There’s a bit of a brouhaha happening on social media about the world of elite, professional women.
The focus of the ire is a membership group called Chief, which bills itself as a place for “women in the C-Suite, senior executives, and accomplished VPs to strengthen their leadership, magnify their influence, and pave the way to bring others with them.” So far, the critiques have been more of a harsh scolding from some members rather than an epic cancellation. The issues mainly center on how many women of color have been admitted to the group and whether the group has focused enough on social issues like restrictions on abortion rights.
To be sure, ascending the rungs of the corporate ladder is not easy for women. They and other marginalized groups need more than employee resource groups to help them navigate their way around many of the political landmines faced in the corporate experience. We need spaces to connect and be sponsored, mentored, and coached. But many of these efforts, as noble as they can be, still seem to include similar profiles of women who have a certain amount of social capital. In response to the criticism of Chief’s mission, Carolyn Childers, one of the founders of Chief, recently told The New York Times that while the group is clear about its values, “we’re also not a social activism organization.”
Huh. I guess I should be happy that someone finally said it.
When professional white women say that they aren’t focused on social activism, I think back to how white women are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action in the United States. How, on average, they also have more wealth than Black and Latina women, are more likely to be married than Black and Latina women, and are more likely to be admitted as legacy students to Ivy League universities than Black and Latina women are.
Despite these socio-economic realities, women of color continue to be ambitious — 41 percent say they want to be in senior leadership compared to 27 percent of white women. In 2020, as groups and spaces like Chief, The Wing, and AllBright became popular, Town and Country writer Marisa Meltzer asked whether paying for access to these clubs was “part of the cost of female friendship.” If it is, then we are leaving a lot of women out of our circles, including women who can’t afford to pay these fees, women whose companies won’t foot the bill because they aren’t senior enough, and women who may not know that these groups exist because they don’t run in certain circles. (Chief charges $5,800 and up for an annual membership, and The Wing shut its doors in 2022 after the organization and one of the cofounders came under fire for reportedly underpaying their Black and brown employees.)
The controversy surrounding Chief is not just about highlighting the power and privilege inherent in private women’s groups and in what’s broadly known as corporate feminism, but about how important social capital is. Those who have it get ahead faster in corporate settings than those who don’t.
I have never been a member of any of these groups, though I am on a (free) email listserv of women in New York media. While I realize the power of women helping women, I’m also very aware of how the “rah-rah” sisterhood of corporate feminism can often be a superficial affair rather than a real asset. Like wealth, privilege builds on itself. Research on the academic job market shows just how important social capital is and how it accumulates. Nearly 52 percent of tenure-track faculty have at least one parent with a graduate degree. The majority also grew up in wealthier neighborhoods than the general public, and had families that were supportive of their academic ambitions.
Research has shown that white women are also more likely to be promoted than women of color, while Black and Latina’s women experience less managerial support and less psychological safety. Often. women of color don’t get past the first rung in the corporate ladder to management. All of this equates to having less social capital overall. When you add class to the equation, it becomes even more rare for women from low-income backgrounds, particularly working-class women of color, to succeed. For every Ursula Burns — a Black woman and former CEO of Xerox who grew up in public housing — there are multiple Sheryl Sandbergs. Only 8.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women; only 1 percent are women of color.
Following the critiques, Chief hosted listening sessions to hear its members’ concerns. Not all women’s groups charge a membership fee or have vetting processes to get in, as Chief does.
The concentration of social capital in many of these networking groups, and among professional women more broadly, is something that members should be cognizant of if they really want to support women and foster change.
I spent the first 20 years of my life living in public housing. I know what it’s like not to have a formal sponsor, mentor, or coach. I’ve climbed my way up the ladder despite limited family support or the lack of a partner’s income. So when I hear of an opportunity like a job or an internship, the first people I think of are women of color who may not have a connection and how I can facilitate it for them. I wonder if there is a public school student who could use assistance, whose parents might not be professionals themselves, who might have big dreams but small pockets, who might feel like their hard work will never be seen. These are the women I’m trying to pave the way for, group or no group. I hope many women’s groups expand their lens to do the same.
Tanzina Vega is an editor at Charter.