Can corporate feminism help all working women?

The push for women-friendly workplaces and policies has focused largely on individual personalities, like Ivanka Trump and Sheryl Sandberg, as well as those at the top of the corporate ladder. But that is changing.

Michael Sohn/AP
Stephanie Bschorr, president of the Association of German Female Entrepreneurs; Ivanka Trump, daughter and adviser of US President Trump; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and Dutch Queen Maxima, from left, arrive for the W20 Summit in Berlin April 25. The conference aims at building support for investment in women's economic empowerment programs.

Is the right way to build a female-friendly workplace really from the top down?

Headlines and corporate discussions about working women typically focus at the top: statistics about female CEOs, the number of women on Forbes’ billionaires list, profiles of individual icons like Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg of “Lean In” fame and Ivanka Trump, whose “Women who Work” brand includes self-help books and a fashion line.

Individuals like Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Trump do bring greater visibility to the obstacles working women of all stripes face, says Julia Beck, a marketing strategist and founder of the It's Working Project. “This issue remaining in the headlines does move the dialogue forward, and both are presenting a level of optimism” that they can be solved, she says.

“But are either of them creating something realistic for a large swath of the population?" she asks. "We don’t want a place where most women don’t feel included in that conversation.”

On Tuesday, Trump joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the W20 Summit in Berlin, as part of a panel conversation on Women’s Empowerment and Leadership. She was booed for defending her father’s treatment of women. But aside from President Trump's past indecorous remarks, the event is in keeping with the theme of Ivanka Trump’s work within her father’s White House so far, and her personal brand before that: a conversation on women’s empowerment, held by and largely concerning women with a lot of power. The panel’s other participants included Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, Christine LaGarde of the International Monetary Fund, and Bank of America vice chairman Anne Finucane, among others.

Critics say the attention on the needs of women, and particularly mothers, who are already in the upper echelons of power ignores more serious problems faced by the vast majority of low- and middle-income working women. Announcements of increasingly generous parental leave policies for high-skilled employees at companies like Google and Etsy don’t trickle down to, say, the people working in warehouses for Amazon or on the floor at Wal-Mart. But a growing number of companies – from stalwarts such as Campbell Soup to start-ups like Birchbox – are taking a more comprehensive look at their policies.

“It’s important that good policies and practices aren’t reserved for professional staff,” says Dina Bakst, a women’s rights attorney and founder of A Better Balance, a legal advocacy organization based in New York.

There are women “who are one sick child away from losing their job, or one complicated pregnancy away from homelessness,” she says. “We want to improve corporate policies, yes, but we also need to address the barriers that hold all women back.”

That can’t be done by relying on a few high-profile CEOS to change conditions for all women. For one, a female CEO  and generous benefits do not automatically equal a family-friendly work culture, as employees at Yahoo can attest. Sandberg, who changed bereavement policies at Facebook after losing her spouse, has acknowledged that it took personal experience for her to more fully understand the challenges some of her employees were going through.

“There’s a famous story where Sheryl Sandberg went into her manager’s office at Facebook and demanded pregnancy parking,” Ms. Bakst says. “That’s great, but the reality is, we have pregnant clients who can’t carry a water bottle on the job and are hospitalized for dehydration, or are not allowed to take bathroom breaks.”

But the focus on elite professional women is not without its benefits, experts say. “The thinking is that getting women into top positions can’t be separated from making the workplace more welcoming to parents at all levels,” says Krista Carothers, the executive research director of Working Mother magazine, in an email. The publication curates an annual list of major companies with family-friendly policies. “They can't develop a pipeline of female talent to move into executive roles if their women employees drop out at mid-level or have to turn down challenging projects.”

Hollow values?

In addition to being limited, that kind of top-down corporate feminism can ring hollow when the image doesn’t match up with a company’s practices. In March, Mira Agrawal, the founder and CEO of underwear company Thinx, faced allegations of sexually harassing, underpaying, and offering scant benefits packages to female staffers, despite the company’s message of female empowerment and Ms. Agrawal’s fraught emergence as a feminist role model.

Trump’s company (from which she has given up a more active role and taken up an unpaid post in her father’s administration) does offer its corporate employees paid parental leave, but G-III, the company that licenses her fashion line, does not. Additionally, the maternity leave plan Ivanka Trump championed during the presidential election was roundly criticized: first, for being designed as an income tax credit for new mothers, meaning the burden of child care was placed squarely on women; and secondly, because there was no benefit for lower-income families who paid no income tax and were most likely to need financial help with child care.

“Ivanka Trump talks about ‘maternity leave,’ and that would be terrible,” Bakst says. “Mommy policies risk encouraging discrimination.” What’s better, she says, are policies are that apply neutrally to all parents, regardless of gender.

What’s being done

Some companies have tackled the challenge of keeping women of all economic levels attached to the workforce – making it easier for women with changes big and small like affordable childcare, flexible hours, and paid leave policies accessible to rank and file employees – not just those in the C-suite.

For example, some firms, including makeup subscription company Birchbox and eyeglasses startup Warby Parker, don’t allow meetings to start before 9:30 a.m. or after 4:30 p.m., so childcare pickup and drop-off schedules aren’t affected. More predictable scheduling practices for hourly workers, including the phasing out of so-called “on-call scheduling,” have been instituted at many retail and restaurant chains, prompted by legislative pressure from state and local governments.

Extending parental leave benefits to hourly employees is still rare (only 12 percent of private sector workers in the United States have access, according to the Department of Labor), but it’s gaining traction. Companies including IKEA, Netflix, and Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group now do so. Some companies go even further, financially: Campbell Soup Company offers onsite, subsidized day care to employees at its headquarters in Camden, N.J., as well as emergency babysitting services.  

Even Trump’s approach has evolved in recent months. According to The New York Times, Trump administration officials are at least weighing a parental leave plan that could include all birth and adoptive parents, and a childcare tax credit that would be refundable for low-income workers – addressing two major criticisms of the Trump campaign’s initial plan.

The legislative piece of it is crucial, Bakst says, whether or not it comes from the White House. “Workers shouldn’t have to depend on hitting the [employer] jackpot,” she says. She applauds the expansion of paid sick-time laws in several states in recent years, as well as a New York state policy, taking effect in 2018, that extends 12 weeks of paid family leave to all workers.

“Our policies are stuck in a very different world,” she says. “When you allow the policies to catch up, then we can get to the conversation around quality of life” that is the focus of the Trumps and Sandbergs of the world. “Too many workers aren’t able even to get to that question.”

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