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Corporate environment contorts feminism

in Columns/Opinions by

We live in an idyllic haven of equality here at Swarthmore. On a daily basis, we are surrounded by extremely accepting and intelligent peers, who generally do not discriminate against one another on the basis of characteristics inherited by birth. More often than not, we are judged on our merits and our hard work, not on our physical appearance or surface-level traits. When we think of graduating and stepping out into the real world, we expect that the world outside will be just as tolerant and openminded; as a woman, I expect that I will be taken seriously. Perhaps this is just too presumptuous.

Earlier this week, I attended J.P. Morgan’s Winning Women program, a recruiting event geared towards undergraduate women interested in pursuing finance-related careers. The purpose of these events, in my view, is twofold. Such a program gives a company the opportunity to improve their image by showcasing the female leadership in their firm and the progressivism in their hiring and employment practices, given that women continue to be vastly underrepresented in the corporate world. In addition, these events allow the company to effectively groom the next generation of businesswomen by providing them with exposure to the industry and the foundation for a set of skills that can equip them for future success in finance.

The event began with some of the top executives giving us an overview of the work they do, followed by a series of panels, the second of which was titled, “Personal Branding.” The moderator, a campus recruiter, was female, as were all the panelists who were speaking and all of the undergraduate students attending the event. Three questions into the panel, the moderator approached the subject of emotions in the workplace, asking the female employees how they overcame balancing their feelings with their work. The next few questions and their subsequent responses seemed to imply that there was some truth to the notion that female employees are more emotionally unstable than their male counterparts, and as such a conscious effort needs to constantly be made to put aside feelings in order to perform their duties.

I hoped that despite the fact that this line of questioning had rubbed me the wrong way, the remaining responses could still redeem the corporate culture of these firms. That was the case until the moderator asked if the way in which these female employees dressed and spoke affected their personal brand in the workplace. The panelist to respond delved into an anecdote to illustrate her point, citing the example of an intern who had worked at the office during a previous summer. The intern had supposedly worn the same outfit to work two days in a row, which caused her supervisor—the panelist who was answering the question—to assume that she had gone out with her friends and stayed over at someone else’s place. The outfit-repeater seemed to slightly underperform at work on the second day, causing all other employees that she interacted with to lose respect for her and her work ethic. As I heard this high ranking employee of J.P. Morgan directly attack the character and diligence of a girl, I looked around to see if any of the girls around me were as concerned about the implications of this as I was. These girls, mostly accounting and finance majors from various local universities, were just shaking their heads in apparent agreement. These girls may go on to one day inhabit the very same seats that these panelists were currently in; the deeply rooted misogyny that these responses seemed to exude was becoming further perpetuated by brainwashing the next generation of corporate women to think that the stereotypes women face must be accepted rather than vehemently combatted.

It was disheartening to me to see that the women who are in the best possible position to uproot the prejudice faced by women were the very same women to appear most complacent. Instead of using their position of power to reject dated notions and gender roles, they were instead furthering the same misconceptions that have oppressed women for centuries. The idea that women are indisputably affected by feelings more so than men, and that these sentiments indubitably hinder their work, is not only demeaning and horribly offensive, but also just downright inaccurate. Condoning the practice of judging the capability and caliber of an individual due to their presumed actions outside of the workplace, actions which are neither morally nor legally reprehensible, further embeds the impression that a woman’s actions ought to be judged in the first place; quite frankly, it is no one’s business. Would anyone insinuate that when the boys go out for a round of drinks after a long day at work, they are proving themselves to be less worthy or competent as employees? Are men eternally emotionless and unfaltering workhorses? Would either of these issues have even been broached if this event wasn’t supposed to prepare women for the corporate environment?

These employees were provided with an invaluable platform to play a significant role in inspiring and shaping the lives of young women; instead of empowering my peers and I to break through the glass ceiling that is sexism in the corporate environment, these corporate leading ladies reinforced these twisted stereotypes and encouraged acquiescence. Conflict aversion through concession is not what we women must strive for; if we are being deprived of opportunities and fair treatment, we must look at oppression square in the face, acknowledge it as a problem, and then work to systematically dismantle it.

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