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Got 99 problems and one-percent feminism is all of them

24 Apr

This post originally appeared in the Georgetown Voice.

by Erin Riordan

On April 12, Georgetown University’s Women in Leadership hosted their inaugural Own It Summit. Tickets for the event sold out within 24 hours, hundreds of students and community members attended and a host of impressive speakers participated in panels and workshops. Despite these remarkable achievements, I would not call the Own It Summit a complete success. While this event certainly did empower female leaders, it also left out a significant number of voices in promoting a narrow view of what kind of woman we talk about when we discuss female leadership and success.

It needs to be acknowledged that this event had several barriers to entry that prevented the summit from being accessible to everyone. The $20 entry fee was an economic barrier for many lower-income students and women, and while there were scholarships offered, it is still likely that this fee was a deterrent for some. The entry fee also sent the message, whether intentional or otherwise, that this was an event for women with the means to pay an entrance fee.

The racial makeup of both the event organizers and panelists was also strongly biased towards the perspectives of white women. While women of color did participate, eight of the ten student organizers were white, and 17 out of the 24 panelists were white. It is possible that the event planners made a conscious effort to include a diverse array of voices, but when a space is so dominated by the perspectives of white women, it reinforces the larger structural dynamic that white voices matter more than voices of color.

These dynamics of race and class impacted the perception of the event, as well as those who felt comfortable attending and participating. I spoke with many friends who decided not to attend the summit because they felt their voices and perspectives would not be adequately represented. One friend, who did attend, left after the first hour, saying, “I didn’t feel that a lot of the topics I engage with when I talk about feminism, like class struggles that affect women, labor rights, and race in particular, were being addressed at all.” She went on to say, ”I sensed that the conference would be talking about your more typical ‘Lean In’ and one-percent feminism, which in my opinion is inherently oppressive and exclusive of the large percentage of women who really do need to be talked about when we talk about gender discrimination.” “One-percent feminism” is generally defined as feminism that focuses mainly on the needs of white, socioeconomically privileged women pursuing more traditional kinds of success.

Any event on campus that aims to further women’s leadership and empowerment needs to better represent the voices of all women. While I am a white woman, racism and racial politics in the workplace matter to me because dismantling racism and supporting my fellow women matters to me. An optional session during the summit on “Women of Color” is not sufficient because everyone should hear the voices of women of color, not just the few who choose to listen.

Similarly, focusing on traditional ideas of high-powered success is not sufficient, as it does not include or acknowledge the realities and struggles of working class and poor women. In the fight for gender justice we cannot just be concerned with the struggles of women who occupy space within mainstream, socioeconomically privileged feminism. Fighting for a national living wage and fair conditions in the workplace is as important to me as fighting for my own fair pay, and that should be reflected in all feminist spaces.

Transwomen also need to be engaged in these conversations, as they face unique struggles in the workplace that should be of concern to every person who claims to support the empowerment of women. Any event that supports women’s leadership needs to include the varied perspectives of women of color, poor and working class women, transwomen, and all the other women whose voices were not heard or adequately represented by the Own It Summit. Without these voices, our movement will only support women who are already privileged in many other areas of their lives. To achieve true justice and support all women, we need to engage and listen to voices that the GUWIL Own It Summit did not represent.

A Key Reminder

25 Jul

by Bethany Imondi

On my first day of work, I and two male new employees received a key ring with a fob to access our office suite. Excited that I had fob that signaled my permanent, full-time status and not simply a temporary intern accessory, I noticed something different about my key ring and those of the other new hires. Whereas theirs only had the fob attached to the ring, mine included a key.

At first I did not think anything of it beyond perhaps that it was a master key to different areas of the office that my position gave me privileges to access. But alas, when I inquired about the source for the key I learned it simply gave me access to the ladies’ room.

Within my office, all the female employees have a key on their fobs and any female guests must ask the front desk for a key to use the facilities. According to my supervisor, this is a security measure. To protect women from having someone stalk out or follow them into the bathroom, they must use their key. Apparently, the high risk of someone attacking the men does not apply as they can just walk in and do their business without a key.

Although I can understand the reasoning behind the ladies’ room keys, it also reminds me about the state of women in today’s society. While I have been warned about not walking home alone late at night, I did not think that I would need special security measures for me to go to the bathroom. As a tool for self-defense, the key represents how women must be always on guard and aware of their surroundings, even in the most seemingly secure places.

Admittedly, had it not been for my attendance at the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders in May, I may not have had as such strong reactions to receiving the key. At the conference, I participated in a women’s self-defense workshop. It began with the facilitator, a coordinator at a Maryland rape crisis center, asking the women in the room about simple methods of self-defense. A young woman mentioned carrying keys in her hands whenever walking alone so that she would be equipped with a mechanism for defending herself in case of attack.

Unfortunately, such need to carry any type of self-mechanism highlights women’s vulnerability in today’s society. Moreover, in a culture that slut-shames, victim blames and launches wars on women, the message seems to be that even if we carry keys, or pepper spray, or mace, women are the ones putting themselves at risk. By travelling alone, we become easy targets, and naïve thinking that nothing will happen is not helping.

I will admit to a sense of naivety and feelings of security that led to multiple instances of walking home alone from the Tomb’s to Burleith post-midnight. Fortunately, nothing ever happened, but there was always the thought in the back of my head of what could happen. Texts from concerned friends wanting me to ensure my safe arrival home reinforced this looming fear. Now, as I live outside of Georgetown and spend late nights at places way beyond a few blocks from home, my ability to walk freely is even more restricted.

Maybe it was the Georgetown bubble that gave me this false-sense of security, but an incident on the Fourth of July reminded me how much my sex subjects me to risks. Having just gotten off the metro and bypassing the buses crowded with tourists, I chose to walk the seven blocks to my apartment. With plenty of people still around on the holiday evening, I felt fine with my decision to go it alone—until, less than a block from home, a young man called out “Excuse me.” As I turning around, feeling all the color drain from my face and my heart rate speed up, the man asked if I would come over to the wall by the sidewalk. Responding that I had somewhere to be, I sprinted the next block while making sure I was not followed.

Although I arrived home safely, I felt violated and wronged. What’s more, I felt like my office’s concerns with the ladies’ room keys were justified. Plenty of people were around when that man “excused me,” but that did not stop him; he seemed to have no fears about approaching me, whereas I had every fear boiling up inside when his words stopped me cold. I have no idea his intentions, yet I can only think the worst. That, and the sense of risk that remains for being a woman, even if she just wants to powder her nose in the bathroom.

“They’ve Got to Find Men to Marry!”

16 Jul

by Claire McDaniel

Boris Johnson, yes, the floppy haired Mayor of London who got himself stuck on a zip line during the Olympics, surprised no one this week by saying something sexist.  Representing the UK at the World Islamic Economic Forum, he supposedly joked that women go to university to find husbands. Reportedly, he was the only one at the forum to find it funny. As a woman, I just have one thing to say. Who the hell forgot to tell me?

If I had known that the $50,000 dollars a year in tuition wasn’t for education but was instead a modern day dowry for my husband, well then I would have spent a good deal less time in the library. What on Earth is the point of being pre-med if I’m only here to get hitched ASAP? Now I just feel silly.

Some say that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. I say I reserve it for the lowest of wits. If Boris truly thinks that women are only at university to be on the prowl for a husband, then he deserves more sarcasm than I think possible in a single blog post.

Leaving aside the rampant heteronormativity of the comment, let’s talk a little bit more about Boris. He is a politician, so gaffes are par for the course. But, he is no Todd Akin, who needs to brush up on his basic biology. No, Boris is a good old boy. He went to Eton then on to Cambridge, some of the best schools in the world. Ignorance, then, is probably not the basis of his sexism.

If you haven’t seen the blog Everyday Sexism, or if you don’t follow them on Twitter, you should. Founded in England as an attempt to shine a light on the rampant street harassment and daily sexism present in British society. Go ahead and take a break from reading this post to read some of the stories from Everyday Sexism. When you feel your skin beginning to crawl, or you simply can’t stand the banality of it all, come on back and let’s chat.

That is the culture in which Boris was raised, in which he lives, in which he serves as Mayor of its most populous city. Maybe it’s an Imperial thing, that a third culture kid like myself can’t understand, but the entrenched patriarchy is absurd. Yes, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister years before I was even born. But what about now? The Conservative Party, Thatcher’s own, has a Cabinet that has four women out of twenty-two people. Oh, and if you were looking for anyone that wasn’t white, wrong place. At least they’re consistent.

