What is the solution to gender inequality in the workplace?

Books by Iris Bohnet and Dawn Foster take divergent views on the problem of how women are valued at work.

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What’s the point of feminism? With Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton battling it out for the Democratic presidential nomination, the question has been brought into sharp relief. Is feminism inextricably entwined with issues of class? Is the feminist candidate necessarily the female one?

For those feeling the Bern, the answer to these two questions is, largely, yes and no. The attitude of many Sanders supporters was summed up by the model Emily Rataj­kowski, who told a rally in New Hampshire: “I want a female president so that I can say to my daughter one day, you too can become president of the United States. I believe in that symbolic importance. But . . . I want my first female president to be more than a symbol, I want her to have politics that can revolutionise.” This is the root of a debate that was much chewed over three years ago when the Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, published Lean In, a feminist self-help book infused with the kind of white-toothed, bootstrapping spirit that Silicon Valley loves and makes British people feel like chewing off their own arms.

Both Iris Bohnet’s What Works and Dawn Foster’s Lean Out are riding the post-Sandberg publishing boom, though I suspect that only one of them would be happy to acknowledge their debt to her. Bohnet is a behavioural economist at Harvard University, and has been involved in studies of gender equality in business as well as the institution’s own hiring programme. The result is a book that is undeniably wonkish, but – unusually – aims to provide concrete solutions as well as criticism. She’s big on the Daniel Kahneman model of citing studies and extrapolating bite-sized lessons from them. Yes to becoming a “norm entrepreneur”. Boo to the “availability heuristic”.

My biggest complaint about this book is that much of it seems familiar. Having read Sandberg’s book and the recent Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter, I greeted some of the studies like old friends. (“Ah, posters of Angela Merkel on the wall increasing the time women speak in a seminar, we meet again! And hello to you, blind auditions for orchestras increasing the gender balance of those offered jobs! It’s been too long.”) However, I am willing to accept that this will not be the case for normal people, and, therefore, that the book provides a useful introduction to all the available evidence showing there is a business, as well as moral, case for diversity.

What Works speaks to CEOs in a language they will understand, taking the emotion out of the argument and making a pragmatic case for reshaping workplace norms to make women feel less alienated (that’s where those entrepreneurs come in) and designing interviews and assessments to reduce unconscious bias. That is good news for men, too: the implicit assumptions that harm women trying to get on in science and tech also hold back men who want to become primary school teachers or manicurists. It’s just that there is far less clamour to get into the lower-status, lower-paid industries dominated by women.

That brings us neatly to Lean Out, which is ostensibly concerned with such industries, though really it’s more interested in decrying the Sandbergs and Bohnets of this world as selfish Marie Antoinettes, interested only in their own gilded lives.

Foster has a rare gift as a writer: taking arguments to which I am instinctively sympathetic and making me question them, largely by vastly overegging the evilness of the other side. Her depiction of Sandberg’s ideas is closer to a caricature, and her book is full of sweeping, unevidenced assertions, such as: “For decades, the measure of success for the feminist movement in some quarters has simply been how many women are present at the very top, regardless of what happens to the bulk of women at the very bottom of society.” That “in some quarters” should enter the Olympics, so gargantuan is the heavy lifting the phrase is made to do in that sentence. In any case, modern feminism champions activists talking from “lived experience”; Sandberg’s lived experience is at the top of business. Why shouldn’t she write about that? The villain here, if there is one, is the media, which lavish attention on her and ignore the concerns of working-class women.

I am also deeply sceptical of a feminism that sees critiquing other feminists as the highest and purest form of activism, particularly when it comes at the expense of speaking truth to serious power, of the kind held largely by men. If we accept that Silicon Valley is a nakedly capitalist project that does little for women on low incomes, shouldn’t Mark Zuckerberg, or the other men who dominate its biggest firms, cop a little bit of the criticism, too? From this book, you’d think Sandberg was single-handedly responsible for global capitalism.

There are many sections of Lean Out that will cause most New Statesman readers to nod in agreement. Feminism has indeed been co-opted as a marketing tool by every­one from Dove cosmetics to politicians. Highly individualist narratives about aspiration ignore the structural barriers holding women back, such as their need to juggle unpaid caring labour with work outside the home. Authors of op-eds whose headlines begin “Can you be a feminist and . . .” should be exiled to Siberia, or possibly shot.

And yet, throughout this book, Foster never seems half as energised by the thought of the people she is fighting for, as by those she is fighting against. The atmosphere of claustrophobic, internecine bickering is not helped by the insularity of her references: of the 73 in the appendix, 27 are to Guardian articles. When it comes to preaching the gospel of gender quality to the unconverted, what works? Not this.

What Works: Gender Equality by Design by Iris Bohnet is published by Harvard University Press (385pp, £19.95)

Lean Out by Dawn Foster is published by Repeater Books (87pp, £8.99)

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash