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Halliburton is the reason I do not care about the glass ceiling

Catchy title, eh? Only that no, Halliburton is not the only reason why I have little interest in a feminism that only seeks to advance women in corporate life. As journalist Laurie Penny tweeted yesterday, when news that Christine Lagarde was appointed head of the IMF:

Some people still think feminism is about getting a few businesswomen through the glass ceiling when the basement is flooding.

Today, I’ve been catching up with the trial of Jamie Lee Jones, which started last week. Jones is suing Halliburton because she claims she was drugged and gang-raped while working for military contractor KBR in Iraq (at the time, a division of Halliburton). Jones was on her fourth day in post in Baghdad in 2005 when she says she was assaulted by seven contractors and held captive, under armed guard by two KBR police, in a shipping container. In case you are not familiar with the case, Laura Flanders provides a succinct summary:

When the criminal courts failed to act, her lawyers filed a civil suit, only to be met with Halliburton’s response that all her claims were to be decided in arbitration – because she’d signed away her rights to bring the company to court when she signed her employment contract. As Leigh testified before Congress, in October 2009, “I had signed away my right to a jury trial at the age of 20 and without the advice of counsel.” It was a matter of sign or resign. “I had no idea that the clause was part of the contract, what the clause actually meant,” testified Jones.

More details of the horrific case are emerging and they paint a picture where it seems that rape was part of these men’s daily reality:

The last thing she recalls was being handed a drink, and another firefighter saying, “Don’t worry. I saved all my roofies for Dubai.”

And this:

Lawyers for the defendants hinted in their opening statements that they would attack Jones’ credibility, pointing to e-mails she sent after the alleged rape that they say contain no trace of trauma.

Anticipating these arguments, Jones testified that she delayed reporting the alleged assault while she searched through her mental fog for an alternative explanation.

“I wanted to be sure before I called this man a rapist,” she said. “It took hours before I was cognizant enough to make that decision.”

Corporate sponsored victim blaming, attacking her credibility, sending their multi million dollar infrastructure and condoning the kind of rape apologist culture that allows an employee to state that he “saved all the roofies for Dubai”. (I used to work in Dubai and across the UAE, the idea of meeting predatory men like these sends chills through my spine, especially because of how normal it is to socialize with other foreigners and expats in the area).

Those of us who live in the West need to evaluate what exactly we are supporting when we talk about the “glass ceiling” and advancing gender issues through corporate structures. A feminism that actively engages in intra gender violence and oppression is the kind of feminism we need to be very skeptical of. I am fully aware of the fact that we need to participate in corporate life in order to make a living, but when our activism is not critical of the ways in which these same corporations actively oppress women, minorities, the poor and disenfranchised worldwide, how they work towards enforcing inequalities and advance a culture of resource depletion (both human and natural), we need to take a step back and truly ask ourselves if these are the issues we stand for and why. And if this is the kind of feminism that represents us.

12 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful post, and one that highlights a lot of what I’ve been thinking recently, especially when it comes to the sticky subject of being ‘real people’ and allowed to participate … in a system that’s not just flawed, but actively harmful.

    That said, I have one tiny thing that bothers me: the use of ‘says’/'said’ when it comes to the rape allegations. Given the quirks of Spoken English (and, okay, Standard (or written) English), using that construction invokes a sort of uncomfortable skepticism: he says/she says, “well they said they were going to X” and so on. ‘Alleges’ on the other hand, has a bit more weight. Problematic for other reasons (legalese has its own dismissive terms, and ‘alleged rape’ is definitely among them), but at least more weighty than ‘says’.

    (Ugh. Trying to post at awkward-o’-clock in the morning through a melatonin-induced fog is like trying to post while swimming through caramel Sorry if it’s less than sense-making!)

    Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  2. The only reason I use that “say” or “allegations” is because in the case courts find the defendants not guilty, we (Tiger Beatdown) could potentially be sued for ruining the guy’s reputation. Until a verdict is reached, we need to operate under the presumption of innocence. I am not less bothered by all this than you are, but yeah, it’s the kind of language we have to stick to, until the trial is over.

    Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  3. Astraea wrote:

    I’m not sure why concern about the glass ceiling and concern about corporate abuses is framed as mutually exclusive. I care about the glass ceiling for many reasons, one of which is that an increase of women in leadership is IMO one part of the fight to improve working conditions for women at all levels. Another reason is that the lack of women in leadership positions is a sign of a lack of support at all levels, as well, as women are not mentored and brought through the career development process the way men are. These are not inconsequential things for women on the bottom rungs.

    I don’t agree that the solution to “problem x is being ignored to focus on problem y” is to dismiss problem y.

    Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  4. samanthab wrote:

    Astraea, that assumes that the corporate structures aren’t so intrinsically fucked up that someone- anyone- could rise to a leadership position within them and not be part and parcel of the problem. I don’t see much evidence for that assumption myself when I look at the corporate domain of 2011.

    I know a lot of feminists turn a blind eye to the ugly details of HRC’s career- stuff like support for the “conscience clause” and brutal wars; lack of support for the fight for Egyptian democracy, etc. But it’s just not enough for me to have a woman in positions of power regardless of the evil she wreaks on the world. I suppose there probably is an intrinsic value to having any woman in any leadership position in that it normalizes women in roles of power. But, given that my resources of time and money are both limited, I’m not going to be dedicating much of those resources to women leaders that won’t aim higher.

    Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  5. Finnegan wrote:

    @Astraea: Well, the traditional left-wing criticism of the “glass ceiling” fixation is that it isolates feminism from other areas of struggle, one of which is the struggle of workers- of all genders- against what you refer to as the “leadership”, one incarnation of which is the microauthoritarian measures which employers impose on their employers, and which themselves sustain yet further forms of oppression. In this conception, it’s not that “X is overshadowed by Y in this time and place” as “X is contrary to Y in all times and all places”.

    Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Permalink
  6. mamram wrote:

    The reasoning underlying this post must either assume that “glass ceiling” only applies to multinational corporations* instead of to all large, hierarchical organizations, or that all large, hierarchical organizations are bad, and that therefore anybody who reaches a leadership position does more harm than good. The first assumption is just wrong. The second one is debatable, but I do not think is sufficient to justify abandoning all of the women who face obstacles to career advancement.

    I’m not saying that Haliburton doesn’t make me sick to my stomach, or that large corporations do not often do horrible things for the sake of profit, or worthy of serious criticism and oversight. But when you’ve reached the point where you’re essentially saying, “Who cares about the glass ceiling? People above the ceiling are all oppressors anyway,” that’s generalizing (and amplifying) to a ridiculous degree.

    Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  7. Aaron wrote:

    Mamram, you make a point, but I think it’s getting a lot harder for people to care about the distinction, and it’s not like it matters much in any case to anyone who’s not looking for a corporate-style career.

    And I think that in one sense, at least, it is fair to say that “people above the [glass] ceiling are all oppressors anyway.” The system in which that ceiling exists may not have been designed or intended as an engine for oppressing a significant fraction of our entire species, but that’s the effect that it has. It may not have been built with the purpose of wealth extraction, may not have been put together with the design goal of “to those who have much, more will be given; from those with little, even what little they have will be taken away” — but, again, that is very certainly the effect.

    This being the case, I don’t have a hell of a lot of respect for the careerist ambitions of anyone, male female or otherwise, regardless of any supposedly ennobling motives behind them. Maybe some of them start with the idea that the system will break its teeth on them, but I’m far too cynical any more to believe that.

    And even if it’s true, when have we ever seen it work? As you become part of any system — a company, an army, a sports team, a family — the system becomes part of you. It changes you just like everything else you ever experience, and as with everything else, you don’t get to decide the effects your experiences will have on you.

    Friday, July 1, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  8. mamram wrote:

    “The system in which that ceiling exists may not have been designed or intended as an engine for oppressing a significant fraction of our entire species, but that’s the effect that it has.”

    This may be true of the model as a whole, but I do not think that all or even most people who reach upper management or executive status are actively oppressing anybody. But I guess this issue starts to be a matter of ideology, and I certainly understand why somebody would feel that way. But this:

    “it’s not like it matters much in any case to anyone who’s not looking for a corporate-style career”

    is absolutely false. The forces that result in the “glass ceiling” phenomenon do not only come into play once somebody has reached upper-middle management, they conspire over the course of entire careers, and at every level. An effort to remedy or eliminate these forces would affect far more people than just the women who are hoping for corner offices.

    And this:

    “I don’t have a hell of a lot of respect for the careerist ambitions of anyone”

    is irrelevant. Just because ambition is generally a self-interested thing doesn’t mean that it’s inherently bad, and just because it isn’t necessarily good doesn’t mean that inequality of opportunity is acceptable. You’re basically saying that equality is only important if we’re talking about the opportunity to do something noble/charitable/virtuous. This is actually a pretty common attitude. That men have the opportunity to behave in amoral (or sometimes immoral) ways for their own benefit is taken for granted, and so it turns into a situation where men are able to behave in self-interested ways but women are expected to be virtuous with their every act.

    Saturday, July 2, 2011 at 2:41 am | Permalink
  9. mamram wrote:

    Wanted to add: I think this post actually greatly exaggerates the importance that most people place on the actual effort to increase the number of women on the highest rungs of the corporate ladder. The reason people care about increasing numbers of female executives is that it serves as a barometer for how acceptable our society finds an ambitious woman. And accepting that women are sometimes self-interested or even selfish (and that it does not somehow make them beasts just because they aren’t only working to benefit the needy, their husbands, their children, or anybody other than themselves) is a necessary part of recognizing that women are actually people.

    Saturday, July 2, 2011 at 2:52 am | Permalink
  10. kalmiopsis wrote:

    Great Post, Flavia. Thank you for writing it.

    Saturday, July 2, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  11. Glauke wrote:

    Interesting piece, as ever, Flavia. Dankjewel daarvoor :)

    I keep trying to get into my boyfriend’s head that there’s a difference between feminism (a socio-political position) and economically succesfull women.

    I hadn’t given the glass ceiling/flooded basement enough thought, it seems

    Monday, July 4, 2011 at 5:48 am | Permalink
  12. Aaron wrote:

    Mamram, what I’m “basically saying” is that there’s a class war going on, and I really don’t give a shit for anyone, male or female, who’s on the wrong side of it or looking to join; those people can afford all the shit-giving they need without any help from me. If that by you is sexism, then make the most of it, I guess.

    Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink