Today in "postfeminism": career advice from your worst frenemy!

Reader BW sent this on to me yesterday, Penelope Trunk’s “The Terrible Career Advice Women Give Each Other.”  Her advice to women professionals boils down to:

  1. Don’t listen to older women, look for male mentors because older women give terrible advice.
  2. Prioritize marriage and baby-making, because if you wait until 30 you’re doomed.
  3. Don’t bother reporting sexual harassment–everyone knows it happens all the time, so learn to deal with it.
  4. Don’t read advice books on how to lead.  “You want to know what book was most helpful to me in my career? The Sensuous Woman. I found it on my parents’ bookshelf sometime during grade school, when I knew so little about the mechanics of sex that I had to read the book five times to figure out what was going on. But by the end of my multi-year study of The Sensuous Woman, I learned something important: If you are your true to yourself, and do what feels right to you, then you will be good in bed. Once I internalized that, I realized the same is true with leadership. Good leaders are, above everything else, their true selves. If you cannot be your true self, then no book will make you a good leader. So spend time on self-knowledge instead of business books.”

I agree that most business books are total bullcrap.  (Read Niccolo Machiavelli instead, I always say.)  But The Sensuous Woman?  Srsly?  Did an older male mentor suggest that to you, too, Trunk?  It’s too bad you’re so against reporting sexual harassment–because you’d certainly have a case if that’s what happened!

I suppose if we younger women follow her advice to the letter, we can stop reading after #1:  “The whole time, I have found that older men gave me great career advice and older women gave me bad advice.”  Why does she bother trying to give other women bad advice, when her first point is that we shouldn’t listen to other women?

My bet is that she’s trying to eliminate the competition.  A former colleague of mine described this as the “Queen Bee Syndrome.”  Queen Bees according to her definition are women who succeeded in a professional workplace when there were no other women, and they percieve other women as rivals to their success, not as mentees or possible allies.  I have learned that not all women can be counted on as allies–that’s for sure!  But Trunk’s “postfeminist” vision of the workplace isn’t any place I want to inhabit.  (Fortunately, most of the commenters seem to smell a rat, too.)

0 thoughts on “Today in "postfeminism": career advice from your worst frenemy!

  1. Wow! What an amazing article – I love thetried-and-true tactic of trying to terrorize women into getting married and having babies earlier (connected to the extremely inflated miscarriage rates she cites as being SIXTY PERCENT – click the link and one is presented with actual statistics about miscarriage rates rising incrementally with age, but never above 30%). I guess I’ll just thank my lucky stars I was able to ensnare a man in my early 30s and have babies before my ovaries dried up along with my chance for having any kind of meaningful life. Since obviously the only chance you have at a meaningful life includes marriage and biological children. Get cracking, girls! I can hear your eggs drying up from here! The whole idea that women either put marriage before career or career before marriage is absurd. The vast majority of people are doing something I like to call *living our lives*, which sometimes includes meeting a partner at an early age, a later age, or never, and sometimes includes focusing on or stumbling into an intense and rewarding career path. But of course if postfeminists and misogynists didn’t create binaries like work vs family, how would they ever keep women in their place? (Sort of like putative ‘mommy wars’ and male fantasies about ‘cat fighting.)

    I’m also thrilled to know there is no longer any wage disparities between women and men! Just pure equality, everywhere we look. I guess that’s why I see so many women senators and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, not to mention full professors. . .

    I’ve also encountered some version of the Queen Bee syndrome and been confronted with undisguised hostility from older female colleagues, but this is hardly a universal experience.


  2. How depressing that this Queen Bee crap flourishes in a woman who was born in, I gather, 1967.

    Isn’t Trunk the woman who got in trouble for tweeting her miscarriage as it happened, typing she was glad to lose the pregnancy without the nuisance of getting an abortion?


