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Updated: Aug 28, 2022

I must credit my colleague/collaborator Dr Jane Horan for coming up with this nomenclature. I met Jane almost a decade ago whilst I was studying for my Gender Studies degree; she was my lecturer for the ‘Anthropological Perspectives on Gender’ paper. I was a mature student and she was having hot flushes. Perhaps it was predictable that we would end up working together. The difference was that she had observed this women-who-play-by-the-rules-of-the-patriarchy phenomenon, while I had lived it.

Women-who-play-by-the-rules-of-the-patriarchy is a category of women. In a neoliberal capitalist context, one might venture it is a ‘market segment’ or even a ‘target audience’. Jane was always banging on about neoliberalism, which figures as she was a university lecturer and I suspected was of the Marxist variety. “God, calm down”, I thought. “Capitalism isn’t so bad; it’s taken a lot of people out of poverty don’t you know?” However, as I have devoted much of the last decade to studying and consulting around gender issues in the workplace as well as applying this to leadership development, I can now attest that the complexities through which these women are navigating cannot be divorced from neoliberalism.

This term neoliberalism came thundering into global politics in the 1980s as the new improved version of capitalism championed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In New Zealand, a new left-leaning government embraced it with gusto. They created radical market reforms which the media dubbed “Rogernomics”, after the Minister of Finance called Roger. (This made it all seem kind of friendly.) Some of us were young women starting our careers at the same time, so neoliberalism became our social norm. The use of the term patriarchy was being rapidly phased out of the cultural milieu along with the second-wave feminists who had popularised it. The latter were commonly called ‘women’s libbers’ and were unafraid of being unpopular amongst men and some women as they rabble-roused to demand the economic, political and social equality for women. Their approach was to use collective action to get in the way of normal patriarchal processes and to generally disrupt things. "The personal is political" was their mantra. But, this didn’t really resonate with my peers and I who weren't so much politically disempowered as politically disinterested. Politics seemed a little irrelevant to our everyday lives. We had just entered the workplace and simply wanted to get ahead. I was hanging with “yo-pros”; we all had business cards and were more interested in job titles, company cars and pay rises than politics.

Then in 1991, seven years after Rogernomics was invented, a right-leaning government decided to keep the neoliberal ball rolling and introduce a national budget designed to dramatically slash social welfare benefits and the welfare state institutions that had been established in the 1930s. It was so extreme that it was dubbed Ruthanasia after the new Minister of Finance whose name was Ruth.* This was the first sign that perhaps neoliberalism was only friendly to some. We were moving to a ‘user pays’ society and you need money to do that.

I like George Monbiot’s definition of neoliberalism. He’s a British environmental and political writer as well as being a columnist for The Guardian (of course): “Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency”. (Consumers! Buying and Selling! I started my career in advertising so I was made for neoliberalism and vice versa).

Because neoliberalism has two main characteristics - individualism (getting ahead) and competition (getting ahead of other people), it figures that management training and leadership development would thrive in this context. And with more women in the workforce with ambitions being fuelled by promises of money, status, power and glory, it follows that “Women in Leadership” became a burgeoning sub-sector of professional development. After 30 years of climbing ladders, this is where I ended up, supporting other women to do the same thing as I had done.

When I shifted into this space ten years ago, it was simultaneous to pursuing a university degree in women’s studies. My peers and colleagues were both incredulous and derisive when I announced my topic of interest: “Oh you tired old feminist!” said some “God, do universities still offer women’s studies?”,. “Does this mean you’ll stop shaving your legs and go to sit-ins?” said others…. and so on. Luckily, a year or so into my course work, the remit of the whole department broadened to become Gender Studies, I met Jane, and things got more interesting. I was studying gender whilst also leading a large scale women in leadership programme.

I have always considered myself a researcher at heart, so my experiences over the last decade have allowed me to exercise my research chops. I started noticing an interesting pattern in the world around me i.e. many women were looking for some sort of external validation from the same system that disadvantaged them, the patriarchy. Hence they both rail against and unwittingly support discriminatory processes by simply participating in the patriarchy. No wonder so many have felt stuck and exhausted. Let me explain:

Nearly 20 years ago, Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb coined the term “Tiara Syndrome”, to describe the situation where "women expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head”. This of course never happens, but women-who-play-by-the-rules-of-the-patriarchy keep over-efforting to get ahead even to this day. They spend years navigating the system, fiddling with dosages of the masculine and feminine within themselves in order to fit in, ‘playing the game’ either consciously or unconsciously.

Getting ahead in the patriarchy, a traditional masculine domain, does not mean these women can or sometimes want to give up traditional aspects of womanliness. They still take on the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities in their households, are conscious of rapidly shedding their baby weight so they can become a yummy mummy and put in extra hours to voluntarily support extra-curricular activities that go by the name of “women in…” e.g. women in engineering, women in architecture, women in business etc. In fact it seems that on top of their day jobs there is a lot more for women to do than there is for men to get ahead : signing up for specific professional development for women to get ahead, attending conferences and networking groups for women about getting ahead, and reading books and listening to podcasts about women getting ahead. I've had my fair share of all this over the years.

Meanwhile the patriarchy just sits there occasionally cheering on these women-who-play-by-the-rules-of-the-patriarchy as they climb the ladder career in heels with a child on each hip, their gym gear in a backpack. I remember laughing in solidarity with other working mothers about how we became adept at doing makeup hurriedly at traffic lights on the way to work. It never occurred to us that make-up was just one more thing on a to-do list for women. Nor did it occur to us that our male colleagues were not grouped together as ‘working fathers”.

In the east, the Indian Goddess Durga is a symbol of female empowerment.

In the west, this was appropriated to become the symbol of the successful, career-oriented mum who juggled doing it all and being it all.

Importantly, she did this good-naturedly. To complain would be a little old-fashioned and that in itself would kill career prospects. So women rejected the term feminist along with the ‘personal is political’ war cry, preferring mantras such as “girl power”, “you go girl”, “dress for success” which suggested that getting ahead was up to the individual woman. In fact, women could do anything they wanted in this new economic world - they just had to work for it like the next guy.

There is some flattering yet flimsy logic that underpins all of this i.e. women are “amazing” and once they get to the top they will sort things out; things like the patriarchy. After all she is juggling everything else, so smashing the patriarchy is just another item on her to -do list. My friend even bought me this t-shirt:

This assumption is dangerous. Don’t get me wrong - I really want more women leaders. It is my belief that if we did have 50/50 gender ratios in corporate and political leadership globally, the world would indeed be a far better place.

But there is just one problem: thinking that more women at the top will instigate a flow on effect to the other dimensions of diversity and inclusion - namely race/ethnicity is a fallacy i.e The World Economic Forum shows that on a global basis more women at the top does not trickle down to better conditions for women down the food chain**. The WEF’s latest report suggests that it will take 132 years to close the global gender gap. That's an increase of 32 years on their 2020 prediction. Hmmm, so despite more women in leadership, things are getting worse for women.

Why? Because of neoliberalism that drives social inequity. And that Women-who-play-by-the-rules-of-the-patriarchy are overwhelmingly white, is sadly part of the problem. Think of it this way: If you have seen The Handmaid’s Tale, consider it is not Commander Waterford and his mates that keep the whole corrupt system going. It’s actually his wife Serena Joy and her cronies who are happy to rise above women less privileged to maintain status. So it has to be asked - do women-who-play-by-the-rules-of-the-patriarchy want to smash the patriarchy or just have special rights within it?

In my experience, women who identify as ‘women of colour’ have different motivations for smashing the patriarchy. For them, the patriarchy is more about white people than gender and glib references to 'diversity and inclusion' gloss over a stark reality that these figures from the 2019 Power of Inclusion conference in Auckland reveal:

4.5 billion ASIANS

1.5 billion INDIGENOUS

1.1 billion AFRICANS

600 million EUROPEANS

Notice anything?

Of course the idea that the human species is divided into distinct groups on the basis of inherited physical and behavioural differences i.e race, is ridiculous and simplistic…except we do it all the time. Racism is a key factor in patriarchal processes and when gender is viewed through a gender/race/class intersectional lens, 'women of colour' have it worse than everyone, including white women. This is why the old notion of 'sisterhood' is so flawed.

So what on earth might white women-who-play-by-the-rules-of-the-patriarchy do? Do they have to give up their privilege and share it with poorer people who are more likely to be a person of colour? Well it would help... but there is something more fundamental: shift the starting point from gender to classism and inequity. Despite my choice to specifically study gender for the past ten or so years, I am concerned that a sole focus on gender diversity has become a bit of a smokescreen to more insidious processes. (In other words, feminism without an intersectional lens is too singular).

Most of my contemporaries are women-who-play-by-the-rules-of-the-patriarchy to a greater or lesser extent. Most of us have benefitted from neoliberalism and feel self-conscious decrying capitalism as a broad brush policy.

I don’t know how to smash the patriarchy despite the t-shirt. If I did, I would have emailed my friends with instructions. But what I do know is this: a neoliberal approach to capitalism makes matters worse because it’s all about getting ahead.

And the question to ask is: ahead of whom?

**It says that “despite positive progress in the lofty world of leadership” women’s participation in the wider labour market has stalled and financial disparities are increasing. Moreover, any gains made in OECD countries are offset by the deteriorating picture in emerging and developing economies. Despite education attainment as well as health and survival rates getting closer to parity progress, economic participation and opportunity has regressed.

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