Why First-World Feminism Just Isn’t Enough
This fight has to go beyond the pay gap in Hollywood or on Wall Street, or even a few generational divisions—social entrepreneur Leila Janah lays out what's really at stake here.
My mom was a ‘70s-era feminist, frustrated by the misogyny she lived with growing up in postcolonial India. For her, rebelling against that meant dressing me in boys’ clothes, handing me toy cars to play with instead of dolls, and cutting her hair short. This was a time when some women felt the pendulum needed to swing as far from feminine stereotypes as possible for people to really get what feminism was all about.
Millennials see things differently; some of us rebelled against our mothers by embracing all things girly. I played house with my toy cars (there was a Mommy Truck and a Daddy Truck and a little house under my bed), became a cheerleader, and took up ballet. But I also had the freedom to do what I pleased academically. Thanks to my mother's generation of activists, it didn't occur to me not to apply to a math and science high school and, later, to move to Silicon Valley to start a tech company. At the age of 13, I felt confident that she was mistaken, that she'd been scarred from growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and that in reality I had every possibility that a man did, as I chased my dreams.
And then, of course, reality set in. As I grew older and began traveling and working as an entrepreneur, edging up against the reality of a dramatically unequal system, this illusion wore thin.
It’s easy to mistake outward symbols as the movement's litmus test for progress or a lack thereof. I hated my mother’s feminism because I felt it denied me my girlhood. But I was seeing the world through too narrow a lens back then. It took me some time (and experience) to see that none of her personal preferences, or mine, really mattered. In reality, there was another, much bigger problem that most American girls are happily insulated from: The fact that most people living in extreme poverty around the world are working women and children. As Melinda Gates reminds us, “poverty is sexist.”
The real battle for equal opportunity isn’t fought in our closets or even in our personal choices, but in the flow of cold, hard cash. If you want to understand what’s really going on in any group of people, look at how the money flows. Budgets are values in action.
And if we view the battle in this way— as a shocking imbalance in who controls the cash, and, therefore, the power — feminism can’t be wholly focused on what we wear, or even what some bad eggs are able to get away with (as in the case of many recent sexual harassment scandals in Silicon Valley). The measure of modern feminism is the massive gap between men and women in wages and assets, a gap that is usually only considered among certain classes, or in certain industries. In the U.S., we’ve seen countless stories on the wage gap in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, and on Wall Street. These are all extremely high-earning fields and it’s not a coincidence that it is where the spotlight shines. And, when we don’t break out income disparity among Hispanic or Black women, we arrive at the much quoted stat that we all know by heart: Women still earn 80 cents for every dollar a man makes in this country.
This fact doesn’t make me that upset anymore, because it's not as big a differential as the ones other women experience globally. The invisible underclass of women who make the clothes and shoes we wear, the electronics we depend on, and so many other goods and services we depend on in the Western world aren't represented in these statistics—and often, they aren’t represented in our collective consciousness as feminists.
I learned this over the past 18 years, working in developing countries. Before college, I used a scholarship to teach in rural Ghana. In my village, everyone earned less than two dollars a day, and women did most of the work: farming cassava and plantains, caring for homes, selling produce and sundries in the market, fetching water from the local stream, and tending to their children. My village was a living example of the oft-quoted (and disputed) statistic that shocked me most when I began working in international development for a living: A study from the late ‘70s suggests that women do 66% of the world’s work, and yet they earn less than 10% of the income and own fewer than 1% of the assets. I’m not here to debate the methodology of that study, but to say that the assertion at the heart of it is true today in many places outside the U.S.
I used to think the best way to fight this problem was by fighting for human rights. Changing the law, I assumed, was the best way to enfranchise these women who’d been systematically told they were worthless. In 2002, I traveled to Rwanda with a team of students from Harvard to study how the court system there was dealing with all the perpetrators of Rwanda’s tragic genocide, who were languishing in jails with no hope of trial. As part of our study, we met with victims’ groups. I remember one weary-eyed woman I spoke with in Kigali. Her head had a giant machete scar across it, and the way she looked at me made it clear that she was skeptical of foreign academics in her country. I asked her what she thought of the Rwandan justice system, being a victim of such a horrific tragedy. She replied, with a weary look, that she didn’t have time to think about the Rwandan justice system because she was too busy trying to find work to feed her children.
I felt instantly stupid. How could I have missed the headline, getting so caught up in our academic research? Over the years, this message become more and more clear to me: Living-wage work is power, especially for poor women. Work translates to income, and meaningful income is what the women of the world need more than aid, more than rights on paper, and more than feminist symbols.
I met Martha Kerubo when she was about 19, just after she'd aged out of the orphanage she'd called home in Nairobi, Kenya. Martha joined our computer training program at Samasource on a whim, recommended by one of her teachers. At that time, she was painfully shy, dressing in baggy clothes and speaking no louder than a whisper. She'd lived in a dangerous slum all her life, hiding her natural beauty in fear that she'd be singled out and abused.
Many women in Martha's situation end up going into prostitution, because there are shockingly few good jobs for young, disadvantaged women in a poor African capital. But Martha triumphed in our course, and became one of our top data entry agents. Over the next five years, she progressed steadily, moving into her own apartment, building a network of friends and colleagues, and eventually leaving Samasource to join the marketing department of a travel company in Nairobi. I last saw her at a company offsite, where she showed up in a red sheath dress and stood tall. She'd been transformed. Dignified work had changed her life.
Just before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. famously argued that civil rights meant nothing without economic justice — that it would take employment and income to really change the tide for the nation’s people of color. The same is true for the women of the world. We have to look beyond the horizon of first-world feminism and improve the earnings of the poorest women — not just Hollywood stars and corporate tycoons. And the most powerful way to improve women's earnings is to give them work. This is the subject of Give Work, which summarizes nearly two decades of my experience working with women in developing countries.
We shouldn't do this just for women, we should do this to fight poverty more broadly. Women are known to invest 90 percent of their incomes on their families—paying for school fees, health care, safe housing, and food. So it follows that giving work to women at the bottom of the pyramid is the best aid program in the world.
It's time to end the era of first-world feminism. Women like Martha are not sad victims who need our charity. They are our sisters, and they deserve the protection and the privileges of Western feminism. This is not an “either-or” conversation. We can address the gender pay gap here in the U.S. and address the global wealth gap between those of us lucky enough to be born in wealthy countries and those who are forced to live in a state of avoidable suffering due to poverty. Dignified, living wage work is the answer for all of us.
Leila Janah is an entrepreneur and advocate for social change. She’s the founder and CEO of Samasource, a social business that uses technology to give marginalized populations access to dignified work and job training; and LXMI, a social-impact focused luxury beauty brand dedicated to rare and wild ingredients. Her book, Give Work: Reversing Poverty One Job At A Time, is available for pre-order now, and hits (physical and digital) bookshelves on Tuesday, September 26.
Words: Leila Janah