  3. Speaking of career advice, I’m going to ask you teh same question I as over at the confluence:

    What is a good place to go to for college/career advice for a middle-schooler? Talking about a 13yo who is talented at writing, an artist, also good at math, and is consistently a straight A student. She is probably in the gifted IQ range in terms of math & language. Not into science at all though.
    I am at a loss at where to steer her in terms of college or future work … given the state of our nation. I would hope that she could get solid training in something that would keep her body & soul together (and not get outsourced) and still allow her to write, since she really seems drawn to that.


  4. Penelope Trunk (I don’t think that’s her real name …) is a two-steps-forward, three-steps-back kind of career writer. Some of her advice on interviewing has helped me tremendously, and I credit her for it. Then again, that’s an example of me taking advice from another woman.

    I really do think she has a few good ideas, but she needs an editor or a better inner filter. Whenever she talks about her personal life (that shocking miscarriage tweet) or feminism/postfeminism, she goes off the rails.

    Post Academic


  5. votermom,

    It sounds like you think she is humanities material. That’s great, but I would say encourage her to experiment with majors and take interesting classes more than jump right into a major, for instance. The intelligent humanities graduate has a solid base from which they can launch any number of careers. Just as important, however, from a practical employment perspective is demonstrating relevant extracurricular engagement during college. Being on a lit mag’s staff and becoming editor, for instance, would allow her to put all sorts of practical and marketable skills on her resume by the time she finished, to claim experience writing, leading, managing a budget, doing visual design work, interacting with administration. Volunteer work and internships are a plus. International study is great for foreign language acquisition and interpersonal relations (and it’s also an immense adventure!). I would encourage extracurricular involvement, really, and allow her to enjoy whatever major she picked (if she enjoys it, surely, by your description, she will excel at it).

    But not business school. Business schools are the enemy of the soul.



  6. As for #4, I know an in her early 40s woman who disappointedly told me how her wink wink smile smile take them [The] out for lunch occasionally no longer worked as a way to guarantee her department ahead of other departments. Now it is all about giving them i-Pods, I-Pads, and i-Phones as bribes or wait in line. She seemed disappointed that her sensuality was no longer available as a bargaining tool.


  7. Are you sure that this advice was not meant to be sarcastic? I’m kind of terrified that these people still exist. Some of the best advice I have gotten is from the blog of Denice Kronau , who is on older woman (and a CEO).

    I’ve had to deal with Queen Bee syndrome in the past too! A really bad boss. Suffice it to say that I did not stay there long.


  8. That does it. Historiann, I’m no longer asking you for advice about anything. You’re just holding me back with your terrible advice and whining about nonexistent gender disparities in the workplace. Same goes for Tenured Radical and Female Science Professor. I’ll just ask my senior male colleages — if they ever bother to show up.


  9. You know, one of my gut tests for if a statement, action, or piece of writing is sexist is to ask myself: would I react differently if a man said this than if a woman did? Crude, yes, but it can be a reasonable first screen. (My crude gut check for racist statements as well.)

    So having said that…I found this absolutely astonishing. If I had given this “advice” to a female student I would have been (rightly) called to the carpet by my department chair or some other supervisor. It puts the “post” in “postfeminist”, to be sure.

    And–I generally figure that I have a high bar for TMI; I can handle a lot of personal “I”. But did I need to know she conducted a “multiyear study” of The Sensuous Woman? Really?


  10. Mmmmmmmm. . . I love the smell of postfeminism! It smells a lot like prefeminism, doesn’t it?

    Katie, I wondered too if this wasn’t an April Fools joke. Maybe it is. Oh well–at least I’ve provided all of you with a good laugh for the day!

    The thing about Queen Bees is that they never figure out that the real threat to their jobs are younger men, who will be promoted into to the Queen Bees’ jobs 10 years before they themselves were. I don’t know if I’ve ever worked with a true Queen Bee–in the one case of a former department chair at another institution, I think it was perhaps just one of a number of pathologies she expressed.


