The problem with ‘Ted Talk’ feminism


Last week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella mansplained that women have “superpowers” to ensure they are paid what they are worth – as long as they’re good little girls and don’t cause any trouble. Okay, that’s not exactly what he said, but it’s pretty close. The backlash was beautifully swift and fierce. Twitter went wild, columns were penned,  and many spoke out to inform him that despite whatever superpowers we have, women are still paid less than men in every profession, period. Nadella has since apologized.

Despite Nadella’s comments, professional women still seem to have a lot of people looking out for them. Thanks to high-profile women who speak out on female empowerment, such as top Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman and even pop star Beyoncé, women in high-ranking positions have a better arsenal at their disposal when it comes to tackling their next negotiation with a senior male executive. They have been taught to act more like a “boss” and strike power poses to get themselves a seat at the table.

“Professional women have been taught to act more like a “boss” and get a seat at the table. But what about the women waiting tables?”
Krystal Ball and Elizabeth Plank
But what about the women waiting tables? Conversations about personal professional development are utterly irrelevant to the woman trying to put together two or three minimum wage jobs just to survive and who have no power – no matter what pose she strikes. So it was disheartening that while most of the feminist world focused on the ignorant words of the Microsoft exec, a troubling new survey about the status of working women got much less attention.

According to a new report authored by Restaurant Opportunities Center United, the restaurant and service industry – a sector largely made up of female workers – is the “single-largest source of sexual-harassment charges filed by women with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).” Sixty percent of women in the restaurant industry report being harassed, the report said. And that already distressingly high number rises to 90% when you consider just women who are earning the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13. The report makes it abundantly clear that women who earned higher wages were in a stronger position to avoid abusive situations. Women earning that low tipped minimum are relying on the tips of the customers who harass them. But the harassment doesn’t come just from the clients, it often comes from the managers too.

Also last week, the Obama administration quietly broke a promise to home care workers that would have ensured they get paid the federal minimum wage starting January 1st. Let me repeat that: Home care workers do not in many instances even earn the paltry $7.25 minimum wage! More than 90% of the workers caring for the sick and elderly are female (most are women of color), and many of them don’t earn the minimum wage. This will affect millions of women and yet again the story has garnered hardly any attention.

“In an era of rising inequality, feminism will not be relevant to the majority of women unless it provides answers for these women as much as it does the professional corporate climber.”
Minimum wage workers are disproportionately women, and in an era of rising inequality, feminism will not be relevant to the overwhelming majority of women unless it provides answers for these women as much as it does the professional corporate climber.

Linda Tirado, a former waitress and author of “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America” told me, “The sort of feminism that tells us to lean in perfectly complements an age where men tell us to let karma bring us our raises. But it’s about as relevant to your average service worker as the fashions in Vogue and nearly as attainable.”

So much feminist attention is focused on the problem of breaking the glass ceiling and ascending to the highest heights but not nearly as much on the sticky floor that keeps so many women struggling to make ends meet in low-wage service sector jobs. We must do both. The problem is that the conversations about the sticky floor are less comfortable and don’t leave a lot of room for inspirational “go get ‘em” Ted talks. They involve political change, collective action, and a fundamental restructuring of our current power dynamic.

It’s hard work. It’s partisan work. And it’s going to ruffle more than a few corporate feathers. But if you’re not willing to have those conversations, to fight for the woman waiting tables as much as the woman pushing for her seat at the table, then you’re not a feminist, you’re just a gender-specific executive coach.

Krystal Ball is a host on MSNBC’s “The Cycle.” Elizabeth Plank is a senior editor at Mic and a regular guest on MSNBC’s web show, “Krystal Clear” with Krystal Ball.