Just joining the boys' club doesn't give all women success in the workplace

We need to rewrite the rulebook, not just obey the rules.

It was "not easy", said Bollywood starlet Sherlyn Chopra in a BBC interview about her latest career move last week, but "no one can take that achievement away from me. My sister is proud of my achievement," she continued, while her mother may have reservations but will just have to "accept me the way I am". From these fairly ambiguous words, Chopra’s "achievement" could have been any number of feats - but it just so happened to concern her recent nude appearance on the cover of Playboy, which officially made her the first Indian woman ever to do so. Naturally, some vocal members of the blogosphere were loath to agree that such a move could be seen as genuine attainment. Others, however, were supportive of Chopra’s actions, arguing that her choices were personal and could in many ways be seen as a natural progression from her most recent roles in Bollywood movies.

Coincidentally, reporting of Chopra’s appearance on the front of the world’s favourite soft porn magazine appeared on the same day that statistics were released suggesting that the number of female board directors has risen by a third over the past year. The Telegraph lauded this as proof of the success of voluntary targets in the workplace, and it’s a fair argument. Stringent recommendations from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) stated that FTSE 100 companies should aim for at least 25 per cent female representation by 2015, after it was found that at the previous rate of snail’s-pace uptake, it would take at least 70 years to significantly address the gender gap. Many companies voluntarily signed up to a code of equality which involved reporting back on their progress and presumably having to save a whole lot of (bearded) face. The percentage of women board members rose significantly; the percentage of female board directors less so. But because even the official report itself relied heavily on percentages rather than actual numbers, when we all know that the numbers of gals in expensive skirt suits were intimidatingly teensy to start with, it’s difficult to say how much real achievement in terms of "bums on seats" has been made.

What, then, is it that unites Chopra’s defiantly naked body and the Hobbs-clad ladies controlling the financial world? From our side, it is simply that we’ve suddenly been given two very different perspectives on what constitutes success in the workplace. Both of these announcements have focused heavily on very different definitions of achievement - and it has led us to question: what sort of work should women be proud of nowadays?

It might seem natural to proclaim some beef - and a big meaty slab of it, too - with Hugh Hefner and his puff-tailed Playmates at first. But in fact, the issue of board directors often kicks up just as much sand as that of Playboy modelling in the modern environment. As we’ve mentioned in the past, Germaine Greer was the one who wanted to liberate women from housework rather than "putting them on the board of Hoover" - and increasingly, certain sects of modern feminists have stated that we should turn our backs on the glass ceiling altogether, rather than attempt to break into a patriarchal structure of cut-throat capitalism that we never took part in building in the first place. While BIS's efforts should not be underplayed, it should also be considered that introducing female co-workers to the boys’ club of high-powered industrial decision-making may not go far enough in addressing a lot of social and cultural ills holding women back. Expensive company car or no, these women are still entering a game where men made all the rules. Basically, they’re still just becoming part of The Man, man.

Meanwhile, Sherlyn Chopra has done a Magic Mike and gone where the money is. Who are we to blame her? She’s grown up as a steaming hot babe in an industry that demands almost physical perfection from its female participants; she’s inevitably had to cultivate her looks as well as her talent; and a star appearance on Playboy’s front cover surely garners even harder currency than an uncomfortably long hug with Hugh. Self-posted naked pictures via Twitter earlier in the year suggest that she may well take pleasure in the exhibitionist side of things, and Bollywood payment is notoriously unpredictable. Besides, the well-worn pro-stripping argument can be applied quite nicely here: to take advantage of male slavishness to their sex drives for ridiculous amounts of money is actually giving women the financial upper hand. A pessimistic view on the entirety of humanity, perhaps, but hey! Everyone’s cashing in somehow, so what’s the problem?

What differentiates Chopra from her counterparts in the UK boardroom may ultimately be very little. All have achieved in their careers by reinterpreting (but not rewriting) the rules put down by male-dominated structures, where an action that guarantees economic status equals success. Serious financial clout plus family - the "have it all" culture - is so difficult to cultivate because it was only originally only ever envisioned for males, and the social roles they were expected to take. And while we hold on to the idea that success and achievement is defined by muscling onto the path where these men first trod, we can only get so far. Perhaps that’s why Chopra’s announcement, and the sister announcement that women are appearing more and more on boards across the country, leaves an unusual (if not entirely bitter) taste in our mouths.

"Have it all" is, of course, alive and well in its absolute embodiment: newly-appointed Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who happens to also be six months pregnant. Social media went predictably mad for the baby-carrying exec, which is undoubtedly one of the most encouraging appointments made in the capitalist sphere this generation. Eventually, however, the hoo-hah was questioned by some: expectant fathers would never have been scrutinised, complained commentators; the uproar was teetering on the edge of depressing, said others; and Mayer herself somewhat let the side down by proclaiming that she planned to take minimal maternity leave, during which she would work throughout.

In comparison to the FTSE companies, many of which apparently soldier on toward 50 per cent female representation, the USA’s Fortune 500 lag uselessly behind at a chief count of four per cent. Marissa Mayer, in light of this knowledge, has certainly done an unusual thing. Can we be proud of her accomplishment? Insofar as we can understand Sherlyn Chopra’s motives, yes we can. But have they, in their magical, maternity leave-shunning, perfectly-proportioned and cellulite-free ways, done much for the feminist cause in Careerland? Perhaps not. For a real movement that we can take pride in, it may be necessary to rewrite the rule book entirely, so that women who aren’t superhumanly unaffected by childbirth or blessed with Venus-like bodies can also enjoy credible success in the workplace. A difficult undertaking indeed, but surely a valiant one. Any volunteers?

 

Sherlyn Chopra, the first Indian woman to pose nude on the cover of Playboy. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad