t really win. She excels at nailing how much it can suck to be a woman in the workplace, how impossible it is to thread that needle.
She casts back eight years ago, to the 2008 New Hampshire primary, and the last time Hillary Clinton was able to be both a respected candidate and also a human woman, astutely observing that
somehow, by accident, Hillary hit the near-impossible bulls’-eye of what falls within the boundaries of “socially acceptable” female crying (which has actually been studied). Among the characteristics: She was crying but not sobbing; shedding a tear, but no more than a tear or two. She was technically at work — she is a politician, after all — but her emotion was not about work as much as it was about something personal. It was also over quickly; she wasn’t doing it in a meeting or a performance review (phew!); and she hadn’t been set off by immediate work pressure (or a disagreement with a colleague.)
Likewise, in “Get Your Speech On,” the section on how to overcome the challenge of speaking while female, we learn that if there’s one thing more annoying than upspeak, it’s vocal fry, the low, sore-throat-sounding manner of speaking made trendy by Kim Kardashian. Bennett explains:
[W]hile both women and men do it, it is only women who seem to suffer for it […] fry is also considered by many linguists to be an attempted antidote to upspeak (that tendency to end your statements in a question, with a high-pitched rise). So in effect, we’re combating the inflection by trying to deepen our voices, but then arriving at a vocal fry register. Can’t win, right?
Yes, that’s exactly right.
In the same way it feels unfair to blame Bennett for writing a good book for another, better time, it also doesn’t seem right to call her on her book’s design — but if there’s one thing Feminist Fight Club reminds us, it’s that life is unfair. It should be noted, therefore, that her sharp, smart writing is overwhelmed by funny illustrations, lists, flow charts, faux handwritten contracts, and footnotes. The information on the copyright page appears within the silhouette of an old-fashioned grenade, the bullet points in the chapters are tiny fist-bump line drawings, and the page numbers sit in the middle of a small black splat (meant to represent a blood spatter from the battle against the patriarchy?). There are also a nutty array of neologisms that would make Anthony Burgess in his Clockwork Orange phase look like a plain-talking cowboy sheriff. Many of them seem intentionally and ironically bad. The Stenographucker, the Slackluster, the Permassistant, the Undermine-Her. Insp-her-ation and underest-him-ation and shevent planners.
Does all this winsome visual distraction make the feminist revolution hipper and more palatable to a generation that has decided feminism is too humorless and fogeyish for them? Or does it undercut the message by playing off the seriousness of the matter? Bennett is already funny on the page. Humor always helps the medicine go down. Is that not enough? Does the book also have to be so aggressively adorable?
Near the end of the book, there’s a funny sidebar on How to Spot a Bullshitter. Among them: The Synergist “says ‘synergy’ and ‘pipeline’ without an actual noun”; The Grammarian “loves the phrase ‘Let’s unpack that statement’”; and The Flatterer “compliments the overall tone of the meeting without saying anything of substance.”
Only The Empty Wordsmith who “fills the room with long, vague phrases that mean nothing” is remotely close to the bullshitter-in-chief-elect, who (albeit grammatically challenged), in 140 characters at a time, stands to make life even worse for women at work from here on out. I hope Jessica Bennett is already working on a new handbook. We’re going to f*cking need it.