Consciousness Raising with Corporations

An illustration of a pink plastic airplane with a big pink bow flying at sunset
Accountability Cupcakes and Other Adventures in Pinkwashing

By Raina Lipsitz

Art By Maria Chimishkyan

In 2010, I landed a job at a large feminist nonprofit and embarked on what I imagined would be my brilliant career in feminist advocacy. 

Early on, I had reservations. My new organization, which I’ll call Advance, “partnered” with Fortune 500 companies to design initiatives to advance “high-potential” women employees. I wasn’t convinced that helping corporate careerists make the leap from middle manager to senior executive would translate into progress for women in general. But the pay and benefits were good, and the job was flexible. For the first and only time in my life, I was making a decent salary to write. At first it was mostly blog posts and press releases, but later on, I wrote speeches and magazine articles for the CEO and other senior executives. I told myself I’d be able to pursue the writing I actually cared about on the side.

I wasn’t entirely naive; I didn’t think I’d be saving the world. At first, I did at least believe that we were doing no harm. Sure, putting out research on salary negotiation and advocating for companies to appoint more women to corporate boards wasn’t going to help 99 percent of women on earth, but, I told myself, it wouldn’t hurt them, either.

But the longer I stayed, the more cynical I got. The disconnect between Advance’s stated values and its actions — both as an employer and in the broader corporate world — became harder and harder to ignore. How had the radical anti-capitalism and raucous street protests led by women of an earlier era culminated in a feminist like me composing glorified press releases for brutal, union-busting transnationals? Where had we buried that urgency to remake the world? I wanted to be part of a collective struggle for justice, not a never-ending quest for personal advancement.

We would take corporate cash from anybody.

Advance’s refusal to make even the most modest demands of its member companies enraged me. Any company could become a member, I was told, no matter where they were on their “diversity journey.” We would take corporate cash from anybody, including, at least during my time there, companies with zero women on their boards — even though one of the main things we supposedly stood for was appointing more women to corporate boards. The approach was all carrot, no stick: Take the money, praise the company, and try to sweet-talk it into doing slightly better by its female employees. We were pink-washing some of the worst companies in the world.

Accountability was a big concept at Advance. The organization was constantly stressing the importance of CEOs and senior executives holding themselves and each other “accountable” for meeting various diversity goals.

One day a colleague mentioned that another coworker — I’ll call her Brie — had shared a story about her quest to redeem a “free birthday cupcake” coupon at a local bakery. When Brie got home and opened the bag, she was horrified to learn that she had been given the wrong flavor of cupcake. She called the bakery and asked how they intended to fix the problem. “You’re welcome to come and pick up the cupcake you wanted, free of charge,” the manager replied. “That isn’t good enough,” Brie recounted triumphantly. “I want to know what you’re going to do to hold the person who gave me the wrong cupcake accountable for their error.”

Most of the women I worked with at Advance were perfectly nice, even to retail workers. But I still think of this as the story that best captures the organization’s ethos: smug, elitist, self-congratulatory, delusional, and blindly committed to a feminism no more capable of raising the status of women than a puddle is of raising a ship.

Around four years into my time at Advance, I was told we’d be giving one of our major annual awards to a weapons manufacturer. Apparently, we admired the company’s commitment to advancing women in tech and engineering. The company’s CEO, a woman, would be speaking at our annual awards dinner. Several people, including me, voiced objections at a contentious all-staff meeting. One woman tearfully noted that the company’s weapons had been used to injure and kill women and children around the world. But the decision had already been made.

A male coworker left Advance shortly after that meeting, telling me he was too disgusted to work there after such an egregious display of hypocrisy. But even though I had spoken out against the award, I wasn’t ready or willing to quit over it. I didn’t want to lose my health insurance and had no other job lined up. In the end, I chose middle-class stability over solidarity with women around the globe, reasoning that my quitting would hardly dismantle the military-industrial complex overnight.

What I’d failed to consider was that Advance didn’t need me nearly as much as I needed it. Though I periodically worried that I’d been too outspoken in meetings, I didn’t think my job was in serious jeopardy until a coworker I’ll call Sara and I questioned Advance’s decision to “transition” from a decent health care plan to a cheaper and worse one.

Sara and I met with two women in human resources to discuss our concerns about how the change in coverage would affect Advance’s overwhelmingly female workforce. (During my tenure, only around 6 out of 120 employees were men.) For instance, we were alarmed to discover that those of us who had been paying $0 per month for birth control under our old plan would be paying $50 or more under the new one. The HR women listened patiently and said they’d get back to us. After several email exchanges, they told us the decision had been made “at the executive level” for the good of the company. It was implied that we would be wise to drop it.

Of course, I was young and dumb and boneheadedly determined to take the CEO at her word: She admired women who spoke their minds, she said. Employees would be rewarded for moral courage — this was even a metric they evaluated us on in our biannual performance reviews. “Come to me with any questions or concerns,” she said. Her office door was always open.

I was young and dumb and boneheadedly determined to take the CEO at her word: She admired women who spoke their minds, she said.

So Sara and I sent her an email outlining our concerns and HR’s response. Around the same time, we also decided to meet with a union organizer. We knew we’d get further together than we would on our own. We tried unsuccessfully to recruit several sympathetic colleagues to join us. One woman had tried to unionize at her old job, she told me in an email, and it was “really a bit scary.” She said she had been followed and harassed. “As much as I believe in unions,” she wrote, “I am not sure I would go there again.” Ultimately, Sara and I met the organizer for lunch at a diner in downtown Manhattan. None of our colleagues came.

Eventually the CEO responded with a lengthy and carefully worded email of her own. In response to my concern that there wasn’t sufficient staff input on the change in health care coverage, she wrote, “There are some matters where it’s appropriate to request staff input, and others, where it’s either not practical or appropriate. This is an example of a business decision that was appropriately the responsibility of the Executive Committee.”

A week or so after that exchange, my boss told me in a phone call that I had “caused damage” to my reputation. The CEO had complained about me to another senior executive, who told my boss that I had upset the CEO by “second-guessing” her decisions and making her feel undermined and “distrusted.” 

Six months later, a week or so before Thanksgiving 2015, Sara and I were fired. The HR department characterized it as a layoff — so we could collect unemployment, they said — and repeatedly confirmed that our termination was unrelated to our performance. The CEO wrote a letter of recommendation in which she described me as “passionate about women’s rights and empowerment.” We were given a severance package that amounted to one week of pay for every year of service and a modest extension of our health coverage.

Sara and I tried to negotiate for more. It had been drilled into our heads during our time at Advance that women get less money, power, and respect than men in part because they don’t ask for more. But the female head of HR said the organization had already been extraordinarily generous. There’s “nothing wrong with you asking these questions,” she reassured me in a phone call, grudgingly and implausibly adding, “we respect you for it.”

Respect wasn’t enough. Sara and I suffered from chronic women’s health issues, as we were compelled by the circumstances to tell HR. To get our severance, we had to agree to make “no negative statements” about Advance. I objected to the terms, but I needed the money, so I complied.

I’ll never know why, exactly, we were fired. But what I do know now is that corporate feminism makes accomplices of us all, and we are all expendable under capitalism. I regret the self-delusion and inertia that kept me there for so long. I had wanted to leave for years. My complicity nagged at me, but I was used to joking the feeling away. “What’s the difference between us and these amoral corporate executives?” I would ask a like-minded coworker. “We’re 10 times better than them,” he’d reply, “because our salaries are one-tenth of theirs.” It wasn’t about me any more than it was about feminist principles. It was about helping women at the top secure a slightly larger piece of an ever-shrinking pie.

I’m no CEO, but the odds are good that I could have held onto and maybe even enlarged my piece if I’d kept my mouth shut. Sometimes when I think too much about my age (38) and my bank account (unimpressive), I wish that’s what I’d done. Mostly, I’m relieved to be free. Working at Advance fueled my anti-capitalism and extinguished the last shred of my one-time belief that women’s leadership alone could transform the culture of a nonprofit, a company, a country, a world.

Raina Lipsitz writes about politics and culture for a variety of publications, including The Nation, The Conversationalist, and Jewish Currents. Her forthcoming book, The New American Left, charts the rise of a women-led, multiracial, multi-class, new “new left” in the United States and will be published by Verso in 2021.