Ivanka Trump, the American president’s eldest daughter and official assistant, released her new book Women Who Work on Tuesday. The book, she says, is meant to be the latest effort in her campaign to “change the conversation around women and work.” Her lifelong mission, she repeats frequently throughout, is, “Inspiring and empowering women who work — at all aspects of their lives.”
But the book is no call to arms for women to disrupt the interlocking systems that currently ensure they earn less and are hoarded at the bottom of the country’s career ladders and power structures. Instead, it’s a pastel version of her father’s The Art of the Deal: do as I do, as a rich and successful person, and I promise you will become a rich and successful person too.
Such a panacea is almost always false. Her father built a whole university selling the idea that students could pay to learn how to become like him — and it’s since been discovered to have been a total sham. The younger Trump doesn’t offer much more in the way of substance for the millions of working American women struggling to get jobs, raise families, and earn enough to get by. The book leaves out the experiences and needs of the vast majority of women in the workforce.
It’s clear — and clearly stated — that Trump set out to write a self-help guide aimed at women just like herself. The book frequently addresses itself to a specific “you”: “modern professional women, like you and me.” The whole Women Who Work project, if it can be called that — it mostly consists of hashtags, inspirational quotes, and “selfie videos” — emerged “from my personal experience, and from observing the women around me — my team, my friends, all the women I knew,” she writes.
The problem is that the women Trump surrounds herself with offer a very skewed vision of what the typical American working woman looks like. Toward the beginning of the book she lays out the kinds of women she wants to speak for: “[A] founder of your own company or a stay-at-home mom, an assistant in a larger corporation or a part-time freelancer working from home…”
“As a woman who works, you’re not just making a living,” she tells the reader. “As a woman who works, you choose proactively how to spend your time.”
But what help do these women — people like Ivanka Trump — need in succeeding? It’s clear she doesn’t think there really is a whole lot, and therefore what she offers to readers is a mere pep talk without much of anything useful to real women who work.
Most American women are not running their own businesses or even working in office jobs at large corporations. The most common jobs women hold are secretaries or receptionists, K-12 teachers, nurses, retail workers, house cleaners, and waitresses. They make up nearly two-thirds of all Americans earning the minimum wage and about the same share of low-wage jobs that pay just slightly more, despite the fact that women represent about half of the workforce overall. These low-paid jobs include home health aides, childcare providers, fast food workers, restaurant servers, and maids.
For the majority of women who work, work is poorly paid and undervalued.
Yet Trump’s loudest message is that any woman can get what she wants — to become like Trump herself, presumably — through sheer hard work, passion, and a cheery attitude. “[P]assion, combined with perseverance, is a great equalizer, more important than education or experience in achieving your version of success,” she writes. “If you are laser focused and fiercely devoted to your purpose, you are far more likely to succeed… People who are enthusiastic, diligent, and committed to excellence almost always become highly successful; conversely, it’s hard to be truly great at what you do if you aren’t genuinely passionate about it.”
While she acknowledges that “there’s plenty in life you can’t control,” she still argues most of it comes down to individual choices women make, not the systemic forces that may be aligned against them.
But in jobs such as fast food, retail, and home health care, there is little room to be proactive or exert control over the constraints of the work. In retail and food service, schedules are handed down by employers, sometimes just a few days in advance. Employees are frequently forced to work more than one shift in a day, take “clopening” shifts where they stay late to close up shop but must be back in at the crack of dawn to open, or be on call in case they’re needed without any guarantee of actual work. There is no negotiation over these demands.
And while some women may feel passionate about educating students or serving disabled clients, many of these jobs entail a fair amount of drudgery. Is a fast food employee supposed to find passion in reheating frozen burgers or working a dangerous grill? Are retail clerks supposed to find higher fulfillment in folding clothes and maintaining fitting rooms? Work’s end, for many, is to make ends meet.
Trump does, infrequently, lift her head from her own cloud of privilege to see the reason why many people have to work. “When you’re focused on simply finding or doing a job in order to make ends meet, the concept of satisfaction at work might seem irrelevant, even precious,” she notes a few chapters in. Yet a sentence later she asserts, “Work provides us with a sense of purpose; a vehicle for self-expression; the opportunity to contribute to a mission that matters to us and to others.”