Boris Johnson is only one man. But, he is one of the most powerful men in the UK. That is no inconsequential thing, no matter how much the British Empire has shrunk since Victoria’s reign. It is terrifying to think that Boris can be so nonchalantly paternalistic towards women. How many of his actions, of his policies, then are influenced by this patriarchal paradigm?

Yes, that one time he saved a woman from being mugged by riding down the muggers with his bicycle was nice. But “The Knight on the Shining Bicycle” needs to get off his sexist high horse and get a reality check. He thinks women are flocking towards university because of this unconquerable need to find a husband? I’m struggling to think of something he could have said that would be more antiquated. We go to university because we make less than our male counterparts, so we need that degree to get an equal footing with the men around us. We go to university because we are passionate for what we are studying. We go to university because we crave the freedom of living away from our parents. If we do find a husband or a wife, because to hell with heteronormativity, it’s highly unlikely that we set off to university with that as our sole motivation.

It doesn’t matter if what Boris said was simply an off the cuff joke, in fact that might be worse. It shows that the Mayor of London gave no second thought to being sexist, to belittling women. Because it is belittling to say that women’s only motivation for going to university has to do with men. It makes it so that female students have less pure scholastic intentions than their male counterparts, reinforcing the belief of women’s duplicity. My name is not Eve, and I’m none too fond of snakes, so let’s leave that age-old ridiculousness behind.

There is a reason I wake up every morning to thirty new tweets from Everyday Sexism in my Twitter feed. There is a reason why I’ve experienced sexism myself, on several occasions. There is a reason why rape culture is alive and well. Consciously or not, maliciously or not, men, and sometimes women, promulgate this paradigm of female inferiority. And it’s about damn time that stopped, Mr. Mayor.

Career Advice for College Women

28 May

by Alissa Orlando 

There’s a major deficit of career advice for college women.  There are plenty of quality resources like the Daily Muse and 40:20 Vision for recent grads and young professional women.  But the most popularized piece of advice to college women, even at a place like Princeton, is to find a good husband before graduating.  So as I move onto the next chapter of my life, I want to share some advice with the incredibly talented young women of Georgetown:

1)   Establish a “central theme” and support it with diverse experiences

When someone asks you “tell me about yourself” (an introductory question in many interviews) you should be able to give a succinct answer.  Your activities should be tied together by a central theme rooted in a sincere passion.  For examples of people who have effectively explored their “central passions,” check out the profiles of Rhodes and Marshall scholars (and note the gender disparity especially for the Marshall).

A mistake that I see a lot of young college women making is having their personal brand be too broad.  “Economic development in Africa” is too broad.  “China” is too broad.  Another problem that I see is that people will claim to be passionate/ knowledgeable about a topic that they have no formal experience in.  You cannot claim to be an education policy expert if you have never worked in a school or on education policy.  Tutoring with DC Reads or DC Schools is not enough. You need a variety of meaningful and diverse experiences for this theme to be convincing.

For the majority of my undergraduate experience, my “central theme” was financial access and literacy, which borders on being too broad.    I worked at a large international microfinance NGO in DC, interned at a locally-run microfinance institution in Tanzania, coordinated the youth delegation to the Global Microcredit Summit, and managed a student-run microfinance institution for low-income DC small business owners.  By the time I entered consulting interviews, I could convincingly say that I was passionate about financial inclusion, which made me a memorable and competitive candidate.   Other examples of young women who have done this well include Joanna Foote (SFS ’13) with immigration and Emily Oehlsen (SFS ’13) with labor economics.

2)   Tell everyone you know what you care about

After you think long and hard about what your central theme will be, tell EVERYONE you know.  Drop it to your professors during office hours.  Mention it to your friends when dining at Leo’s.  Post articles about the topic on Facebook.  Be honest about what you’re looking for and, all of a sudden, you’ve turned your social network into personal opportunity hunters.  And do the same for others – it’s all about reciprocity.  I’ve forwarded opportunities to friends who are interested in subjects like security studies in Central Asia, healthcare policy for low-income families in the U.S., and women’s health in the developing world.  These are memorable “central themes,” so when something shows up in my inbox through listservs or other friends, it’s so easy to just forward the opportunity to the relevant person with the hope (but not expectation) that they will do the same for me. (P.S. – I am now looking for part-time/volunteer opportunities to address the digital divide in the United States).

