Corporate Feminism and Thankless Emotional Labour

Credit: Open Clip Art / CyberScooty
Credit: Open Clip Art / CyberScooty

I have been using the phrase “Corporate Feminism” to mean Company-Focused Diversity work, typically pipeline based. There have been other uses of this, much of it critique of Sheryl Sandberg including this analysis from a racial perspective.  I don’t think we have an “official” definition and so hope that explains how I am using it here. If you think I’m wrong on this, please let me know!

I remember the moment I quit Corporate Feminism. A “thank you” thing for everyone involved in an event. My involvement? I had brought the idea over, helped organise it, co-hosted it. My name was called out in the middle, like I had done no more than anyone else.

We don’t do Corporate Feminism for the appreciation, of course, we do it because it is the “right” thing to do. However as I walked past my desk, dropped the piece of paper I had been given to commemorate the occasion in the recycling bin, and sat down and stared blankly at my monitor… my doubts about whether it was the “right” thing coalesced, and I decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore.

Of course, it didn’t happen instantly, it takes time to untangle commitments. I’d agreed to give a talk to a bunch of students which hung over me. I didn’t know what to say, all that I could think of was despondent. I’m introduced, “Cate is going to talk about her career”, and I said, “actually I’m going to talk about statistics”. I talked about how dismal the numbers were, and how the numbers were bad because the experience was bad, and how the numbers wouldn’t change unless the experience changed. And then, I offered a piece of hope that I didn’t at all believe in.

One of my friends said, “I thought you were going to end with ‘and then everyone dies’ but you didn’t, how did you do that?” and I didn’t say, “I lied”. It felt a little like a lie, though. It would have felt even more like it had I known that a guy was using that event to pick up girls.

Let me tell you a story about a girl. She switched into Computer Science, and when I met her she was super gung ho. Guys on her course gave her shit? Her reaction “Screw you, my grades are better”, and they were. Gave her a copy of Unlocking the Clubhouse (Amazon) and hoped she would do well.

I haven’t heard from her in a while. Last I heard, she had dropped out of CS. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I can imagine. When people tell you, show you, over and over again, that you don’t belong you come to believe it. Maybe some small disappointment will be the final straw.

Spend enough time on Corporate Feminism and you’ll build enough of these stories. The girls who email you enthusiastically, but eventually disappear. You’ll start to look at the bright young thing tempted from whatever she thought she might do before (law? medicine? chemistry? accountancy?) and wonder if she’ll make it. If you’re tempting her away from a path where she would be treated better, have a more fulfilling career?

Computer Science, programming, it’s not rocket science. It is, however, hard enough that the people who succeed at it would have been capable of succeeding at other things to. As the women I know, in general, are more well rounded (society drives this, to be fair), this goes doubly true for them. Large companies that focus on pipeline initiatives do so to increase their choice of female graduates to hire from – not all these girls that get pushed into the pipeline will get jobs at “top” tech companies. I’m not saying this is unfair, but with the resources thrown at many female students during their time at university, I’m not sure they all understand how different it will be once they graduate.

This, then, was doubt #1. The thing about the pipeline being so small, is that only the most bloody-minded and badass women survive. Working to broaden the pipeline seemed to me like working to lure smart, motivated women, who would otherwise have gone to happily do other things, into the acid that leads to the sewage plant. I could no longer convince myself that this was the “right” thing to do, in fact it had come to seem actively harmful.

Doubt #2 was how little Corporate Feminism was appreciated. Increased focus on “diversity” had mostly resulted in people asking me to do more stuff, but far from that it being appreciated I was mostly under pressure to say no more, and a nice no (suggesting an alternative person etc) is not zero overhead. I think people assume that this stuff is appreciated, that the Corporate Feminists get some kind of benefit or recognition from it, but in my experience that has usually been wrong (sometimes I have not even received a “thank you” from the asker, which did at least make it easy to ignore subsequent requests from them). I could count on one hand the benefits I received from my leadership in Corporate Feminism. I could not begin to count the hours I have spent on it.

Then, doubt #3. I believe that the best thing any of us can do as minorities in the tech industry to further the cause of minorities in the industry is to be excellent at, and happy in our jobs. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, as they say, and one of the most discouraging things for me was how few women I saw for whom this was the case. I asked myself, was Corporate Feminism a way to feel like I was doing something “meaningful”, and should I rather be looking for that in my day-to-day? Was it a way to dispel my “leadership” energy, which I felt was discouraged from channelling as a Software Engineer on that team?

A benefit to quitting Corporate Feminism was that it became easier to hide diversity work from my colleagues. The thing about spending time on any work thing that is not your core work, is that people will assume that it detracts from your day-to-day. If you do an event on a Wednesday and then work Saturday to catch up, people won’t notice you worked Saturday, but will notice that you weren’t at your desk Wednesday. Once I turned my focus externally, that was no longer an issue.

The other benefit was that I got to be more intentional about what I did want to do. For me, that meant 2 things:

  1. Support the women who are still here. Mentor more actively, this includes women running pipeline events (from a slightly different perspective, my focus is helping them not supporting the event).
  2. Be a more visible technical woman externally: speak at conferences, write more.

Like I said, none of us do this for the appreciation. That being said, I found when I went and focused intentionally with what aligned with my values the more that I felt what I did was appreciated. Every nice tweet, comment, email on my writing or speaking has contributed to this, so thank-you. It also influenced me to be better at reaching out, not just responding when women sought me out. It’s far better than when Corporate Feminism and The Need To Fill The Pipeline had me “mentoring” so many interns I couldn’t keep their names straight (is that really mentoring at all?)

I hope my experience is not the norm, and that the minorities who take on much of the Pipeline work that appears to be the extent of diversity work in the tech industry are appreciated and rewarded for their efforts. Some questions to consider:

  1. How hard is it to get funding for retention-driven initiatives? How does this compare to getting funding for pipeline initiatives?
  2. Is leadership in diversity initiatives recognised? E.g. is a diversity talk on interviews recognised in the same way that any other recruitment based work recognised? Is leadership of a diversity event recognised as leadership in general? Like many things done mostly by women (e.g. taking notes, organising), Corporate Feminism often falls into the category of “Thankless Emotional Labour”.
  3. Is the organisation a “pipeline” organisation? E.g. only discusses the pipeline as a reason for lack of minorities, does not address internal cultural issues?

If the answer to these questions is not encouraging, and you decide to quit Corporate Feminism too, some suggestions:

  • Support external organisations. As a bonus, this will often help raise your profile and build your network outside of your current company, which can be helpful if you later decide you want a change.
  • Mentor, or even better sponsor, other minorities.
  • Share your own stories, and hard won wisdom. If you don’t want to, or feel safe, doing that under your own name currently, there are options (feel free to email me if this is a concern).
  • An awesome side project that you can write or speak about (seriously, seeing other women doing awesome technical things makes my day).
  • Just stop. Do your job. Enjoy your non-work life. Free yourself from the obligation to fix this, nothing will change until the experience changes, and focus on the pipeline is not the way that will happen.

Finally, as with most challenges that women face in the tech industry, other minorities face similar issues with compound effects. E.g. black women as “multi-norities” may feel pressured to practice Corporate Feminism as well as supporting efforts to improve racial diversity.

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