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Demanding Women

A postfeminist how-to.

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The Womenomics rocket ship blasted through town recently, leaving a trail of you-go-girl in its wake. This slim little book, co-authored by Good Morning America correspondent Claire Shipman and BBC World News America anchor Katty Kay, promises on its cover to be a primer for ladies to “write your own rules for success” and discover “How to Stop Juggling and Struggling and Finally Start Living and Working the Way You Really Want.” It arrives blurbed by Diane Sawyer and Tina Brown, with face time on all the talk shows (Charlie Rose described the authors as “these two friends of mine”) and a book party hosted by Diane Von Furstenberg.

So far, the campaign has been a success: The book just debuted at No. 10 on the Times advice best-seller list. But much of the advice on offer seems to be cloaked in a fog of unreality, one that might come from the vantage point of a television celebrity who can get away with what most of us can’t. The gist of Shipman and Kay’s argument is that, because women are so valuable to companies, the time has come for them to start negotiating the terms of their jobs. Want to work four days a week so you can spend more time with your kids? Just march into your boss’s office and say so, as Kay did. Does a promotion scare you because of the increase in hours and responsibility? Just say no! It worked for Shipman.

The bit that’s glossed over is that women still have more serious issues to complain about: The U.S. is one of the only industrialized countries that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave, and women still earn only 77 percent of what men do. Women now receive more college degrees than men—which Kay cites frequently—but there are still only fifteen female Fortune 500 CEOs.

Watching Kay and Shipman making the rounds is frustrating because one wants to believe that they’re right, that after years of pretending to be just like men, women can finally approach their careers the way that suits them. To be fair, their message can serve as a helpful reminder that if women start asking for what they want, especially en masse, they might at least get some of it. But most women can’t afford to take pay cuts in exchange for fewer hours. Every female professional has stories like that of my lawyer friend who informed her boss that she was pregnant and was told, “Well, you won’t be making partner this year.” She feels lucky to have a job at all. The 80-plus women who are part of a suit against Bloomberg L.P. for pregnancy discrimination apparently found that the company became friendlier only after they took it to court. Lesson one of Womenomics may be that for women trying to find empowerment in business, it really helps if you’re already empowered.

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