Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Women and Leadership, Newsweek and Hollywood

By virtue of my affiliation with the Women’s Studies Program at Fordham, I got invited to the Women in Leadership Conference at the Museum of Natural History yesterday morning. It was sponsored by Newsweek and timed to coincide with the publication of their special issue.

I had to teach at 11:30, so I could only attend the first panel. I’d give it a very mixed review indeed. Arriving at the museum itself was exciting. I was marching up Columbus, running a bit late, behind three or four smartly-suited women in their forties. One had a small rollerbag. One was clutching an email with a line or two highlighted, clearly squinting to find the right address. I love that sense that we’re all going to the same place. And we were.

We entered by way of the new auditorium at 79th and Columbus. On the gracious old bricked path sat a new Infiniti. Infiniti was a corporate sponsor. Later, as the panel closed, a woman from Infiniti got up and introduced the new car (They were giving one away.)—the EX. It’s a sweet car. She had a funny term for it: it’s a new luxury crossover... She managed to list these and a couple more adjectives and I kept waiting. I’m teaching freshman writing this semester, so I’m on alert: Where’s the NOUN! Where’s the NOUN?

The crowd was corporate and attractive. Lots of handsome, trim, intelligent-looking women in really nice dark suits. I was too late for coffee, but it was fun to mill about in their midst. There were tons of diversity pamphlets from PriceWaterhouse Cooper, another corporate sponsor. I picked one up. Sad to say, that pamphlet contained some of the clearest feminist statements of the day—about coming out at work, maternity leave policies, the perspective being a minority brings, ambition and gender, and balancing family with career. I think that in Hollywood and academia we pride ourselves on being ahead of the curve socially and we are also averse to bureaucracy so that we often fail to make the structural changes that corporate culture makes. Maternity leave can be better for attorneys than for academics. The corporate world is not angelic—recent lawsuits at Bloomberg and Madison Square Garden, just to name two, remind us that we have a long way to go—but I admire the way that some corporations actively try to write anti-discrimination policies rather than just trusting themselves to be fair, failing to notice that the men have tenure at Ivy League schools and the women are administrators.

Overall, the prevailing lack of feminist consciousness was my big disappointment with the panel. The panelists were Andrea Wong (President and CEO of Lifetime), Mara Brock Akil (creator & executive producer of “Girlfriends” and “The Game” on the CW), Kyra Sedgwick, and Rachael Ray. Cynthia McFadden of Nightline moderated.

McFadden was a disappointingly casual moderator. She opened by asking Andrea Wong if Hollywood was still a boy’s club. Wong seemed thrown by this question and then gave the answer that lots of powerful women give: I just motored through and chose to ignore everything.

It’s a supremely disappointing answer. And she was very disappointing throughout. But what can one expect from the woman who brought Wife Swap and Dancing With the Stars to television? She makes her living on trash and the exploitation of women.

By contrast, Mara Brock Akil was thoughtful and smart: for me, she was the star of the panel. When Wong said, in response to a question about Lifetime’s reputation as a channel for women-as-victims, that she was hoping to make Lifetime into a place of inspiration, Brock Akil just stopped her and expressed her firm disagreement. Women are complex and stories need to be interesting, she reminded everyone. (Stop the presses, I know, but this was a relief after the inanities that preceded it.) She said that as a black woman she sometimes wanted to combat overblown negative stereotypes with emphatically positive ones, but that, instead, she chose to try for a good story, one that depicts black women in their full complexity. I was grateful for a thoughtful answer from a young and powerful woman.

Brock Akil also talked pointed about the hiring process in ways that resonated with my own job. She said that when a new show is going on the air, it gets a greenlight and suddenly there’s a huge scramble to find staff. If you’re in a room full of men, it can happen that all the people they happen to know and can recommend are also all men. So she says her job as a producer is to pause, slow down, and try to think about women and minorities who might be qualified and recruited to apply. I try to think about these issues each fall when I have to hire an adjunct to teach a class that starts—oops—tomorrow.

Rachael Ray was herself—a little annoying, very casual, kind of charming—it’s going to be hard for her to continue her “aw, shucks” routine for much longer. She is clearly an independent woman and a workaholic and, while nervous to appear overtly feminist, she seemed like she had a strong intuitive sense of how to support women and men and their families in the workplace.

Kyra Sedgwick was also terrific—smart and funny and thoughtful about the work/family balance. She seemed to understand acutely the challenges facing female directors in Hollywood. She mentioned four or five, and talked about their struggles to get projects financed.

Unfortunately, McFadden didn’t follow up effectively here: why is the route to becoming a director still so difficult for women? What might women do to ease the path? To her credit, Wong did wake up for a moment to say that she hoped that Lifetime could become a destination for female directors—and stars like Sedgwick—to get projects made that might not get made elsewhere. Sedgwick’s body language clearly expressed that she was happy right where she was, thank you.

In all, this was an interesting diversion—one I’ve clearly spent far too much time thinking about—but a disappointing showing for contemporary mainstream feminism. There was no mention of any of the structural changes that might make work, ambition, and achieving power and influence easier for women, no talk about child care, health care, affirmative action. Everything—and this seems to be a problem about American power—was always pushed back onto the individual: I succeeded because of my brothers, my mother, myself; I now try to mentor others (or not).


Anne Camille said...

Hi Anne. Interesting comments. I'll have to read the Newsweek issue.

Although it's a disappointing answer, I don't find it surprising that so many women attribute their success to their own individual attention to their goals. I think a lot of men would give similar answers. An American 'stick to it' attitude perhaps, one that we claim even when it is only a portion of what contributes to one's success. Where I think this argument fails is that nobody does it on his/her own. Could it be that many women are so unrecognizing about the attributes and choices that made them successful that they don't know how to mentor others?

I've worked for 15 years in a very male-dominated profession (and mostly WASP, at least in my part of the country). On some levels I rarely think of the 'boys club' attitude, but I know that it exists. It's always startling when it comes out of its very subtle habitat to reveal its presence. At times I've benefited from it, in that I was promoted because of an intent, earnest or not, to promote more women. That doesn't mean I wasn't qualified, or that it was easier. Many women that I've worked with think of work as an economic necessity and don't think beyond overtly sexist stereotypes to those more subtle attitudes that prevail. But, I think this ignoring of the situation is why I also know many who refuse to identify themselves as 'feminist'. Many don't know what that means; many don't care because they are content with their economic status and see little benefit to be gained by the label "feminist". If asked by one of them to define it, I'm not sure that I could. But that's a topic that is way too complicated for what has already become too lengthy of a comment.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Cam.

As you can see, I can go on about this, too. I think what you say about individualism in America is right on.

And I share your sense that it's hard to pinpoint the ways in which gender has made a difference in one's career--women dominate English lit--but it does, it has.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comment!