Friday, 24 June 2016

The workplace gender diversity debate is a scam

I

No prizes for guessing the gender at the focal point of a recent press release charmingly titled, “More Women Need To Tell Their Investment Stories.”

I’m going to risk the blowback and suggest if women want to be taken seriously in investment, they might think about cutting back on references to “women investors” – the branding – and simply invest. So the question is: Do women pursue investment because they think it has power, or because it has the symbols of power? I'm not being an insensitive male: This is a deadly serious question.

When a man invests, he doesn’t differentiate himself as a man. He just invests. There is no permission-asking or identity construction. He just invests. Mr McDonalds didn't create the fast-food chain (developed by Ray Kroc) for men, or even as a man, he just did it.

In the release, Chania Rodwell is described as the director of Helmsman Capital in Sydney. She is also involved with “Ladies in Leverage” supporting women in private equity, venture capital and associated sectors. The association now boasts more than 200 members.
“Successful women investors and entrepreneurs need to stand up and be counted if diversity is to be encouraged in the heavily male-dominated field of private equity and leveraged transactions …
“We do have to drive recruitment to private equity. It can appear less attractive than some of the other alternatives open to female applicants. It helps if women working in the industry build recognition to break down the misconceptions and help others to see the opportunities," says Ms Rodwell.
Misconceptions, huh? Let me offer a contrary position, unpalatable but worth considering. Perhaps this isn’t sexism but the choice of outward branding, which, admittedly, isn’t just a female misstep but a trick played on all of us. Consider for instance the titles of such groups – Workshop on Women in Growth Capital, Ladies in Leverage, Women in PE. Note the operative word here isn’t the industry, but that women are “in” the industry.

I’m not denying it's a good thing women are involved in investment – compared with not allowing them to be involved – yet it’s worth asking why, when one gender has controlled the sector since the days of the abacus, we’re now told to celebrate that women are simply included.

Or, said the more scary way, women fought to enter all parts of the system and now the system responds with “Ok, sounds reasonable. But we’ll need more of you.” Does no one else find that suspicious?

II

The second question underneath this is what exactly makes it newsworthy? Why was the release written in that way? For whom was the audience?

The answer is supposed to be, “it's empowering to women.” And I understand that desire. Yet consider when more women enter a field, it means fewer men did and, if the men stopped turning up, where did they go? Why did they leave? I assume they aren't home doing the laundry, right?

The problem here isn't with women “in” investment, but rather its celebration. After decades of fighting for equality, the moment a small number succeed, they trumpet it as success for women. Why must the rest of women be dragged into these people's delusions? They consider it a societal achievement they are merely playing, even if their actions ultimately serve to maintain the system keeping the majority of women exactly where they are. This is not victory, and is not what early feminists envisioned.

The entire workplace diversity debate is actually about enforcing societal normality at the microscopic level. Women in the workforce intersects with capitalism’s need for a working and consuming biopolitics. Biopolitics is carefully described by Michel Foucault as the importance of the human in the labour market. We are not talking about "women’s rights" at all but the preservation of the internal skill of the worker as capital. The system needs, requires and looks for this tension. It feeds on it. It strengthens it.

There is sleight of hand in the compulsion to pick sides in the debate. The dichotomy is the distraction. Women are discouraged from asking  whether they want this system, or even any system. The goal is that ever-greater consumption must continue, no matter the choice. The illusion of which gender is preferable as CEO diverts from asking whether CEOs are actually in control of anything, or if we should have them at all.

III

At this point I must mention Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

She is racing at precisely the time when role of president in the Fourth Republic of the US has never had less actual power. I hope it’s clear by now that although Hillary Clinton as president would no doubt be a good thing, the question remains: what would be the significance for other women?

I've been thinking about why people hate Hillary Clinton, and my conclusion is they hate her for things they'd admire in a man. She's too manipulative, too strategic, is possessed of a will to power. Those could be said of every president, including her husband. Judging by the online conversations, it seems many people still find it difficult to break free of the notion that hard-charging, motivated women are somehow not like regular women.

And of course she's where she is because of her husband. The Bushes, Gore, Roosevelts and Kennedy got as far as they did because of their fathers. But the idea is that women riding coattails is illegitimate when men doing it is "networking." It will always be harder for any woman than any similarly situated man – there is too much cultural programming against women running things.

In a strange way, though, she's internalised this pressure, which could be her downfall. She felt the need not to exploit her name and personal history, pushing it instead to the background. She also felt the need to "soften her image." But she's vying for control of the most powerful political entity in human history. Soften her image? This isn't Sweden. This is Imperial Rome.

