Why are we afraid to call ourselves feminists at work? Olivia Knight explores the reactions to her decision to use the f-word
It was day one. I’d recruited a small team of women to help me launch my business and during our first lunchtime chat we discovered that we were all proud feminists. So that afternoon I decided on the perfect welcome gift – a gold name necklace with ‘feminist’ on it.
We wear our necklaces every day and we love the conversations they start with curious commuters, people in the pub and strangers in the street. It’s reassuring to know that most people you meet – when you get down to basics – share the simple belief that men and women are equal and should be treated as such.
So what has come as a shock is just how much fear my feminist necklace has stirred up in the boardroom.
We’re a startup working out of a small studio. But I’ve had business acquaintances, PR people and even one of our own investors warn me that “being openly feminist” could be “damaging” to our brand and business.
A bit like I’m admitting I’m a cannibal.
So what’s so scary? Surely being a female business leader and a feminist go hand in hand? What’s so wrong with using the f-word?
A lot, apparently.
Whilst the media, politics and pop-culture have recently begun to re-explore the meaning and value of feminism today – with campaigners, girl guides and celebrities choosing to embrace the label and the cause – it seems that in business, women are not supposed to bring their beliefs to the table.
We are accepted, and indeed celebrated, as individuals – as long as we are grateful. We can share a collective identity with other women in business, but only if we adopt one of three acceptable identities. These are easy to recognise, because each stereotype has a handy hashtag.
So you can be a #womanintech – a single, science girl-geek. You can be a #careerwoman – a power-dressing, childless boardroom boss. Or you can be #mumpreneur – a cereal soaked, multi-tasking, mum of three running a business after bedtime.
As a mother of two who has started a new career running a tech business, I’ve used all three hashtags quite often. They’re a useful shortcut to meeting women who share your experience and finding news and stories relevant to you. But of course, like all stereotypes, they also exaggerate our differences and divide us.
I’d like to connect with women not just because we share the same circumstances but because we share the same principles. So I looked up #feministinbusiness on twitter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it doesn’t exist. Maybe, like my necklace in the boardroom, it suggests a double dose of female power that’s just too threatening.
Because of course the fear of the feminist in the boardroom is that she’ll want to start changing things – not just for herself, but for other women too. She’ll not only break the glass ceiling, she’ll install a ladder and hold it steady while a load of other women climb up.
As a feminist and a woman in leadership, I believe this should be exactly our ambition.
Women in business have already achieved so much, but there is still vast inequality in the workplace and this needs to change. The business world shouldn’t fear this.
As Alice Taylor, founder of Makielab has said: “Business does better when there’s diversity in the workforce, and that’s statistically proven, a fact.” So let’s wear our feminism with pride, let’s face the fear and embrace the challenge. As Alice says, “Let’s go with the facts, and make better businesses”.
Olivia Knight is founder of Patchwork Present
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