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Is capitalism destroying feminism? An interview with Dawn Foster

Many assume that women, at the top, will act in the best interests of their gender. Nobody asks if people like Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May wouldn’t instead act in the interests of their class.

Mary Fitzgerald: I’m Mary Fitzgerald, and I’m the editor-in-chief of openDemocracy. Today, I’m talking to Dawn Foster, journalist and author of Lean Out, a very carefully chosen title, a response to Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. And I think I’ll probably start by asking you to define what you understood Sheryl Sandberg to mean, by ‘leaning in’, and then what ‘leaning out’ is by contrast.

Dawn Foster: I suppose, when I first read Sheryl Sandberg's book, which was given to my flatmate who works in IT, I found it very interesting that she’d been given the book, first of all.

MF: Who gave it to her?

DF: Her manager, a male manager. And she said, so what do you think of this book? So I had a little read. To me, Sheryl Sandberg's main argument was that the biggest barrier to feminism is individual women, and that rather than arguing for collective rights, workers’ rights, and a change in women’s position in society as a class and as a whole, the best thing to do was to focus on individual success in your career and your family life. And I find that quite troublesome, because to me it blames individual women and women as a whole for the position that they’re in, for the gender pay-gap, for the maternity dismissals, for all the problems we still see in many societies around the world.

I find Sheryl Sandberg quite comfortable with hierarchy.

And I find that very troubling, but I can also see why a lot of women have been given these books by their managers, because I find Sheryl Sandberg quite comfortable with hierarchy, and at no point did she criticise any of the institutions she’d worked for or within, and instead she generally focused on mentoring as a way of helping women, or individual women’s kind of attitudes to work. At no point did she talk about maternity leave helping women, or for instance, sharing household chores more, looking more at who cares, how they care, and how they’re recompensed for caring. It’s all very much about the individual.

MF: One of the things I thought was interesting about her book was that she did talk about sharing household duties with her husband, and how you really need an equal partner if you’re ever going to do anything ambitious in life as a woman. And of course that’s absolutely true. But you made quite a nice point in your book about how, yes, you need a partner, but you also rely on cheap domestic labour of other women.

Sheryl Sandberg definitely has a nanny or nannies, and cleaner or housekeeper and whatever else. While it's a step forward in a sense that you can have a relationship where these responsibilities are shared, there’s a whole layer of domestic work that’s being done mainly by low-paid women, that’s not talked about in these stories of individual success.

DF: Completely. In order to work 100 hours a week and also have two or three children, and your partner to do a similar job, you need people to take over the domestic duties, you need people to clean your house, you need people to drive you home at night so you can carry on replying to emails, and what I’ve noticed is that increasingly, domestic labour is picked up by poor immigrant women who first of all have almost no rights whatsoever, and that should be a massive feminist issue. I think migration is a huge feminist issue, especially when it comes to domestic workers, and she doesn’t really acknowledge that.

I think there’s always an assumption that women, when they get to the top, will always act in the best interests of their gender.

It's quite interesting – Melissa Gira Grant mentioned it, and I mentioned it in my book – how Sheryl Sandberg talks about how she went into a meeting room once and said to all the men around her, excuse me, do you know where the toilet is? And none of them knew where the women’s toilets were, and she talks about how she was in this building and nobody knew where the toilets were, and it’s almost as if she doesn’t see that she’s clearly drinking coffee in this meeting room, the coffee’s been brought to her by a woman, there’s a woman on reception, there’s a woman cleaning the whole building. And so she almost can’t see this kind of internal hierarchy that she’s built for herself within gender. And that was what worries me a lot about what I deem as quite corporate feminism.

I think there’s always an assumption that women, when they get to the top, will always act in the best interests of their gender, but nobody asks if people like Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, wouldn’t instead act in the best interests of their class. If you’re elite, if you’re very very wealthy, you feel a lot closer to very very elite and wealthy people, not necessarily a migrant domestic worker who shares your gender.

MF: One thing that I think Sandberg’s book was strong on was the unconscious gender biases that we all carry around with us. So she quoted a lot of credible studies and evidence that both women and men carry around unconscious gender biases. I think there’s something to her point that it is partly internal, there are partly sexism and gender biases that we all carry that we are not aware of, just as there are racial, cultural, and class preconceptions we grew up with and identities that we grew up with.

From my point of view, I don’t think it’s completely wrong to say, part of what's needed is an attitudinal and ambitional shift on the part of women. But without the broader context of why these all exist, all you really get is a self-help book for women who are climbing the corporate ladder, and actually it might be quite a good self-help book for women who are climbing the corporate ladder. If it’s just seen as a self-help book, as opposed to a book that’s supposed to be spawning the revolution, what’s the harm? What’s the danger?