There are major problems in the Middle East and China probably wants to flatten the US economy. She's supposed to have the image of Julius Caesar, not some sitcom housewife. Did anyone dare tell Baroness Thatcher to soften her image? Would that have been before or after she thumbed her nose at the Soviet Union and strolled into Communist Poland for a meeting with Lech Walesa?

Former secretary of state Clinton could have argued easily and honestly that her husband was successful in his rise to power because of her, not the other way around. She is a brilliant lawyer and worked behind the scenes his entire career to build networks of supporters in the legal and business communities throughout the country. I don't like her politics but for her not to play up the fact she is quite possibly the smartest, shrewdest person in US politics since James Baker is a travesty.

She has been heavily tested, and I think she passed. When Bill perjured himself to cover up his affair, not only did it cast her marriage on the rocks, not only did she have to worry about their daughter, not only did she have to endure the mockery and humiliation of having it become a public affair, but he also jeopardised her entire professional career.

I can't imagine that was easy. And yet here she is, with her dignity intact, and a powerful career and position in her own right. Her public image is amorphous at best, and she's running against the most stereotypical caricature of a male anywhere in Western politics, but nonetheless she's holding her own.

As an aside, yes, it is disrespectful to call her "Hillary" even if that's how she presents herself. First, she's former Secretary of State. Second, she's a former first lady. I would never ever think to address her by her first name, nor would I address John Key as “John.”

I see this all the time when people discuss highly motivated women at work. "What do you think of Ms. Davis?" "Well, Theresa's really great..." As if she's a teenager. It is, ironically, a way of not properly objectifying them as professional but rather making them seem overly familiar and therefore less serious. I can't possibly be the only one who's noticed this.

IV

Once you begin to learn to read Lacan’s floating signifiers, the world is easier to understand. The paradox of former secretary of state Clinton is how deeply everyone knows the role of president is a puppet, a simulacrum, but everyone argues during elections as if it were not.

Because in reality, after all the shouting and press releases, the result of equality in the investment sector and a new female president will simply be more workers making someone else more money. The system has won, changing nothing except the quantity of people involved in its maintenance. Drawing deeper into the system is not what the early feminists meant when they said the system was corrupt.

Consider that while women (rightly) fought for, and achieved, equal access to university – and women now outnumber men in tertiary institutes – today a bachelor’s degree is effectively just an expensive commodity. It is branding displaying the appearance of education. Feminism was supposed to see past these tricks.

I am simply asking if these successes have helped women them as a group. A woman entering a field doesn’t scare the men away, that’s not what I’m saying. I am saying the reverse: when a field retains the symbols of power but loses actual power, women crowd into it and men flow… somewhere else.

A lot of women, especially younger women, seem to support former secretary of state Clinton. Any one of those women could relate a story of when someone close to them said they couldn't or shouldn't do something. And the root explanation was because the task was something women couldn’t or shouldn’t be doing.

I'm sure the former secretary of state has heard this plenty of times in her life too. It's a standing joke among many Americans that because she's so tough and aggressive, she must be a lesbian. In other words, public opinion is telling her if she wants to be tough, she has to sacrifice her sexuality. That's insane.

Women everywhere hear this every day, social pressure to conform to an outdated standard. A woman says she wants to become a doctor? Why not become a nurse, it's easier. Girls don't study engineering or physics or math. “University is fine, but shouldn’t you find a husband – you're not getting any younger!” Sigh...

V

Now in the US there is a woman running for president, with a real chance of succeeding.

Yet everyone tells her they want her to win because the alternative is a buffoon – a male. When discussing who they will vote for, few discuss her individual success in government, experience or sharp intelligence as a central factor. And the media has no idea what to make of a female running for president who has never bowed to the standard social pressures, so it uses her as a tool to defeat Donald Trump. This is how many American voters think too. The entire structure of narrative is denying her agency at every turn.

So I completely understand her not wanting to concede anything until the last possible moment. But the assumption that women will support the former secretary of state because she is a women is misplaced solidarity, and I’m asking, at what expense?

What if one of those women doesn’t think there should be a president? My point is not that women don't have legitimate gripes with the system, or that sexism doesn’t exist. My point is that most of what people think is modern feminism is really a work, a gimmick, a marketing scheme.  It is broad daylight consumerism and politics, repackaged as a gender issue. What exactly does victory look like here?

Do you see? Championing greater numbers of females in the workforce or a female president isn’t increasing the agency and equality for all women. It may be regressive for women to ask this, but it is illuminating: “hey.... why did they let so many of us in?”

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