Female CEOs Aren’t Feminist Icons

Female CEOs are looked up to as feminist icons “sticking it to the patriarchy,” but they aren’t really empowering.

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Many feminists use female CEOs to represent a more progressive future and show the ubiquitous opportunities women now have. Corporate feminist books like “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” position diversity within the super-wealthy as the most important goal. However, these women are not truly helping all women. Rather, they only benefit themselves and often hurt other women to get there.

Female CEOs earn a median of $13.9 million a year, hundreds of times more than the average American worker under them, who makes $67 thousand a year. For American companies exploiting other countries, the ratio of CEO income to worker compensation is even higher. In Bangladesh, garment workers are only paid $112 a month, with female workers being paid less than their male counterparts. Female CEOs using cheap, female labor are directly taking advantage of the patriarchy’s grip in other countries by not paying the working women as much, choosing to maximize profits even further at the expense of underprivileged women.

The fashion industry is particularly guilty. Stores such as Gap and H&M have been applauded for having female CEOs, who are seen as more progressive than their non-female counterparts. How much difference does having a female figurehead make to an underprivileged woman? Women’s lives aren’t improved from having a female executive, particularly when some women are being hurt by the patriarchy that the female CEO is helping keep in place.

Popular clothing stores are perhaps the most guilty of exploiting the injustices of sweatshop work, where an overwhelming proportion of laborers in the garment sector are women. To be a woman accumulating wealth while stepping on other women, especially women of color and low socioeconomic status, is disempowering to womankind. To not stand up for all women is to not stand up for women. This is not to say that having gender diversity within the ruling class is a negative thing. Rather, one cannot be a feminist while exploiting women, regardless of one’s own gender.

Even within corporate America, female workers are exploited. Former chief executive officer of Thinx Miki Agrawal is a glaring example. The executive discriminated among her employees based on gender. Despite Agrawal describing herself as a feminist and as the “SHE-E-O” of a company against period stigma, she received accusations of sex-based discrimination. One employee described Thinx as a “feminist company that disempowers and undervalues its (majority woman) staff.” Others have accused Agrawal of disproportionately giving raises to, and otherwise favoring, male employees. She exploited women’s labor for the sake of maximizing her own personal profit.

The question that remains is how female CEOs can truly embody feminist ideals through their actions as well as their words. The simple answer is to not exploit women (or anyone else). Support other women, especially those who work for you. In the same way that being a woman cannot make one a feminist by itself, it is not only female CEOs who should be better feminists; regardless of their sex, any and all CEOs can and should be feminists.

Representation is always crucial, and it is important to recognize how far women have come by 2021. Exploitation, especially by the patriarchy, is not only a man’s job anymore. Being a female CEO does not make one innocent of the injustices underprivileged women underneath her are subjected to. Instead, we must push for gender diversity within the upper echelons that does not oppress those employed.