Having a Female CEO Doesn’t Make a Company ‘Woman-Friendly’

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about prominent female CEOs like Marissa Meyer and Sheryl Sandberg, with some feminists arguing that these women are making their companies more woman-friendly just by being in charge of them, that their hirings mark feminist victories that everyone should be celebrating. This has, as we know, not actually been the case if you gauge a ‘victory’ but anything beyond mere gender identification; in fact, these women have created actively hostile environments for women workers, representing a step down rather than a step up.

Sarah Jaffe astutely noted that the hyperfocus on the glass ceiling leaves out a lot of women workers, not just those on the corporate track but working-class women, who represent the bulk of employed women at the moment. The economic ‘recovery’ is heavily based in low-wage work with few employment protections, and this is the kind of work more and more women are being forced into. Without support for unionisation and workplace protections, these women are being left behind.

This is an important conversation to be having, because the erasure of domestic work, low-wage work, and service work from discussions about women and labour is an indicator of larger problems in the mainstream feminist movement. But it’s also worth taking a closer look at the issue of what defines a ‘female-friendly company,’ since the subject comes up a lot lately, and some writers have been criticised for harping on female CEOs to the exclusion of others, with the implication that we’re holding women to an unfair standard just because they’re women, or we’re not holding male CEOs accountable for the biased working conditions at their own companies.

As situations go, this one is a bit complex; I tend to focus on female CEOs because the mainstream feminist movement does, and because I want to point out that just being a woman doesn’t mean you promote women’s causes or welfare for female workers. As seen with Meyer’s policies, which disproportionately impact women workers, for example, some female CEOs seem to demonstrate a need to make themselves ‘one of the boys,’ to come down even harder on their female employees in the hopes of making themselves stand out as effective corporate leaders. To see such women heralded as feminist triumphs or victories for feminism is appalling—not least because, as Jaffe points out, the vast majority of women labourers are never going to be in those kinds of positions, and celebrating primarily the most wealthy and powerful women just reinforces class stratification and the erasure of working class labour.

But this doesn’t mean that male CEOs are exempt from criticism either, and they are criticised for the same kinds of effectively anti-woman policies that some of their female counterparts endorse. Companies with limited family and medical leave, policies limiting time spent working from home, and other measures that act to punish female employees and make it hard to advance up the corporate ladder should be openly evaluated and discussed no matter the gender of the CEO; but if you’re arguing that the gender of the CEO is worthy of special notice, then we’re going to need to talk about who the CEO is and how her gender affects the policies she institutes at her workplace. In other words, if you think we’re being unfair and picking on female CEOs, stop telling us they’re special just because they’re women.

There is, of course, much talk of women ‘having it all’ in an era when a very small and very privileged group of women is in a position to have a debate about whether it’s possible to ‘have it all.’ Few women are faced with the option of ascending the corporate ladder and promoting a capitalist system versus having a family. They shouldn’t necessarily be applauded for this achievement as though it’s a remarkable victory; inasmuch as capitalism is friendly to women, female CEOs are not necessarily going to represent better working conditions not just for their personnel, but for the scores of low-wage labourers who support the operations of their companies.

For most women, the question is not whether you can have it all but whether you can have anything at all; whether you can find a job that pays enough to survive, scrabble together the funds to access health care, make sure your children are safe and clothed and fed and happy. Activists and organisers working on the ground with low-wage workers get limited support from mainstream feminism, which prefers to focus on topics like the gender distribution of top CEOs over paid sick days, immigration reform, protections for domestic workers, and other issues of more pressing concern to a much larger group of women.

Gender parity and equality are the ultimate goal of feminism and many other social justice movements share these goals, but you can’t use a simplistic measure like the gender of the world’s CEOs as a yardstick. Feminism shouldn’t be about how many women are in charge, but what women are doing with that power, and what conditions are like for the women who are not in charge. Do I love to see more women in the halls of power? Yes, of course, just as I love to see people of colour, nonwhite people, disabled people, and other marginalised groups getting more representation.

But I’m also not fooled into thinking that power alone is the solution, for power does not necessarily equate to fair treatment and respect for everyone. If we had an even 50/50 split of male and female CEOs, would that mean that conditions at all companies were fair for women? More importantly, would it mean that working class women experienced safe, comfortable working conditions and living wages?