3)   Don’t look for opportunities. Create them.

Okay – now you have your central passion and everyone knows about it. The next step is to be honest about where your gaps or weaknesses lie and think of innovative ways to address them.  This is especially important when you have just created or shifted your central passion.

What a lot of young college women do it scan the available opportunities and settle if they can’t find something that they want.  A perfect example is studying abroad.  Many will just accept whatever program Georgetown offers rather than critically thinking what they want out of the experience and then crafting an experience that will fulfill that need.  Yes, this is more work, but it’s worth it if an independent study or even dropping out for the semester better suits your professional and personal needs.

When looking for internships, try to optimize for the individual or organization that you want to work with rather than scanning for publically listed opportunities on sites like Idealist. Once you identify the sector leader that you want to mentor you, send a cold email or ideally have someone introduce you.  Briefly state your experience (attach a resume if relevant), why you want to work for that person, and what you bring to the table.  The worst that can happen is that they don’t respond after one or two follow up emails.  For those interested in international development opportunities, I recommend that students reach out to Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs, Ashoka Fellows, government ministries, and investments of impact investors like Acumen Fund and Grey Ghost Ventures.

4)   Demonstrate transformational leadership

When McKinsey is asked what they look for in applicants, the answer is “transformational leadership.”  What does this really mean?  It means that you can point out ways that the organization is better when you leave than it was when you joined.  It is not just about reaching the highest levels of leadership; it’s about how you specifically affected the established role.  There are a few easy ways to get transformational leadership experience at a young age: 1) entrepreneurial activity (you can start something yourself or join a young startup) and 2) involvement in low-skill, under-served regions.  If you are in an established role or organization, ASK for the opportunity to lead a project.  If the project already exists, pitch why you are the best person for the job.  If the project is your idea, pitch how it fits into the broader strategy of the organization.  The objective is for you to credit yourself with a specific deliverable that will continue to better the entire organization after you leave.

It is clear that college women need to be better at defining and proactively pursuing what we want.  Do not settle and do not sit down.  Act deliberately and actively seek challenges that feed into your broader narrative.   If you have any questions, would like any help, or care to discuss these ideas further, please feel free to reach out to me directly (Net ID: ao298).

Stay-at-Home Moms

17 May

by Claire McDaniel 

My mother is one of the smartest people I know. She’s strong, brave, and has so wicked of a fashion sense that I steal her clothes. She’s moved from continent to continent to hold our family together, she’s given up so much to even have a family, and she even laughs at my dad’s corny jokes. I wish I were as brave as she.

Her story is, minus some transcontinental moves, pretty typical. My mom worked her ass off and earned her J.D. from Indiana University, meeting my dad in the process. She gave up practicing law to become a law librarian when she was pregnant with me and, once we moved to Switzerland, gave up her profession all together.

It’s that last part that drives me to write this piece. All over the internet, the TV, even the front page of The New York Times, are people definitively stating that there is only one true way of being a mother and, thank the good Lord, we’ve finally found it! Well, until the next week, anyway.

I won’t claim to have the answer to the debate on whether a mother’s role is to stay at home or work, although I will say with certainty that the term ‘mother’s role’ is maddening. Frankly, I don’t think there is a good answer to the debate. Every role is reality for one family or another, and yet the world keeps on turning.

Young women in our generation look at the ongoing struggles over what it means to be a mother, and what it takes to be the perfect mother, and we walk away more confused than when we initially scrolled down to the comment thread on that one article. We’re told that to make the choice to stay home means we’re anti-women and anti-feminist. But God forbid we go back to work, because then we hate our kids. The whole thing is ridiculously stupid.

Let’s be real here, there are wrong ways to be a mom. Maternal neglect, abuse, and even worse haunt the headlines of the leading papers and cause nightmares. But I highly doubt that a mother who agonizes over the decision to work or stay home, no matter which she chooses, will be a bad mother. Anyone devoted enough to care that much will continue to care.

The only true answer is the one that every mother comes to individually. It takes courage, it takes having a strong sense of your own personal compass, and it takes a lot of thought. In the end, I don’t think it matters what mothers choose to do with their own lives. It’s that they choose that makes the difference.

I look at my mother and I know that she made a choice, a difficult one, and I respect her more for it. Her strength, resilience, and ability to deal with my annoying little brother make me wish I could be so tough. The best thing a mother can be is a role model, whether she stays at home or works full-time, or something in between.

Part of me, the same stubborn streak that made me refuse to eat broccoli, wants to complain that staying at home instead of working shows weakness. Being dependent on someone, even if it’s my goofball and loveable dad, seems to go against my near-innate sense of independence. But I look at my mom and everything that she’s done for our family, everything that she’s sacrificed, and I know that she’s not weak. She’s the strongest person I know, and seeing her bravery has made me who I am.

I walk in the same steps as my mother. I struggle to keep my eyes awake during a late night study session in the library. I balance my life as a student with my often-overwhelming extracurriculars, and even call home from time to time. I love my family. I don’t have one of my own, and I don’t know what choices I might face if I get around to it sometime in the very distant future. All I know is that I wish I, and all women, have the courage to follow their own moral compass once they do.

I look around me in the world, and I see real problems. Women are paid less, work less prestigious jobs, are discriminated against, and are sexually harassed—if not assaulted—every single day of the week.  These are incontrovertible facts. These are the issues that define the feminism of our day and age, not what a mother decides to do with her life. Really, it’s as simple as that.

How to Be and Grow the 17% Part 3: Mentorship

12 Mar

by Alissa Orlando

Ask people for their most important piece of career advice, and I bet a lot of people will tell you to get a rock star mentor.  Someone to hitch your star to.  But no one will tell you how to actually meet this life-changing mentor and foster your relationship.  I advance that the challenge of finding and developing meaningful mentors is significantly harder for young women than for young men.  My top three mentors, the people who I go to when I need to make a choice that could potentially alter my professional trajectory, are all men.  I find this particularly odd, given the fair share of contrived women’s mentorship programs I am/have been enrolled in.  So why is this?  Some of my reasons are personal.  My male mentors provide aggressively candid and decisive opinions, whereas female mentors will try to illuminate the pros and cons of various options and allow me to reach a decision of my own.  I think that a great mentor will push you to realize your full potential by taking risks and will tell you when you are off course, and I far prefer the frank and conclusive style that I have thus far only found in male mentors.  That being said, there are several other structural and social reasons why young women have issues finding strong women mentors and developing strong mentorship relationships with men

Access to effective women mentors

The majority of women that I have been set up with through formal mentorship programs, such as Georgetown Women in International Affairs or McKinsey, are simply too early in their careers to offer trajectory-changing advice. Women in their late-20’s/early 30’s can provide invaluable advice about the recruiting process or your first client meeting, but it is difficult for them to guide you to the top of the ladder because they haven’t reached the top rung themselves.   I have developed some really meaningful friendships and “big sister” relationships with young and accomplished-for-their-age women, but not the sort of deep mentorship relationships that make a career.

So why not tap mature, senior manager level women as mentors? Well first of all, there is the structural issue that there just aren’t many women at the top. Fortunately, there is increasingly a shift away from the “box out the competition” logic that used to be the words of Madeleine Albright (whom I would LOVE as my mentor), “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” But even when women with impressive careers have extended their hand to mentor me, most want to discuss the challenges of balancing a career with a relationship and family. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been to an all-women “professional development” panel/networking session/etc. to be told that the best career move I could make is to find a supportive partner. Seriously?!? Do you think men my age are being told that the best career move they could make is to find a supportive partner? This is not the type of advice that I need at 21 years old. I need to be told how to be the best social entrepreneur/consultant/international development practitioner possible. I need to be taught how to navigate the international politics of an employer to advance my success. I need to be introduced to potential funders, partners, and future bosses. But I do NOT need a lesson in parenting when I don’t even have kids!

Development of male mentors

So this brings me to my second challenge facing young women: the challenge of developing strong mentor relationships with men. Some of this may be the fact that male leaders are more likely to “see themselves” in a male protégée, which is in itself problematic. But to be completely frank, the main damper on the development of these strong male-female mentorships is the potential for sex.

When you join McKinsey, you are paired with a “buddy.” All of the buddies are of the same gender. This sets the norm that mentor relationships are to happen within your gender, to best prevent the development of inappropriate sexual relationships. This is incredibly limiting for women, especially those trying to develop mentorships with men who are older and more professionally established but not yet in the stably-married-with-multiple-children age range (and even THIS is not a total safe zone).

I an provide multiple anecdotes of people perceiving platonic mentor relationships as inappropriate sexual relationships, or men in power being hesitant to really invest time and energy in me for fear that their interest would be seen as more than professional. People raise an eyebrow when a male, mid-level manager takes a female new-hire alone to dinner and drinks. When I was working for my State Senator, I noticed that he would always take the male intern out to evening and weekend events. When I asked him why I was never invited to accompany him, he responded, “I wouldn’t want people to think I was cheating on my wife.” Needless to say, no mentor relationship budded there.

As a second point, women are far less likely to be invited to male-dominated social events, like poker night and intermural basketball, where meaningful intergenerational relationships form among current and future leaders. Women are also excluded from other settings, including some of Georgetown’s secret societies, where meaningful mentor relationships among men are inevitably formed. Therefore, women’s interactions with senior leaders, who are still mostly men, are largely confined to sterile, professional environments, which severely limits the depth of the mentor relationship.

Without directive and emotionally invested mentors, women are at a severe professional disadvantage. A great mentor can help make integral introductions, map the industry, and evaluate competing opportunities. If women want to increase their numbers at the top, they need access to effective, high-ranking women leaders who provide substantive professional guidance and the opportunity to develop platonic but intimate relationships with male mentors at all professional levels.

How to Become and Grow the 17% (Part 1)

8 Feb

by Alissa Orlando

This week, Nick Kristof reported that there was only 17% female attendance at this year’s World Economic Forum.  In the United States, only 17 percent of American Fortune 500 board seats are held by women.  At McKinsey & Company, where Sheryl Sandberg worked after business school and I will work after graduation, only 17 percent of partners globally are women.

So the question on everyone’s (okay.. maybe every elite woman’s) mind is WHY?!?  Women are leaning back.  This is Sheryl Sandberg’s contribution to the debate (keep an eye out for the full book, Lean In, in March). Her argument is pretty simple:  “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”  To add value in the workplace, one must actively contribute to the conversation, but Sandberg argues that women struggle between this professional expectation of being assertive and the social expectation of being submissive and conciliatory.

My thoughts?  There is definitely some merit to this for some women.  Next time you are in class, count how many times a woman will apologize for asking a question, be obviously embarrassed when answering a question incorrectly, or qualify her statements with an incredibly annoying series of self-deprecating or self-doubting phrases.  Count how many times a man will interrupt a classmate, challenge a professor, or push a point of personal interest, regardless of the class dynamics.  If a woman plays this more assertive role, what is the class reaction?  What happens when she outshines (or outearns) her male colleagues and goes toe-to-toe with her superiors?  This, folks, is leaning in.  Or not giving a shit.  But Sheryl’s publishers didn’t approve that title.

The issue with this explanation is that it emphasizes what women are doing wrong – rather than how women can be better supported.  There are plenty of women who are assertive and are leaning in, only to have someone block their place at the table.  Plenty of structural and societal issues still exist (which Sandberg admittedly acknowledges).  Most of the issues discussed are most pertinent to 40-something ladder-climbers.  Women need flexible work schedules to take care of their children.  They need to be given reasonable maternity leaves.  But what about us 20-something fresh-out-of (insert overpriced, prestigious University here)?  Here are some reasons why, even way before kids/work-life balance issues come into play, assertive women are head butting against some painful glass ceilings:

  1. Expected leadership style
  2. Mentorship limitations
  3. Personal life issues

I will explore these further in future posts about how to become and grow the 17 percent.  But for now, ladies, lean in.  Don’t qualify or apologize for your opinions.  Don’t be afraid to face rejection or be flat out wrong.  And don’t be afraid to defend your view when you think you’re flat our right.

Look out for more posts by Alissa Orlando on becoming and growing the 17%!