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No more ‘leaning in’ – the neoliberal myth of the superhero businesswoman holds us all back

We’ve read the stories and seen the figures. We know that women are still underrepresented at the decision making table. We know women across professional fields get paid less than their male peers for doing the same job. We know about the #MeToo movement. Yet, those who call for structural reforms are still often dismissed as whiners or unreasonably demanding.

This could be partly due to the pervasiveness of neoliberalism and post-feminism.

Traditionally understood as the political and economic school of thought that promotes privatisation, deregulation, and the withdrawal of state support, neoliberalism has extended its sway beyond socioeconomic policies. It increasingly leads us to see all human life in entrepreneurial terms. Individuals are assumed to be free from any external pressures or constraints. They are held personally accountable for their progress, regardless of their circumstances.

Post-feminism is a complex entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist ideas. It celebrates women’s newfound power, advances and choices, while suggesting that women have already achieved gender equality and therefore no longer need feminism.

The neoliberal and post-feminist ethos, which endows women with total agency and fetishises personal responsibility, potentially prevents us from recognising discrimination. Issues of inequality can end up being seen as a purely personal matter, the outcome of poor choices or a lack of initiative.

How we talk about women

In my recent linguistic research, I examined newspaper and magazine articles as well as radio shows to assess what messages they are sending out about women and work. Focusing on career advice and interviews with professional women, I found that the rhetoric of autonomy, choice and individualism was everywhere. Women are repeatedly told that they are architects of their own careers. While empowering on the surface, such neoliberal and post-feminist notions require women to improve their situation without challenging the status quo.

Gender bias is often implicitly or explicitly denied. As one former government minister tells her readers in a magazine interview: “Gender is not an issue”. High-achieving professional women are frequently brought on to show how women have made progress in the professional domain. As a director of a consulting firm puts it in one magazine, “If she can do it, so can I”.

The details of how these women actually achieved their success, meanwhile, are often glossed over. For example, how were they able to afford expensive quality childcare? What strategies did they use to avoid being dumped with the “office housework”. Ignoring the real issues gives the impression of empowerment without acknowledging that class privileges may have helped them to succeed or, equally, that they may have struggled against gendered barriers to get where they are.

Paradoxically, women are also accused of not making enough effort to break their “self-imposed barriers”. According to one article, “women aren’t confident”. They “can be quite the perfectionists”. They “have to learn to accept criticisms, portray a positive image and believe in themselves”.

These obstacles to economic success, we are told, should be overcome through ceaseless self-surveillance, self-discipline and self-transformation. Some call this the Lean In imperative, after the popular book on women at work by Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

The intensity of the entrepreneurial self-work required of women is daunting. Some articles, for example, pressure women to upgrade their knowledge and skills during their maternity leave. Even when sex discrimination is acknowledged, it’s presented as an opportunity for growth. The recommended response to the gender pay gap is “to work that runway as hard as the men”. One CEO gave a simpler solution: “Ask and she shall receive!” After all, anything can be overcome with drive and a can-do attitude, right?

Beyond the individual

I disagree. Rather than demand women make personal compromises to succeed in the workplace or patronise them with workshops to improve their communication skills, we should require governments and companies to address and eliminate biases in the system.

For example, my study shows clear evidence of the deeply entrenched cultural belief that childcare and household chores are women’s work. In one interview, a general manager of a large company laments, while seemingly accepting, that she is “the mother, maid and wife”. In another, an entrepreneur suggests that women should work “at a slower pace or on a part-time basis especially when the children are very young”. The contribution of fathers is rarely mentioned. This can make it even harder for women to secure equal opportunities. Offering flexible work arrangements to both men and women and implementing mandatory paid paternity leave are important steps, but we all also need to do more to challenge the expectation that women are primarily responsible for family care.

And the kind of businesses who offer in-work childcare are generally those who employ middle-class women. Governments need to provide more quality public childcare centres so that marginalised and unskilled women in lower income groups are not housebound and are able to pursue stable, full-time employment. Additionally, studies consistently show that women are not assessed in the same way as men in the workplace due to gender stereotypes. To ensure that gender stereotyping does not drive decision making, companies and institutions could, for example, name-blind CVs as part of their hiring process.

The strides that women have made in the public sphere, while a cause for celebration, shouldn’t be allowed to lull us into assuming that a world of professional opportunities is open for women. If we wish to build a more equitable future in which women have actual freedom to pursue real choices and achieve their full potential, we need to rediscover a more political understanding of why they are lagging behind their male counterparts. We need to see that these are structural issues, rather than individual problems.

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