DF: When I read it, I definitely saw it as a self-help book. It was only when I started reading the media coverage around it that I saw people, instead, women who looked a lot like Sheryl Sandberg, but who had jobs in journalism, who said that she was saying the unsayable, and that this was the way forward, for women to be more assertive. And I definitely think that there are a lot of subconscious biases and behaviours that women and men both perpetuate, and I think that it's always important to acknowledge them.

I find recruitment really fascinating as a feminist issue.

I mean, it's taken me years. I'm from a working-class background, and I'm a woman, and it's taken me years to get over a lot of my own hang-ups that come from class and come from gender. But I find recruitment really fascinating as a feminist issue, as a class issue, because when I first graduated and I was speaking to my friends who were all trying to find jobs, I started noticing – and then I did some research and found out it was borne out by social studies – that if there was, say, a job that had 10 points in the essential criteria in the job description, my male friends would apply if they hit two or three of them, especially if they came from Oxford. My female friends, or my working-class black male friends, would only apply if they met every single one of those criteria.

MF: Which is something that Sandberg points out as well.

DF: Yes, but I don’t think it's just down to women and people of colour, to then change their minds. I don't see why an institution should not think, why is everybody at the highest level, white, male, and from a certain university? What can we do to change that? So if every single study in the world shows that if you write down 10 essential things that might not be essential, and then more men will apply than women, if you know that’s going to happen, then why not change your recruitment?

We end up hiring somebody who looks like us sitting across the table.

And obviously the more confident you are because you come from a certain background, the more confident you will come across in an interview. Again, when you look at recruitment, everybody thinks that interviews are the best way of getting to know somebody. But actually if you do a number of verbal reasoning tests, and various other tests, you actually get the best candidate. But because we're human, we err massively, and end up hiring somebody who looks like us sitting across the table, because we see ourselves in them, and we think we can mould them in our image.

MF: And you can anonymise a lot of recruitment tests as well.

DF: And that's what annoys me about Sandberg, a lot of it is very good self-help. But there’s so much, especially in the tech industry, that she works in, that needs to change. And politics doesn’t represent the society we live in, so why not change the way that we select MPs? Why not change the way that we fund campaigns? I don’t think it's just down to individuals to put themselves forward, I think it's also down to institutions, be they social, educational, or corporate, to change as well.

MF: And your feeling is that just having more women in positions of power in both politics and business, isn’t enough to do this, and you pointed to the Margaret Thatchers and Theresa Mays of this world. But in some ways, certainly Margaret Thatcher was a product of a system that was so…she had to be more ‘male’ than any of her peers or contemporaries. To me, she illustrates the point of what happens when you don't have many women in power, you have somebody who almost feels like they have to prove themselves more and be tougher and harder than men are. And I think if you really did have gender parity in these positions of power, couldn't you envisage things being different?

DF: I think if you had a mass movement where a lot of institutions reach gender parity very very quickly, then that would force a culture change. But what I see instead is a media and a climate that tells us that every time a woman gets a senior job, that’s to be applauded, because you know, it’s trickle-down feminism, once you get one woman, that will automatically benefit people lower down the chain, but then I don't actually see that happening.

So the women who've been appointed to these boards haven’t really rocked the boat.

If you look at Norway, they have quotas for boards, and it's changed almost nothing because the women who have been appointed to these boards are very similar in cultural outlook to the men on those boards. A lot of them know each other from the same kind of elite clubs. So the women who've been appointed to these boards haven’t really rocked the boat, so nothing’s really changed. Instead we've got a right-wing government in Norway who are instead rolling back women’s rights quite slowly.

The same happens in Sweden, but Sweden is quite interesting because the way they’ve actually changed recruitment in the public sector means that it's almost 50:50 men and women. And at the same time, the private sector, which is right next to the public sector that has reached gender parity, hasn’t changed at all.  So even though the public sector is now more representative, that culture change hasn't drifted over to the private sector, because they haven't been forced into it.

MF: This leads me quite nicely into…so we’ve defined ‘leaning in’, what is ‘leaning out’?

DF: So for me, ‘leaning out’ is refusing to participate in the systems that perpetuate oppression, so it's going on strike, it's withdrawing your labour, withdrawing your care.

MF: That’s quite hard though, for people from underprivileged backgrounds. You know, what if someone goes away from this and says: I see this is unjust, what can I do?

