Ivanka Trump's 'Women Who Work' proves you can't empower women without recognizing sexism

Getty Images

"Optimistic, proactive people speak positively of themselves and their capabilities — I can, I plan to, I trust. The opposite — negative people — are swayed by the external and are frequently victims of circumstance."

This is just one of the many bits of advice that Ivanka Trump, fashion and real estate mogul and newly minted White House adviser, offers in her new book Women Who Work

Trump's hypothesis is straightforward: Women can overcome any obstacles in their careers simply by arming themselves with inspirational platitudes and a plucky can-do attitude. 

In Trump's world, you can simply will your success into being. 

Trump's book is nothing short of being 100% on-brand, peddling the "faux-feminism" she's come to be known for. Though she self-identifies as a feminist (albeit extremely hesitantly), her version of empowerment fails to mention the social ill feminists must fight against most fiercely: sexism.

Trump appeared at Berlin's women's empowerment summit in April.Source: Markus Schreiber/AP
Trump appeared at Berlin's women's empowerment summit in April.  Markus Schreiber/AP

The crux of Trump's argument can be found in an early chapter called "Dream Big." In it, Trump relies heavily on the wisdom of Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Trump, quoting Covey, writes, "Your life doesn't just 'happen.' Whether you know it or not, it is carefully designed by you. The choices, after all, are yours. You choose happiness. You choose sadness ... You choose success. You choose failure." 

Trump reiterates, "You choose." 

But if you examine the facts, Trump's suggestion that any woman could transform her work life with just a few smart choices is as insulting as it is unrealistic.

While there are more women in the workforce than ever, women are still shut out of male-dominated industries in droves. You'd be loath to find a female CEO leading a Fortune 500 company. And in 2016 white women made 82 cents of what men did in the same year, with black and Latina women earning frighteningly less.

Demonstrators in Berlin gathered to protest Trump's visit in April.Source: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Demonstrators in Berlin gathered to protest Trump's visit in April.  Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Trump's other tips for women are just as ill-conceived. 

In a section advising women on how to be good managers, Trump reminds readers they can be "kind and still be effective." She advocates for treating employees with care and respect, and suggests a default sunny disposition. Trump writes that it's OK if you're not "naturally a nice person," no need to fake it. After all, she says, Steve Jobs wasn't known for being particularly warm, and he fared just fine. 

This isn't bad advice. Trump isn't asking for forced smiles or fake pleasantries — she's suggesting women find what works best for them. What she fails to mention, however, is the social consequences for women who are just as aggressive, ambitious or unapologetic as their male colleagues.

"As women who work, we must change this reality."

Trump also cites a statistic that says men apply to jobs they're only 60% sure they're qualified for, while women wait until they're 100% certain they're qualified before applying. Trump calls on women to "change this reality" by pushing themselves out of their comfort zone and reaching out to recruiters. And regarding the infamous statistic that only 7% of women negotiate their starting salaries, Trump writes, "The fact is, you can negotiate your salary — without playing hardball — all the while inspiring other women who work to also advocate for themselves." 

For women living outside Trump's fantasy world, these "simple" strategies are a lot more difficult. Sexism impedes women who work in countless ways, and Trump's new book seems to willfully ignore all of them. 

Trump and her husband Jared Kushner make their way to the White House Rose Garden for an April press conference.Source: Andrew Harnik/AP
Trump and her husband Jared Kushner make their way to the White House Rose Garden for an April press conference.  Andrew Harnik/AP

On the flip side, feminist author Jill Filipovic confronts these glaring barriers head-on in The H-Spot, another book that wrestles with, among other things, women in the workplace, released on the same day as Trump's.

Filipovic's mission is similar to Trump's, seeking answers for how to improve women's lives. But unlike Trump, Filipovic tackles women's inequality in the workplace by advocating for a feminist movement fighting against that inequality's root cause.

"In the face of inhospitable workplace policies and a political climate often outright hostile to the interests of working women, problems that are in fact political are reframed as individual," Filipovic writes.

"We hear that women with children can simply make choices about whether to work or stay home, that each family's decision is personal, that what matters is 'balance' — and yet somehow it's always women charged with doing the balancing, and women who are hurt when they fall off the tightrope."

Filipovic thoroughly examines all of the different factors working against working women: The fact that women are more likely to work in care professions, which pay less by virtue of being perceived as feminine work; the expectation that mothers should sacrifice their career aspirations to stay home with their children in lieu of men; the wage gap; the hardships of low-income women with no choice but to enter the workforce; and the role birth control played in giving women access to career aspirations.

In a single chapter, Filipovic creates an accurate and complex portrait of the struggles facing working women — and the collective effort necessary to remedy them — than Trump does in an entire book.

Jill Filipovic, author of 'The H-Spot'Source: Kris Connor/Getty Images
Jill Filipovic, author of 'The H-Spot'  Kris Connor/Getty Images

If nothing else, holding Filipovic's work up next to Trump's illuminates how thin Women Who Work is, in both content and substanceand how intent Trump is on selling a watered-down version of women's empowerment to readers without any context, analysis or proof. 

And because Trump's manifesto for women in the workplace is so devoid of any rigorous critique of institutional inequality, Women Who Work does nothing to challenge the status quo. Any woman who follows Trump's advice would quickly find herself walking the same impossible tightrope Filipovic mentions in The H-Spot.

For Trump, being a career woman is fine if she's always home to put her children to bed at night; she can tout her ambition so long as she says she's a "wife and mother first." These caveats are what makes Trump's limp take on lean-in feminism palatable to her father and his cohorts. In the first daughter's version, women can advance while men preserve their prescriptions of masculinity.

Encouraging women to be themselves at work, pushing them to be more confident in their talents and emboldening them to negotiate their pay are all positive things. However, by ignoring the mechanisms in place that hold women back, Trump turns her book into a collection of cheerful aphorisms, worthy of Pinterest boards or inspirational posters, not a book representative of real working women's plight.