Are women still unsexed by power?


A few years ago, I conducted a study of young women who worked in a male dominated environment. You might say it was the male dominated work environment: the Wall Street trading floor. Apart from football and the Special Forces, it doesn’t get more male dominated than the jostling, trash-talking, high-stakes, money-swapping that is sales and trading at a Wall Street firm.

I spoke at length to nearly twenty women between the ages of 21 and 27 about what it was like to be young and female in such a notoriously macho workplace (I wanted to speak to more than twenty, but they were pretty damn hard to find. I might have had better luck interviewing twenty endangered snow leopards).

It all started when I had dinner with a college friend who was a few years older than me, She’d already graduated and was working on the trading floor at one of these big banks. She and her boyfriend had recently marked an anniversary, and he had wanted to send her a bunch of flowers. Jasmine – not her real name, but definitely her favourite Disney princess – was horrified. “You do not get flowers on the trading floor,” she told me. “I would never live it down. I told him to send them to my apartment or not at all.”

I was curious: what was the big deal about receiving a bunch of flowers at work? Working on the trading floor, Jasmine explained to me, is “like an exercise in how not to act like a girl. You don’t cry, you don’t talk about girly stuff, and it behooves you to know as much as you can about sports.” And you sure as hell do not draw attention to that fact that you’re a woman by signing for a bouquet of lilies.


As I conducted the study over the course of a year, I heard these ideas repeated over and over again. Every single one of these women had ways in which they tried to seem less feminine, in order to survive in so masculine an environment. In sociology, it’s called managing the performance of gender. Sometimes it’s about the emotions you’re allowed to show; as Jasmine said, there’s no crying in commodities trading. Sometimes it’s about the clothes you wear: one woman told me that if she wore a skirt or a dress on one day, she made certain to wear pants the next. Sometimes it means ignoring or explaining sexual harassment, like the woman who told me that she didn’t report the man who was very much her senior, and old enough to be her father, when winked at her and called her “sweetie” and “honey,” because “he’s old-school” and “didn’t start his career in the P.C. generation.” They weren’t aping masculinity – they weren’t, for example, wearing boxy suits and ties like the very first women who worked in this environment. They couldn’t hide the fact that they were female, but they could deliberate suppressing their femininity. They were unsexing themselves, creating a new gender that Jasmine had dubbed “a dude in heels.” In a workplace where success, power, and masculinity were all synonymous, they didn’t really have a choice.

“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.

Literature’s most famous attempt at unsexing happens, of course, in Mac – er, in the Scottish Play. Told that the current King is going to be staying in her castle, and knowing that her husband is destined to be the next King, Mrs. M (sorry, old theatre habits die hard) worries that Mr. M doesn’t have the balls to wield the regicidal dagger himself. So she calls on dark spirits to grant her the balls to do it. She wants to be made bold and guiltless – masculine – so that she can do the deed. “Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall,” she demands. Dark spirits or no, by the time the sun comes up the next day, the King is dead, and his guards have been framed for the murder – all Mr. and Mrs. M’s doing. To wield “real” power, Mrs. M has to give up her femininity and become something other than a woman, a monstrous subversion of the natural order that allows her to commit bloody crimes against the crown.

I want to be clear that I am not, in any way, comparing Wall Street trading or corporate board membership to regicide. What I’m saying is that our ideas about what it means to be powerful and our ideas about what it means to be feminine – ideas that are centuries old – are mutually exclusive. It’s for this reason that women in corporate leadership positions report feeling “damned if they do, doomed if they don’t”: if they act “like women,” they’re considered ineffective leaders, and if they act “like leaders” they’re considered unladylike.

Something’s got to give. Until we develop new terms of power, or a new definition of feminine, women will be stuck performing on this impossible stage. Faking it. Failing at it. And missing out on anniversary flowers.


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