DF: People who I've spoken to who are doing it, so a lot of housing campaigners, Focus E15 mums for instance, for years now, they’ve had a store in the centre of town, where they speak to people about their housing issues, they tell people about their housing issues, and they get more and more people talking about it, and going to Newham Council, and saying, we won’t put up with your housing policy, your housing policy is actively harming people. If they try and evict young mothers, then they ask the community to come out, and either resist eviction, or occupy the town hall.

It's such an invisible issue sometimes that people don't see it being taken away.

I’ve also met a number of women who have to do a huge amount of unpaid care, and more and more unpaid care as it's removed from the council, so what they’ve done instead is…I’ve met two women who basically wrote down every single thing they had to do and then worked out how much it would cost the council, if they actually funded it, and pointed out to them how much they were saving over and over again, and argued that social care had to be a feminist issue, but also one of the things that the council was funding. So you know, if you ask people what they want taxation to pay for, people will say social care. But it's such an invisible issue sometimes that people don't see it being taken away.

MF: So you have some great examples in the book of grassroots women's movements that are ‘leaning out’, that are fighting domestic violence or housing injustice, and low pay, zero-hours contracts and all the rest. These are people who really are on the frontline, who are experiencing these problems or discrimination. I suppose, what can we all do as a society to ‘lean out’? What if you’re not on the front line experiencing those problems, and speaking about them, which is a really important part of this, but what can women and men of different backgrounds and classes do to support this kind of ‘lean out’ instinct rather than this corporate individualism instinct?

DF: I suppose the biggest thing you can do is share these stories, highlight people’s plights. But also, think a lot about what you’re doing day to day. I speak to a lot of men who have started to realise what happens in meetings when men and women are put together, how many men talk over women, how little women get acknowledged for their ideas. So I know quite a few people who are trying to step back, speak less in meetings, for women to speak more. But also, I think we’ve got to a point where many of us have such precarious jobs, we feel as though, if we don’t work unpaid constantly, on our mobile phones and so on, then actually, we could lose our jobs and be less likely to get promoted.

Maybe it’s a better idea to get more people to think about taking back some of their time.

So maybe it’s a better idea to get more people to think about taking back some of their time, thinking more about having a civic life as well as a professional life, and stopping the professional life from taking over the rest of your personal life. So, turning off your phone at 6 o’clock when you go home.

MF: Volunteering.

DF: Yeah, and instead volunteering. Or instead, getting involved in a local campaign. Even if it’s just deciding you’re not going to start work until 9 o’clock on Monday, so on Sunday evening, you’re going to go to a local soup kitchen, or even just read up on what’s happening in your local area.

So I think that’s what I found quite sad about Sandberg’s book: there’s a discussion about a family life, and a professional life. There’s nothing about a civic life. I think it’s about clocking out of work, clocking out of this constant plugged-in sort of time-suck we find ourselves in, and thinking more about having a civic life, about a community, about what’s happening in your immediate environment and about what’s happening nationwide, and trying to get more plugged into that.

MF: For people who do have precarious work, there’s a lot of pressure in the work-place increasingly: people in many organisations feel pressured to answer emails at any time of day or night, feel pressured to be seen to be going the extra mile, understanding that that’s in their very short term interests if they want to keep their job or if they want to get promoted. It’s really tough, it’s not an easy ask of people.

DF: I think that’s partly because we’ve got to the point now where being in a union is seen as quite rare. Beforehand it was a lot easier, it was quite straightforward. I know that Unite have started what they call Unite Community, which is a kind of community union. So, I think you pay like a pound a month, and you can access people who will give you advice on benefits, on legal cases you want to bring up or anything like that. So I’d like to see more communitarianism, a lot more people kind of getting involved in the unions.

We’ve got to the point now where being in a union is seen as quite rare.

A lot of this is also about unions having to adapt and accept that a lot of people now aren’t in big work places, with normal contracts, and actually maybe we should do something about how we unionise zero-hours contracts, employees, how we can look more at unionising women who care part time. And how we can present those cases.

MF: You have to be flexible and innovative basically, in this labour market, in this situation. Unions have to adapt the way they think, and who they campaign for and how they campaign for them.

I was struck by something as well in your book about how feminism had moved from the goal of improving all women’s lives, the idea of sisterhood, and it’s now been replaced by this idea that you can improve your life, as a feminist you can improve your life. You can be a feminist and wear high heels, you can be a feminist and enjoy sex. Whatever else. And that’s the sort of shift that’s really happened: you can be a feminist and be very focused on your own. It can be a mantra for self-improvement.

 DF: Yes, it’s very inward-looking. It’s a strange idea that feminism is a lifestyle rather than a political movement. So there’s a chapter in my book called “Can You Be A Feminist And..”, because I kept seeing these strange articles pop up over and over again, and it became a joke with my friends where we’d type that phrase and then something else. So, I think once I typed, “can you be a feminist and drink milk”, and found five articles discussing whether or not drinking milk was a feminist act. Apparently it’s not: cows are female and you’re exploiting their labour. But it’s all about ‘can you be a feminist and shave your legs’. Well you can do anything and pretty much be anything except work against the interests of women as a group.

This strange lifestyle-feminism is quite toxic I think.

But, that kind of ties with Sandberg’s argument, that feminism is very inward-looking, but it also absorbs the patriarchal idea that you should always be critiquing yourself, rather than the institutions that stop you from earning as much as you might like, or spending enough time with your children. And this strange lifestyle-feminism is quite toxic I think, and it’s also used as a way to sell goods. I always thought Dove was quite a naff soap that smells a bit odd, but now apparently it’s a feminist product. Because we’ve got to the point where feminism is gaining ground, but also kind of diluted a little bit, by brands, who use it as a way to sell things back to women.

MF: That one’s really tricky because one can assume that brands will only ever act in their self-interest, and to assume anything other than that is just nonsense. And that’s fine if we accept the world we live in. To a certain degree, it’s not going to change tomorrow.

So in a way, brands that adopt gay-friendly messages, or pro-feminist messages – it’s a sign of something becoming mainstream, which is encouraging at the same time. It drifts into this lifestyle-feminism thing quite easily, where you can have it all, where you deserve this, where middle-class women who have sex are liberated. But where working-class women who have sex too much are ‘breeding’. It’s a really fine line, because I don’t think it’s wrong for brands like Unilever to say, ‘this is popular, feminism sells and we should try and sell the idea’. That’s better than them not. But at the same time, where that goes is harmful.

I think it’s a sign that a movement is winning, but you have to be careful.

DF: I think it’s a sign that a movement is winning, but you have to be careful not to expend energy on lauding that soap manufacturer or cereal manufacturer. I think there was a kind of LGBT family cereal advert or something. And the amount of column space spent over that, that could’ve been used elsewhere.

MF: But in America it was a massive thing, the first time you saw an LGBT family like that, I mean it brings tears to your eyes. You’re not buying into the brand as much as you’re saying ‘gosh, this has become so mainstream’, that brands that are totally risk-averse are now willing to portray this, and that’s a huge milestone for people who care about this deeply. But it’s problematic in another way. It’s really hard, that one, because it’s a milestone of progress, and potentially a dangerous way of turning a movement or an idea inwards. And making it about a person rather than a movement.

DF: I saw a necklace the other day that said “feminist” with the dots on the i’s as both diamonds, and I just thought, if somebody wants to buy a necklace and proclaim that they’re a feminist, great. But where have those diamonds come from, who’s mining that gold?

MF: Where’s the fashion statement? Who’s working in the factories?

I noticed that you often responded to some of Sandberg’s points in the book with stats from the UK, where she uses stats from the US, and I was wondering if that’s deliberate, if you’re saying actually there’s no difference? There are material differences in parental leave and things we have in the UK. We have protections here in the UK and Europe that American women don’t have, and I think that makes quite a big difference. But are you saying that essentially, the UK system is a bit less harsh, but we’re talking about the same phenomenon here?

DF: I think it’s a very very similar phenomenon, but also, I think we’re moving more towards the American model. I know that a lot of American companies are moving over here, and we’re losing a lot of the hard-won rights we had before. So women now who want to take an employer to court for unfair dismissal, being sacked during pregnancy, or for a pay dispute, now have to pay a tribunal fee, which is out of the reach of many, many women. So we’re losing a lot of those rights and at the same time we’re having a lot of companies bringing in American-style perks. I went into the Google office recently and looked round, and they had a stand-alone sweet shop, and scooters and blackboards everywhere. Not so sure about the maternity leave.

MF: Well, they probably offer quite competitive maternity leave, because it’s that corporate feminism thing. I’m sure they’re smart enough to recruit the brightest and best, so they will offer…

Silicon Valley companies are offering women egg-freezing as a perk.

DF: But one thing in America now, which is becoming more common, it’s quite terrifying, is especially Silicon Valley companies offering women egg-freezing as a perk. Which I find completely terrifying. Because it’s massively intrusive, both personally and also biological, because it’s a really hard process. But also, it’s a way of saying to somebody, just don’t get pregnant, just work for as long as possible, because your life and your pregnancy are an inconvenience to our company.

MF: And there are also lies about how successful that process is.

DF: It’s not that effective, it’s a really gruelling procedure, very painful, it’s quite dangerous. And you know, you end up with a fewer than 2% chance of getting pregnant at the end of it anyway.

MF: You quoted somebody, and I forget who, in the book, who said that feminism didn’t fail because it was too radical, it failed because it wasn’t radical enough. Do you agree with that? And do you agree it’s failed? I mean, I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the failure to begin with.

I think there’s often a perception that feminism is a bit like an onwards march. I think it’s more like a staircase.

DF: I don’t think it’s failed. What I find really interesting is I think there’s often a perception that feminism is a bit like an onwards march. I think it’s more like a staircase, and you can go up as well as down. I think quite often we forget that rights can be rescinded as well as given, so the fact that we now have to pay tribunal fees, the fact that more women than ever are being laid off during pregnancy, the fact that the gender pay-gap is widening again, is quite worrying. And I think sometimes people forget that. If you focus on attitudes to sex, like whether or not you can shave your legs and be a feminist, and then just assume that your legal rights are protected, then we can end up in a really terrible position, as we increasingly are.

Again, a lot of that comes down to who sets the agenda in feminism. If it’s upper-middle-class women who have relatively okay jobs and their main problem is cultural attitudes towards women, does that mean that we forget about the women who are precariously employed, the women who have caring responsibilities or disabled women’s struggles with work?

MF: The women who are cleaning houses and looking after the children of the middle-class women who are doing those jobs.

So which country do you think is the closest to getting it right? We always look at Scandinavia, don’t we? And you say it’s not as great or as equal as it seems. But where do we look to for inspiration? You can look to individual movements for inspiration, to some of the women’s movements you’ve spoken about which are very inspiring. But is there a country, is there a model, is there a system, is there a set of policies that actually is in some ways forging a path?

I think quite often we forget that rights can be rescinded as well as given.

DF: I think you can pick and mix lots of places, there are some things I think the UK get right.

MF: For example?

DF: For a while I thought we were moving to a better place in terms of rape convictions and so on. But now I think we’re going back with the collapse of lots of cases. I think Norway and Sweden probably are closest. I don’t think they’re as idyllic as people make out, but a lot of things in Norway and Sweden are just so taken for granted by people that I know there.

MF: Parental leave?

DF: Attitudes to work. Parental leave. I think the fact that housing is more affordable in Norway and Sweden, even though their taxes are so high, makes a huge difference. The fact that you can share parental leave. And we’ve brought that in the UK, but it’s so unworkable, partly because we’ve got so many people there who are self-employed or precariously employed, that they don’t get any maternity rights.

A lot of that comes down to who sets the agenda in feminism.

I’m a freelance journalist. If I looked at maternity leave, I would get statutory maternity pay of maybe £80 a week if I’m lucky, because I don't have a full time employer. But we’ve had such a push towards self-employment, that we’re actually clawing back workers’ rights from people. Whereas in Norway, everybody accepts that if they want to, they can have a baby and they can afford it, because they’ve got childcare. And I think childcare is something that families have been fighting for, for decades, and we’re seeing almost no movement on it whatsoever.

MF: And now it’s being rolled back. The provision in this country is being rolled back, because of funding cuts.

And then there’s the wider question about inspiration. In the process of writing this book, which happened over a number of years – it’s a composite of many of your experiences – who are some of the most inspiring people you’ve met? And who’s forging a path for us in that way?

DF: I feel inspired by loads of people I meet all the time. I went up to the Dulais valley quite recently. If you’ve seen Pride, it’s the village in Pride. And I was in a community centre that was set up by women, shortly after the miners’ strike – by the women you see in the film. Still run by women now, and there are old women, young women, who still use the community centre, still volunteer, still do all sorts of things. So I find those women really inspiring.

But I can go anywhere and just see people who are really driven and really interested in furthering rights. I can read an Elena Ferrante interview, where she talks about women’s relationships and how she feels about her daughter being inspired. Unlike Sheryl Sandberg, I’m not into role models, I think role models are something women are given, and men are never given – as if women need to be guided and we’re too malleable and we need some help. But I see inspiration and role models in everybody.

Lean Out by Dawn Foster is published by Repeater Books.

About the authors

Dawn Foster is a London-based journalist, writing predominantly on social affairs, politics, economics and women's rights. She is a regular contributor to the Guardian, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, New Humanist and openDemocracy. She regularly appears as a political commentator on BBC's Newsnight and Sky News. Follow her on Twitter: @DawnHFoster

Mary Fitzgerald is Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy. Before joining oD she worked for Avaaz, the global campaigning organisation, and is a former Senior Editor of Prospect Magazine. She is a trustee of the human rights charity Reprieve. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, Observer, New Statesman and others. Follow her on Twitter: @maryftz


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