  11. And, John S.: yes to the big EEEEeewwww on the TMI.

    The whole thing reads like she’s still sucking up to senior men, doesn’t it? Kind of sad: “Pick me! Pick me! I’m the good girl! I did everything you told me to do! You have to pick me!”


  12. Votermom: Urban planning, especially if she has people skills. You can go in lots of different directions: historic preservation, environmentalism, social policy, transportation, etc. There are international work opportunities. And urban planners generally don’t get outsourced.

    All the urban planners I know are happy people, though sometimes annoyed that powerful people don’t listen to them enough. As a historian, I can say the same thing about myself–but the urban planners make more money.


  13. votermom: I think Bing and Mamie have good suggestions. But, I wouldn’t pressure her to do anything except continue to develop her curiosity about the world both inside and outside of class. If she has strong math skills, she may yet come to enjoy science–don’t rule that out for her. Encourage her to read and engage in activities she enjoys outside of schoolwork. I sometimes think that the reading I did outside my high school curricula was more important than anything I read because it was on a syallbus.

    If she thinks she has a strong interest in a particular career field, introduce her to someone in the field and ask if she can “shadow” hir for half a day this summer. But otherwise–let her figure out what she wants to do.


  14. She does read copiously, mostly fiction, but I LOLed when she brought home Budge’s Book of the Dead from the library recently. (And carefully copying the hieroglyphs into her notebook). Coincidentally, the school is considering offering a look at ancient Egypt during the summer (part-day camp) –hopefully that happens so she can sign up for it.


  15. One of the things I love about your blog, Historiann, is how much I learn. There is no longer a wage gap? Great! Thanks for the raise!

    As an older woman, I’ll stop giving advice….


  16. Yeah–STFU, Susan! You’re just out to sabotage our careers! (And you know what I mean by STFU, don’t you?)


    I followed the link that Mark K. left above, and “Penelope Trunk” sure is a piece of work. I won’t comment on her personal or professional life choices–those are her decisions to make. I’ll just suggest that she sure lives out loud all over the internets. But, women who attack and derail other women professionals sure do get a lot of ink and pixels, don’t they? Whereas women who hand out earnest and sensible advice–not so much.

    As for giving or taking advice: I think everyone should talk to lots of different people, and then make up their own minds about how to handle different work situations or opportunities. No one person–or type of person (like “senior males”)–will give everyone else the right advice all of the time. Everyone has different experiences that may make them more or less aware of different issues in the workplace.

    And, like I always say: here at, you get what you pay for. So, take it for what it’s worth.


  17. I actually double-checked the content at that link to make sure it wasn’t posted on April 1st. I cannot parse even a sentence of it without assuming it is written as piece of satire.


  18. KrisT and others–I read down through the comments thread, and Trunk shows up with more links to “prove” the nonexistence of the wage gap. Fer real.

    It’s always been a fantastic career move to go antifeminist or (more cleverly) “postfeminist.” It’s kind of like we were discussing yesterday: who do you think makes more money on average? Members of the Federalist Society, or attorneys working for Legal Aid. (And what are the odds that there are all that many attorneys who are on both mailing lists?)


  19. I got to the party late today and scrolled down to see if there was anything original or authoritative I could offer to votermom’s query (being an older guy and all that), but Historiann says it all: curiosity, reading, writing. I spent a crazed but interesting day with five homerooms full of middle schoolers a month or so ago and their energy is great, but I think it’s pretty much too early for them to be trying out specific life or career categories. The curiosity part is key, though. The most important intellectual faculty there is, at any level, I think.

    On another note, a colleague is in a big hissing spat with a bunch of obtuse administrators around here and ze has just impulsively threatened to send them all to various places in Dante’s Inferno. Another colleague jumped in and said, whoa, don’t send them to Level Two, ’cause that’s where [Indyanna] is apparently going, so I guess it’s official now! I suggested the City of Dis as an alternative, but that would only inflict them on other readers here–and who needs more obtuse administrators?


