As a college senior this past fall, I responded to ye-old-frustrating-as-hell question "What are your plans for next year?" with my honest answer: "Becoming a professional feminist." Usually, I received some sort of double-take, nervous laughter, or a "No, but really."
But really, the world needs professional feminists. This past week has made that exceedingly clear, with Senator-Bad-Ass-at-Large Wendy Davis and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg acquiring her new title of "Notorious R.B.G." While feminists involved with progressive politics are easy to spot, it's important to recognize that feminists occupy positions in all levels of the work force.
Earlier this past spring, Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In encouraged women across America to assert themselves in the office while demanding more support from their partners at home. Months later, Sandberg's directive has amassed greater and greater influence, as seen through its adoption in work-force lexicon. As to be expected with Sandberg's experience in digital media, the print Lean In has gone online with LeanIn.Org — a platform that seeks to build community and teach leadership by offering materials for IRL discussion circles.
PolicyMic was thrilled to email interview Jessica Bennett, editor for Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and an award-winning journalist who has covered stories featuring the role of sex, sexuality, and gender in society. Although Jessica's work directly focuses on feminist themes, we were also excited to see how her approach towards her career also incorporates key feminist themes. Huzzah!
Suzanna Bobadilla (SB): Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed! First off, can you describe your involvement with LeanIn.Org and why you are excited to work with them?
Jessica Bennett (JB): I joined Lean In about two months ago to create a strategy around editorial content. I had written about Lean In and interviewed Sheryl for a couple of articles, so when Tumblr (where I was executive editor) decided to abruptly fire its editorial team (guess we know why now!), I emailed Sheryl. I've been writing on social issues and women for years, and Lean In resonated with me, so I thought, hey, what the hell, might as well lean the f--k in. She hadn't planned on staffing an editor but I sold her on it. So, I'm the New York Lean In bureau, working with the team on the West Coast to produce social campaigns, roll out media partnerships, editorial initiatives, and come up with creative ways to frame editorial content around women and work.
SB: In your own Lean In testimonial, you shared how you uncovered the 1970 gender discrimination lawsuit against Newsweek, your employer, and how you discovered that the gender ratio on the masthead was still incredibly skewed. What suggestions do you have for people who want to challenge social injustices at their work place from within the system?
JB: Speak up! When we wrote that piece, my two colleagues and I were all staff writers at Newsweek. We were telling the story of a landmark discrimination suit against the company — that we never knew existed — but we were asking the question of how much had changed (which was basically code for how much hadn't changed). You can imagine that getting a piece that criticized your magazine published in your magazine was not the easiest thing to do. But we're journalists, and we knew it was important, so we did what came naturally to us: we wrote the story.
SB: How has self-identifying as a feminist been advantageous and disadvantageous at work?
JB: Never disadvantageous! This is New York. You're only sane to identify as a feminist.
SB: What was your proudest moment in your career as a journalist?
JB: Good question! The piece about the Newsweek suit felt like a big accomplishment. But I've been lucky enough to cover lots of humbling and amazing stories over the years. I also got to take a bunch of Tumblr bloggers to the conventions last year, and then we live-GIFed the presidential debates. So, that was fun.
SB: How do you think Lean In’s method of empowerment (demanding more from partners, co-workers, and employers) can be translated for millennials? Given that many of us have yet to contend with work/family balance, commonly have worked at unpaid internships, and currently face down student debt, how does Lean In’s methodology fit within this context?
JB: I think we've got a leg up! We've still got time to make sure all these things happen before we're too far down the road in our careers, relationships, or elsewhere. You can make sure you negotiate a first salary. You can be aware if you're holding yourself back. You can challenge yourself to overcome your fears. And you can still lean into an unpaid internship, by making sure you get something out of it. I quit a paid internship at New York magazine once because I spent three days fetching cupcakes from cakeshops around New York. The editorial assistant in charge of me told me I'd be "blacklisted" from New York media. I was young and terrified, but I got a waitressing job and took an unpaid internship instead. I was not blacklisted.
SB: Mainstream feminism has often been criticized for focusing on the experiences of middle/upper class white, straight women. Since women’s empowerment inherently includes supporting people who are also oppressed because of their racial identity, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, class, and immigration status, how can Lean In be used to also help individuals who are impacted by multiple levels of oppression?
JB: I think the idea of leaning in, of standing up for what you believe in, and of not being afraid, can apply to whatever your fears and challenges may be. Seriously, anybody can lean in. That's part of the reason why I like Sheryl's message so much, because you can literally apply it to anything. You can lean into work, your relationship, asking for a raise, raising your hand in class, overcoming your fears, going back to school, having confidence in yourself. When I finish this interview, I'm about to lean into a taco.
SB: I actually had the privilege of attending this year’s Women In the World summit in New York, an event which you helped produce. It was an incredible weekend and it was extremely powerful to hear so many leaders commit to women’s empowerment. Can you share with us examples of how WIW has continued to influence change-makers from all levels of the work place?
I think the big names that attend these kind of events can help draw attention to issues we don't often read about or hear about in the mainstream press. I also think it's important to actually get out of the conference hall and do something.
SB: What was the best advice an employer ever gave you?
JB: To advocate for others. This is a brilliant trick, because women are punished if they advocate on behalf of themselves — viewed as brash or conceited or braggy. That's totally backwards — we shouldn't be viewed that way — but the research clearly shows that if you have somebody advocate for you instead of doing it for yourself, it works. Plus, advocating for somebody else makes the person doing it look good, too. So, when your colleague does something awesome, but is too shy to send a note to the bosses about it, send it for her. She'll do the same for you, you'll both benefit. Boom.
SB: An issue that I have often heard from people who dedicate their careers for a common good is contending with “burn out.” What are your strategies on not becoming discouraged and staying motivated?
JB: I think acknowledging that we all burn out sometimes is important. It's OK, and it's OK to need to take a break. But finding a job you're passionate about and finding ways to keep challenging yourself — even if it's through a creative outlet on the side — is also important.
SB: Finally, for us newbies in the office, what exactly is business casual?
JB: Ha! You're talking to a person who has been working from home for the past two months, and rarely puts on shoes. But, um, put a blazer on top of whatever you're wearing. Done.
You can follow Jessica Bennett at @jess7bennett