I have a piece at Daily Life today, about whether power and femininity are mutually exclusive. I call on the research I did for my undergraduate thesis at Princeton, about young women working on Wall Street trading floors.
“Women have all the power in the world,” a new acquaintance recently told me. “Because men want to have sex with them, and women can get men to do whatever they want if they promise or withhold sex.” As I gently but firmly told him, that is… what is the word I’m looking for? Ah yes, bullshit. That is bullshit. First of all, that kind of power, thanks to our culture’s rigid ideas of what’s sexy, is one that’s available to very few women. And even the women who have it find that it expires as they age because, again, that narrow definition of sexiness dictates that older women can rarely be sexy. That power, to use the promise of sex to get what you want from men, is a power granted to women by men, and it can be taken away awfully easily. And as for withholding sex to get what you want from men, I think we’ve all read enough rape statistics to know that if a man wants to put his penis in something badly enough, he will do it. That form of power has limited uses beyond the pages of Lysistrata.
For now, the kind of power that counts – the kind that runs companies and countries – is the masculine form of power, not the sexy, feminine kind. It’s the Wall Street kind of power, and what we know about women who wield that kind of power, or aspire to, is that they often have to sacrifice their femininity to do it.
We know that women who want to get ahead in the corporate world feel pressure to downplay their femininity – they deliberately don’t display photos of their kids in their offices or don’t befriend their women colleagues. We know that once they get into positions of power, that pressure continues – they deliberately avoid tackling parental leave policy or shy away from identifying as feminists. To get to the top, and to stay on top, they have to unsex themselves. Of course, femininity is a fluid concept, and one that’s often forced on women. We’re socialised from an early age to, say, appreciate a nice bunch of flowers, and it’s frowned on if we don’t. And then, if we want certain kinds of careers, certain kinds of power, we have to mask that learned appreciation. It’s complicated, and exhausting, and easy to screw up. There’s a reason why they call gender a performance.
You can read the whole thing – including some more findings from my thesis – here.