Culture & Conversation Media

‘Feminist Fight Club’: A Battle Cry Against Workplace Bias That Pulls Some of Its Punches

Eleanor J. Bader

Author Jessica Bennett has written an often hilarious contemporary manual to help women combat everyday gender discrimination on the job. But the book falls short in imagining strategies to effect change on a societal level or addressing the needs of women outside the white-collar professions.

From low pay to long hours, office jobs can be draining for everyone. But for many women, the effects of male privilege and not being part of the inner circle—typically a gaggle of well-connected white men who make seemingly arbitrary and capricious decisions—exacerbate stress and make the workplace emotionally exhausting.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As Jessica Bennett—a contributor to the New York Times and an editorial advisor at Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org—explains, numerous straightforward strategies can improve office politics. Her first book, Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace, is part memoir and part self-help manual. And it is designed to give women the tools to demand recognition and make office culture less demeaning.

Often hilarious in its depictions of male misbehavior and gender bias, Feminist Fight Club is also deeply flawed. Wholly geared to women who want to rise in corporate America, readers wishing for alternatives to the typical hierarchical white-collar workplace will need to look elsewhere. So will those employed in the nonprofit and service sectors. Similarly, readers wishing for collective, rather than individual, solutions to misogyny and other social ills will find few clues in Feminist Fight Club.

Still, the millions of women who work in offices will likely find much of value in this entertaining, heavily illustrated, easy-to-read volume.

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Bennett offers personal examples from a decade’s worth of jobs and a monthly all-women’s support group she joined called the Feminist Fight Club (FFC), a dozen struggling writers and other “creative types” who work in offices to pay the bills but nonetheless want to succeed. Much like consciousness-raising gatherings of the 1960s and ’70s—where women uncovered the many ways their lives were affected by bias and a lack of opportunity—Bennett’s New York City-based FFC gives participants a chance to vent, rage, and brainstorm ways to change their work lives.

As they’ve commiserated and also talked to women outside the Fight Club, they’ve learned several important lessons—not only naming what’s wrong, but developing game plans to call out sexist bullshit.

First, they found that the manifestations of sexism have changed over the last three or so decades. As Bennett was told by journalist Gail Collins (the first woman to head the New York Times’ editorial page), back in the day, when a guy “pinched your ass or told you that ‘women don’t write at Newsweek,’ it certainly wasn’t fair. But at least you knew it wasn’t fair. It was clear-cut discrimination—sexism with a legal definition and a thumbprint.”

Former FOX News executive Roger Ailes and his ilk notwithstanding, Bennett seems to believe that blatant biases are relics of the past, exchanged for friendly yet casually sexist male colleagues. That’s a dubious argument, since a 2015 Cosmopolitan study found that as many as one in three U.S. women ages 18 to 34 have experienced workplace harassment. Rude comments about sexual prowess and anatomy are still made with appalling frequency; up to 80 percent of cases reported to Cosmo involved inappropriate talk, while 44 percent involved unwanted touching and advances, mostly from male co-workers rather than bosses.

Despite gender changes in workforce composition—and the inclusion of at least a few token women at all tiers of the job ladder—deeply ingrained assumptions about male superiority and entitlement persist. For example, Bennett details a host of underlying suppositions in many boardrooms and conference rooms—among them, that women will take meeting notes, clean up afterward, refill empty coffee cups, and serve as assistants rather than as managers or presenters. If it sounds like the 1950s and ’60s all over again, this is because attitudes have been far slower to change than we like to imagine. Likewise, most offices employ a rigid pecking order in which bosses call the shots and condescend toward those deemed subordinate.

These, of course, are not the only ways women workers are mistreated, and Bennett nails numerous other scenarios that can make working while female so fraught.

“It’s knowing that a colleague calling a woman ‘ambitious’ is the opposite of a compliment. It’s having to be nice (because women are nice!) but not too nice (don’t wanna be a pushover); maternal (a natural caretaker!) but not actually a mother (lest you be viewed as uncommitted to the job). It’s having to be confident so you can command respect but not too confident (because we don’t like cocky women.) It’s having to work twice as hard to prove you’re once as good, or three, four, five times as hard if you happen to be female and of color.”