  20. You know, all this thwapping my head onto my desk is bad for both the furniture and my health. I wish people like Trunk would stop saying such idiotic things.

    Personally, I find it better to judge advice by its content and not by the gender/relative age of the provider. But I’m just old-fashioned, that way!


  21. Belatedly re: wage disparities, or lack thereof:

    It didn’t make headlines in the ‘lowest faculty salary increases in a billion years’ articles, but buried in that report was the finding that “At every type of institution in almost every class of faculty, men were paid substantially more, on average, than women.” (NYT)

    Gee, who woulda thunk it (Not Penelope, apparently).


  22. Cassandra, that’s what “postfeminism” is! (And it’s why I always put it in quotation marks.) Postfeminism is the newer, sleeker version of antifeminism that was born when people got tired of screaming, “what are you women complaining about? Feminism is a solution to imaginary “problems” that spring from biology/women’s “natural” choices/men’s “natural” competitiveness, etc.” They just turned on a dime and claimed, “Now the problems are all solved! Things were bad once upon a time, but what are you women complaining about now?” Ergo “postfeminism.”

    Shaz–to her credit, when Trunk commented in the comments thread, she said that the one exception to her claim that the wage gap doesn’t exist any more is academia! So, she must have seen the NYT article too. (Do you have a link for it? I missed that story, and that part esp. because as you say, it wasn’t what people wanted to talk about.)

    I wish I had saved a link to her comment–but I didn’t. Apologies.


  23. I have been lurking for while, and really enjoy reading both your posts and the comments.
    I would not have delurked at all, except I’m tired of all the youngish women coming out with comments that you have detailed, attributed to Penelope whomever. Some background here, I was a middle manager in a multinational corporation for over 35 years, and I had to fight every year to maintain that position. I could not go beyond, for various reasons – a distinct disgust of pandering being the major one. #1: I mentored many younger women during those years – some of whom actually did go beyond the glass ceiling. Unfortunately their impact was short lived, and the cracks healed.
    Vis a vis #2. Prioritize marriage and baby-making, because if you wait until 30 you’re doomed. That is so much patriarchial bunkum. When I had my children, I was 38 and 40, and in the clinics I was amazed to see many women who were older. I was and am a single mom, sole support. I had children because I felt that I could offer them a solid upbringing and education, and I have. And I worked throughout their upbringing by negotiating successfully to work at home. They are both in their 20s, both have uni education, and while one is continuing into grad studies, the other is busy working on building a business in promotion and performance – music of course.
    #3 – only someone who has no clue would write that.
    #4 – The Senuous woman? I suppose that alone says it all about this person. Guess that’s why Cambridge University U.K. is now allowing lessons in pole dancing to be offered.
    Geez, I was in the forefront of equality now efforts in the 60’s. To watch all our efforts, and they were intense, to be tossed in the ditch is tough, but if that is indeed what women of today want, then by all means ignore older women. We dreamed of another reality – one where women were truly equal and have guarenteed rights. As the latest efforts in Nevada indicate, the clock is turning backward.
    Sorry for the diatribe. I’ll go back to lurking.


  24. I’ve been reading Trunk for years, or rather finding her popping up all over the place and avoiding reading her. She’s started a few businesses, but nothing’s really taken off, so I suppose the only way she gets money is writing poorly written and researched sensationalist articles. She used to write for Yahoo for a while, and then started some career blog site for millenials that was ok and had some promising writers (not her) until she started trying to do things to get people to pay her money for it.

    I find it humorous she mentions older male mentors since I’m pretty sure she’s admitted to having several relationships with men at work who were her superiors, and gave them credit for helping her career along. Maybe she never appreciated an older woman’s advice because it wasn’t sex in exchange for promotion. I just can’t work up any respect for her.


  25. Pingback: Holiday snaps, part I : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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