Vice President-elect Kamala Harris — Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group

The leaning Tower of Feminism

You never have to ask anyone permission to lead - Kamala Harris

TL;DR: behavioral and systemic changes are two sides of the feminist coin. Let’s put this debate to rest and work to build a holistic approach instead.

The idea for my company, Toutes Ambitieuses (plug = out of the way) came to me as I was sitting in a meeting room in Gaza City, listening to female entrepreneurs and freelance developers telling me about their difficulties bidding for jobs on freelancing platforms online. They had the skills, having just graduated from Gaza Sky Geeks’ very own code academy. They had the available resources to do the job: a desk, a computer, a good Internet connection and supportive environment within the co-working space. And yet, they were not bidding.

The systemic reasons for them not stepping forward are well-known: it is Gaza after all, where in spite of graduating with post-secondary degrees in the same proportion as men, educated women are more than twice as likely to be unemployed compared with their male peers. But there was also an undeniable truth creeping into consciousness this afternoon during our roundtable. A commonality in our experiences as professional women that transcended geographic, political, cultural and socio-economic specificities and bound us together in a sad sisterhood of missed opportunities. When their male peers were starting to bid for (and win!) gigs online, these smart, persistent and savvy professionals were refraining from even applying — all for the very same reasons my friends and colleagues weren’t applying for promotions back home. To exactly no one’s surprise, the main culprits were: lack of confidence, impostor syndrome and fear of rejection. And on that day in Gaza, I thought: surely if I can work with Gazan colleagues on improving their leadership and attitudes toward self promotion, French women can do the work, too.

Back home, as I set off to battle my own impostor syndrome and layout a plan for this new business idea, I couldn’t shake that nagging feeling that telling women to be ambitious was setting them up for a terrible double bind or worse, failure. Almost ten years after Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told a group of bright young female graduates to lean in during her commencement speech at Barnard and Diplomat Anne-Marie Slaughter provided what was then perceived as an emphatic rebuttal in the Atlantic, here I was, caught in the middle of the “feminist war”, paralyzed by the thought of being a traitor to the cause.

After all, if all women had to do to succeed at work was “lean in”, surely that meant the current workplace allowed them to do so, and everything was fine and dandy, right? Of course, everything was not fine and dandy. The current average gender pay gap of 15% in OECD countries does not go away by women just asking for raises. There is a wealth of research demonstrating the very real socio-economic cost to self-promotion as a woman and the resulting intentional invisibility strategies adopted by so many talented professionals. I could write an entire encyclopedia of data and research ranging from parental leave policies to harassment safeguards in the workplace. The point is: systemic sexism is very real, and we’re not even close to a full reckoning yet.

Was there really a new feminist war, though? And was I really caught in between? There is a long history of fascination with conflicts within the feminist movement. Somehow (and we know exactly how), what can be reasonably expected from any large-scale social and political movement, namely internal debate, rifts or even “inner wars” between generational “waves” seems to turn into a social scientist’s wet dream, conjuring up images of salacious pillow fights between disheveled activists. So maybe I didn’t have to feed into this self-perpetuating imagery of feminists fighting each other. What we are having are debates. Very important ones, ranging from sexuality to gender identity. But there was one we could all now put to rest, and that was the tension between behavioral vs. systemic changes to fight sexism.

The truth is, there’s no choice to make between encouraging women to be bolder and bettering the environment through which they move. Because whether you’re a Gazan developer or a French manager in the tech world, a diplomat or a successful entrepreneur, you’re still having to wrangle centuries of internalized sexism out of your system. No matter how adverse or generous your circumstances are, you still need to unlearn what was seared in the psyche of generations of women before us: you are not worthy, you are less than, you are not free.

Reforming the system and ourselves work hand in hand. To paraphrase the late Justice Ginsburg, our beloved RBG, the feet of our brethren have slowly begun lifting off our necks — but they did leave some marks. Tending to them, healing ourselves and working on our self worth is essential — for our own advancement but also to nurture future RBGs who will, in turn, better the system.

So let’s lean in. Let’s reform. Let’s do it all until we can have it all. Not unlike the majestic oddity that is the Pisa tower, we’re marvelous in our efforts to stand against the odds. And now that our brethren have started lifting up their feet, maybe they can join in, too.