Bennett is especially good at making fun, grouping men into profiles based on their behaviors. Take the Manterrupter. You’ve undoubtedly met him. He’s the guy who is constantly interjecting his two cents, getting louder and louder, and talking over any and all female speakers. Bennett’s description of him will have you howling. Likewise, Bennett recognizes the Menstruhater, the male coworker who assumes that all female opponents are “on the rag,” and the Lacthaters, those who assume that mothers, but not fathers, are too preoccupied to take workplace obligations seriously.

At the same time, a section of the book called “The Fight Moves”—the part of the book that details what to do when encountering said jerks—is something of a survival guide. When encountering a Manterrupter, “keep talking,” Bennett writes. “Keep your pauses short. Maintain your momentum.” She also urges others in the room—especially men—to acknowledge their co-worker’s bad behavior and call him out with a firm, “Hey, John, let her finish.” She further suggests that women employees arrive at meetings early to literally grab a seat at the table, rather than sitting in the back; stand up when speaking; place a hand firmly on the table to indicate ownership while talking; and make eye contact with audience members when addressing them. Lastly, she proposes asking the boss to impose a rule against interruptions during presentations, no matter who is pitching.

When encountering the Bropriator, the guy who takes credit for the work of others, Bennett has a different strategy. In this case, The Fight Moves include a “Thank ‘n’ Yank,” in which the usurped party thanks the thief—publicly and at high volume—for “picking up on my idea.” Similarly, the Stenophucker, who assumes the women in the room are there as scribes, should be challenged with an outright and, again, full-throated, refusal, since note-taking puts the women in a position of “having to record, not speak.”

Although Bennett believes that confronting such behaviors as they unfold is key, she maintains that the best solution to female marginalization is “Clitoral Mass.” As she explains it, “One way to ensure that women are listened to the first time is to increase their numbers in the room: It makes them more likely to speak up—and they have more influence when they do.” Bennett calls this “VagAffirmative Action” and indicates that upping female numbers requires any woman in power to hire other women.

That this replaces the Old Boy Network with an Old Girl Network seems of no concern to Bennett. Equally troubling, the fact that not all women conform to the Clit/Vag model—and that some women have neither vagina nor clitoris—is a whopping gaffe. That said, having more women—trans and cisgender—in leadership positions is the surest way to make our society more gender-equal. On the other hand, gender parity is still not enough to guarantee fair wages, equitable promotion, and an end to discriminatory practices. This requires unions or worker associations, a concept that is suspiciously missing from Bennett’s tract. Similarly, she barely mentions either litigation or legislative action, steps that have proven track records in forcing or supporting social change.

Indeed, Bennett’s focus is entirely on individual strategies for ameliorating workplace problems. Although the book includes a glossary of past and present “Rebel Girls”—such as the Lady Cyclists Association of the late 19th century, the Project Pussy graffiti sticker project, and the Newsgirls, a Toronto-based all-female, trans-inclusive boxing club—these short, paragraph-long synopses are introductory blurbs rather than a how-to guide on improving social conditions more generally.

Elevating individuals, of course, is not a bad thing in and of itself, but one woman’s ascension will never lift the masses. What’s more, by focusing almost exclusively on sexism, Bennett gives short shrift to the interplay between racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, classism, and ableism. This makes Feminist Fight Club far less useful than it might have been, since bigotries often overlap and collide on the job and in our everyday lives.

Perhaps the problem rests with Bennett’s own FFC, a group she describes as “privileged.” Given this, it’s not surprising that the lessons learned reflect the members’ social positioning. Had its members been more diverse—among other things, by including women without college degrees—their experiences and strategies would have been more varied and the solutions would have been more class-conscious and less career-oriented.

Despite this, Bennett has written a guidebook that will likely benefit those women who want to climb the rungs of power and challenge the Boys at the Top. In addition, even if that’s not what we’re going for, her suggestion that women form their own Feminist Fight Clubs sounds like a mighty fine idea. I, for one, am ready to engage.

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