Why white feminism is doing more harm than good in the workplace
Updated: Aug 30
Gender equality is an ongoing battle in the workforce and while the focus of this movement in the media has been dismantling the patriarchy, which has become a new buzzword and topic of discussion and analysis in movies like Barbie, one crucial dilemma that has been forgotten in the struggle for racial and gender equality is white feminism.
As a Gen Z Black woman in the early stages of her career, I like many, entered the workforce during ‘unprecedented times’ and experienced a host of new challenges in the workplace while trying to find my place. As I tried to find my path and progress in my career from internships to eventually a full-time job I noticed a recurring factor: the biggest hurdle that I faced in my career was actually not the direct patriarchy as I had thought (although that’s a challenge as well) it was actually white feminism.
I found that 9 times out of 10 the situations where I found myself constantly explaining myself or justifying my self-worth as a team member was with other women. It caused me to feel quite conflicted because these were the same women in positions of leadership who rallied for sorority and women empowerment, but during one-on-one meetings, I was consistently held to a higher standard than that of my white male counterparts. I asked myself ‘How could this be?’ We both discuss the same challenges around women empowerment in the workplace, but yet it feels like my female superior is actually perpetuating the very concept we ‘brainstorm’ about as a company on how to thwart.
It then dawned on me- this is a clear example of white feminism.
What is white feminism exactly? Since the suffragette movement in the 19th and 20th centuries all the way to the 1960s and ‘70s liberation movements the shared goal was gender equality; however, later both of these movements have come under scrutiny for silencing of the voices and experiences of Black women. Another issue that has been brought to the forefront is that the salons and spaces where these movements were conceived and made possible were, in some part, fueled by white women’s proximity to power. Because the spouses of white women were often white men, they were afforded the luxury of still benefiting from the patriarchy because their partners were the ones in power.
This isn’t to blame white women for this privilege, but it is crucial to factor in when looking at the disproportionate risk at the time between white women and black and brown women in this movement. One group was able to retire to homes where their partners were situated in a position of power while others returned to households where their counterparts were victims of racial marginalization rather than acting as powerful members of society.
Fast forward to today where we are fighting a different battle for gender equality, but a battle nonetheless. What does white feminism mean today? First of all, white feminism is not exclusively supported by white women nor does it mean all white women are necessarily supportive of the “white feminism” sect of feminism. It refers to individuals supporting blanket feminism that ignores the intersectionality of feminism and the unique issues of race, class and sexuality within feminism. Instead, white feminism focuses primarily on middle-class women and prioritizes the issues that accompany this demographic. It’s often coined as “girlboss” feminism where empowerment stems from capitalist means.
“Critics argue that white feminism, on its best day, is also highly problematic because it allows white women to adopt anti-racist perspectives and to denounce white male supremacy, which is great. But while doing so, they further distance themselves from the power that they benefit from by placing full culpability onto White men,” Forbes writes.
So how does this present itself in the workplace? Well, we’re still seeing the ramifications of gender inequality in the workplace, but more specifically how women of color are disproportionately impacted. The layoffs in 2020 due to COVID-19 caused more than 12.2 million women to lose their jobs, with Black women’s unemployment rate 1.5 times higher than that of white women’s and Latinx job loss rate being 1.6 times higher than their white counterparts.
Even with employment back on the rise in 2023, disproportionate pay gaps persist with women as a whole earning 82 cents on the dollar for what a man makes. Black women made 58% of what white men were paid in 2020 and Latinas were compensated at just 54% of what white men were paid in 2021, as cited by Forbes.
With these numbers, we can see clearly that sexism and racism are easily intertwined, which is why intersectionality within feminism simply cannot be ignored. As a Black woman, this topic really speaks to me and has caused me to take a look at my own experience in the workforce.
Although I work in France, I’ve experienced many of the same issues faced in the US. While I can’t speak for others, I’ve consulted many other women of color I know in various positions both in and outside of corporate America and they have corroborated the same sentiment I had: that the patriarchy is being perpetuated by white feminism.
One of the most powerful ways to circumvent culpability is to provide clear evidence that you are not the problem and this is what companies are doing by proclaiming high Diversity and inclusion rates with positions in middle management being filled by nearly exclusively white women. By using this veil of sorority and feminism, it allows companies to continue business as usual and boast that controversial decisions are not taken by white men, but by white women who are actors of the feminist movement- not stipulating which one.