Trump does recognize some of the struggles confronting working women: low pay, a lack of benefits, and the challenge of raising children while making a living. Yet for her, anything that doesn’t spring up automatically from a positive outlook and working harder than everyone around you can simply be fixed by her father’s favorite tactic: negotiating.
Work at a company that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave? Negotiate for a “unique” plan to fit your needs. How to deal with a layoff? Negotiate a higher severance package. How to get better pay? “[Y]ou can negotiate your salary.” How to deal with an overly demanding boss? “[T]alk to her and propose a solution.” Want to work remotely or more flexibly? Go to your boss, “have a conversation,” and present the facts. Got a lowball job offer or a rent renewal you can’t afford? Make it known that you can walk away from negotiations so as to play hardball — no mention made, of course, what might happen to someone who can’t get other jobs or housing.
“You choose,” Trump insists. “When it comes to creating the life you want to live, consciously or not, you choose the kind of work you do, the character of the people who surround you, the type of organization to which you will or won’t devote yourself.” If, on the other hand, you’re overly focused on the hurdles in front of you — a lack of job opportunities, say, or an employer that refuses to grant you paid time off — you won’t get anywhere; you’ll be one of the “negative people” who don’t get ahead.
Trump leaves no room in her narrative for people who have little choice over their life circumstances, who may be stuck on the lower rungs of American’s class system with a shrinking chance of moving up. Overworked? Underpaid? Barely getting by? That’s on you.
While Trump acknowledges that she began her own life on the penthouse floor and thus was privy to an enormous set of privileges, that privilege is glossed over in the telling of her life story. The fact that she had a father who took her to construction sites when she was young doesn’t inspire her to reflect on what it meant to begin her career as a businessman’s daughter; she magically attends Wharton and lands a prestigious real estate job right out of school with no mention of how family connections may have brought her both things. When Anna Wintour herself calls up college student Ivanka Trump and offers her a job at Vogue out of the blue, she offers no thoughts on the insane privilege that represents.
She even has a few moments of indulging in the idea that she has it tough. When things got particularly hairy for Trump during the presidential campaign, she describes going into “survival mode,” which consisted of just spending time on work and family. “I didn’t do much else,” she writes. “Honestly, I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care. I wish could have awoken early to meditate for twenty minutes and I would have loved to catch up with friends…but there just wasn’t enough time in the day.”
It’s easy to laugh off some of these out-of-touch stories. The book would be a mostly harmless self-help manual for the 1 percent if it weren’t for the fact that through it, and through her official White House role, Trump is purporting to lead the charge in changing women’s place in society. She talks of the “workplace revolution we are launching” through the advice she lays out and creating a “movement” out of her #WomenWhoWork hashtag. She wants to “overcome…the seemingly insurmountable challenges we face in the world of work.”
Yet it isn’t until the second-to-last page that she can even muster the ability to talk about women who “work in low-wage jobs that offer neither flexibility nor benefits.” Policy solutions only bubble up on the final page. It’s there that she acknowledges that current law doesn’t guarantee Americans any paid leave and that most parents can’t get “safe, affordable, high-quality childcare.”
She even admits that the Women Who Work mantle is little more than a marketing ploy. She dreamed up the idea and then immediately knew “it was important that we communicate the right message” — so her organization brought in top ad agencies to develop the concept of “Women Who Work.”
Trump has in fact dipped a toe into the world of policymaking, helping to craft the paid maternity leave and childcare tax credit proposals her father released on the campaign trail. But both of these are so limited as to offer barely any help to anyone who actually needs it. And Women Who Work serves as a giant clue as to how someone who thinks she is a champion of working women could offer up a paid leave policy that could actually hurt many working women and a childcare tax benefit that confers most benefits on the wealthy, who need it least.
The biggest takeaway from Ivanka Trump’s new book is not any of the advice she doles out, but the crystal clear insight into how limited her worldview is, how many women who work are not included in #WomenWhoWork. This has huge ramifications now that she’s in the White House. It means that when Trump promises to use her father’s presidency to help achieve women’s equality, she’ll only ever be talking about women who already have the same privileges that she herself enjoys.