Listening today to an episode of The Takeaway from a few weeks ago (7/6/2020), and I was struck by the final segment, in which Tanzina Vega interviews Amanda Mull about her research into the #GirlBoss moment in American culture.
Mull states as clearly—and frankly sympathetically—as I’ve ever heard it, why it’s important to have representation in positions of authority. In what seems at first to be a sideline conversation, Mull acknowledges (starting at 5:53) that much of the momentum of radical achievements can be lost once the process of living that new reality gets underway within a company. When she and Vega stick with this thread, it leads to Mull absolutely nailing it (starting at 7:47):
“When you enter into a system that incentivizes abuses, and incentivizes inequality, and incentivizes you to pay people as little as possible and get as much work out of them as possible, in order to satisfy your own goals and to satisfy the goals of your investors and your other executives, you’re often going to end up making the same decisions that would be made by the CEOs that you defined yourself in opposition to when you started your company, which I think is just another illustration of the fact that it’s the system itself that sets people up to be mistreated in these workplaces.”
Vega summons Cheryl Sandburg’s Lean In and asks, “is there a role for corporate feminism going forward?” Mull responds no because those efforts tend to “monopolize some of the existing cultural conversation and the existing cultural momentum in order to shore up their own business,” rather than authentically “ceding power to people outside of the power structure that they exist in.”
So, when a corporation appropriates a movement for its own marketing, the structures aren’t necessarily there to withstand the daily pressures confronting its business. The tendency is to call upon “tried and true” strategies to address problems, leading to a slow erosion of the principled stance and a reversion over time to the mean. Rather, Mull indicates, meaningful change will only come from truly outside voices. Nominating people who represent a minority group but have risen in the ranks by playing by the rules is not a recipe for changing the systems of power. These exceptional individuals may serve a symbolic role—and they may even inspire younger generations of underrepresented groups—but their individual achievement is less likely to effect systemic change.
Mull is sympathetic to those exceptional individuals who appeared as revolutionaries but turned out to be run-of-the-mill bosses, and her truth puts the charge on all of us. If we truly think things need to change then the way these leaders are selected to attain power needs to change. We need to look outside our own ranks to find folks who will, in turn, look outside our “old bag of tricks” to find the means to forge a new path forward.