If you read enough of a certain kind of women’s media, you may start to believe that material success is just a matter of convincing imitation. There are endless columns and books that will tell you as much: How this woman gets it done, how this woman dresses the part, how this woman negotiated for more. Follow each step like a recipe and you can maybe have some of that money or prestige for yourself.
This week, the object lesson came in the form of a Cosmopolitan profile of the author and New York Times magazine staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner. After witnessing her male colleagues at GQ file lavish expense reports and turn in drafts down to the wire—professional arrogance that she rightly observes “almost added to their allure”—Akner soon began making demands of her own. She found success through hard work, but also a shift in presentation. “When I started doing the ‘I don’t get out of bed for less than $4 a word’ thing,” she explained, “people started paying me $4 a word.”
As the profile spread through what I have to imagine is a relatively narrow audience of people who want to read about journalists, the quote became a Rorschach test: it was either arrogant or inspiring, tone-deaf or honest.
If a woman works in media for two decades and does time-consuming writing that many people like, one argument went, then she deserves to be paid a high rate. In fact, that this should happen at all is a good thing for all women, since these kinds of prestige fees often only go to men and are rarely talked about openly. Akner, who had found herself caught in the middle of what was actually a more depersonalized argument about the abject shittiness of the media industry, echoed a version of this response in a separate interview: “I think everyone should be talking about their salaries. I really do believe that all boats rise in that case.”
But others pointed out that the system of assigning stories and determining rates is heavily contingent, very racist and sexist, and works to the detriment of most writers except a select few. (In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Akner seemed surprised that people thought paying some writers a very high rate meant other writers got less—“as if they get the money that I turn down”—even though this is exactly how editorial budgets work.)
I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that the second response (even if you might agree with parts of the first) is the more honest assessment of things, but you’d be forgiven for believing otherwise. The idea of meritocracy for the feminist striver is one of the most popular stories being told about women and work right now.
Feminist meritocracy is a subtle modification of the original concept: a belief that certain work comes with a certain intrinsic value and that the good stuff eventually rises to the top—it’s just that you have to overcome some structural barriers to get there. (And you can do that by Leaning In, Knowing Your Value, and getting yourself into the right networking spaces.)
This is a lie of course, but still ended up being the primary response to Akner’s rate disclosure and drowning out most of the structural critiques: the industry may be an unfair place, but sometimes it gets things right and rewards real talent with real money and real opportunity.
Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic magazine, was articulating a version of feminist meritocracy when he described in a recent interview what he saw as the dearth of women and journalists of color who could write 10,000-word cover stories. Of course people other than white men could write these cover stories, it was just that far too many of them hadn’t been given enough time or opportunity to get that good yet. “It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story,” he explained. “There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males.” For Goldberg, the path to the cover story doesn’t see race, gender, class, or industry access—only talent.
And until the meritocracy reaches you, coming up can be a matter of mastering a few good personal routines and choices about self-presentation. This extends beyond media, and has in fact infected every industry in which a woman might find herself. The feminist meritocracy demands hustle: there are conference calls at 5:30 in the morning, there are working lunches, there are power poses, there are life hacks about making your voice heard in meetings. The framing here is often telling. The cottage industry of self-help for successful working women often points back to other women—there are mentors and girl squads by your side through all of it—but the task itself—the negotiation, the presentation you need to ace, the boss you need to impress—always happens alone. There are millions of dollars in venture capital heavily invested in precisely this model of together-alone women’s “empowerment.”
You see this acutely in the girl boss imperative to talk about money. Pay transparency is an important part of more equitable workplaces, but can lose its actual power when viewed through the lens of feminist meritocracy.
I can remember the first time I got a small raise at a media job, and I can also remember the sound of my boss’ voice when he told me to keep it to myself. That’s how scarcity works: everything is supposed to feel so fragile that one false move might mean you’re left with even less than what you started with. I wasn’t the only person he tried to conscript into this kind of secrecy, and I wasn’t the only person to ignore him. At a bar a few weeks later, my colleagues and I all told each other what we made anyway. Our salaries and treatment were so disparate that the conversation, in the weeks and months that followed, soon turned into a plan to form a union. A version of this happened at my next job, too. Maybe it’s also happened at yours.
Talking in that bar about making $36,000 a year was a necessary step to what came after, but on its own it wasn’t enough to change anything. I could have gone to my boss armed with the knowledge that a man I worked with was making $54,000 more than I was, but it wouldn’t have done shit. My bosses saw him as more valuable than me, which is why he made nearly three times what I did for considerably less work. That I couldn’t really live on my salary was besides the point.
Which is the problem with how women’s media often treats these things: knowing what someone makes isn’t enough. It wasn’t until those conversations turned into collective action that anything actually changed for all of us. Suddenly, it wasn’t a matter of using someone else’s rate to extract something for myself, it was about salary floors. A woman didn’t need to know anyone important or project a certain kind of confidence or feel inspired by a magazine profile to earn a more livable wage. Why pretend getting there was about meritocracy? It was so basic. Why wouldn’t everyone deserve it?