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What The Handmaid’s Tale and a Graduation Speech Have in Common

What The Handmaid’s Tale and a Graduation Speech Have in Common

There have been two things that have moved me over the past couple of months: The first was Abby Wambach’s Barnard graduation speech. I know, right? There was so much to love, but in particular, I was drawn to her comments on women and success, and the few seats available for women at the executive table: “Scarcity has been planted inside us and among us. This scarcity is not our fault. But it is our problem.”

The guys think abundance ...

Doesn’t it sometimes feel like the boys were taken aside after high school coding class and taught to network, to throw leads to each other, to invest in each other’s businesses, to talk each other up?

For guys, success is abundance: The more that others in their circle are successful, the more likely it seems to be that they are successful. We all know some guy who doesn’t work that hard, who doesn’t add that much, but who rides the coattails of his successful fraternity brothers ... and you just scratch your head. Aileen Lee (venture capitalist and #AllRaise leader) calls him “the good guy,” as in: “Hey, let’s bring him into the deal; he’s a really good guy.”

...While we’re stuck in scarcity

In contrast, it seems like the girls are taken aside in high school and taught that there are just two seats at the executive table for women; so we are competing against each other to get them. Not with the guys, but against each other.

Thus, for women, success has been scarcity — only a few of us could be successful, and if she is, I won’t be. The research tells us that talking each other up at work has actually historically hurt us, and we’ve been socialized to believe that asking each other for business is a no-no. (I’ll never forget the close friend of a multi-zillionaire woman trying to raise a tiny amount of seed capital; when I asked her why she didn’t approach her friend, she said she didn’t want to hurt the relationship. Imagine this coming from a guy. Yeah, I can’t either.)

As Aileen points out, there is no equivalent of the “good gal” in business, riding other women’s coattails; for us, it’s been a zero sum game.

It’s not over

Don’t believe that this trope of scarcity remains alive and well? Look no further than this month’s Elle Magazine. One of the questions in the Ask E. Jean column starts with “Is there a way for the smart girl to beat the seductress?” This “smart girl” is working at a company that recently “hired another woman.” Oh no. The premise is that only one of them can be promoted, and the usually-feminist-and-empowering E. Jean dishes out advice on how to beat out the other woman, by diminishing her.

The way forward

It also comes from Abby’s speech at Barnard: “... it is within our power to create abundance for women where scarcity used to live.”

And it is exemplified by the second thing that brought me to tears: the last episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which (big spoiler alert on this next bit) the Marthas help Elizabeth Moss’ character escape with her baby daughter … after Serena Joy lets them go. Sobbed. I sobbed. Women helping women. Women coming together to protect and advance the next generation of women.

Not unlike what’s happening with Time’s Up. Not unlike what Tarana Burke started with #MeToo. Not unlike what the women at Nike are accomplishing by coming together to change that culture. Not unlike the cultural change that women are driving at Uber. Not unlike the women who are supporting the women who are running for office in record numbers.

(And let’s just pretend like that very last scene of The Handmaid’s Taledidn’t happen, ok? Because, seriously, what?)

This article was originally published in Ellevest's newsletter, What The Elle. You can learn more here.


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