... and ain't I a woman?: 'Share-her-smile-but-not-her-wealth' Jill

Issue 

Jill Barad is arguably the world's highest paid woman. According to the April 29 Sydney Morning Herald, despite her company's revenue decline during 1997, Barad's total

and ain't i a woman?

... and ain't I a woman?: 'Share-her-smile-but-not-her-wealth' Jill

Jill Barad is arguably the world's highest paid woman. According to the April 29 Sydney Morning Herald, despite her company's revenue decline during 1997, Barad's total remuneration package as chief executive officer for that year — inclusive of salary, bonuses, incentive pay and other compensation — was US$26.3 million. In 1998, her base salary increased, although she had to make do with less income overall, because some of the previous year's loot was a one-off and had to last her for several years.

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In the Crystal Report, editor and executive compensation critic Graef Crystal calculated that Barad's base salary is 60% higher than that of CEOs running most companies of a similar size.

Barad's company is Mattel, the toy manufacturer responsible for a product that has for four decades socialised the unrealistic and totally unobtainable image of women's beauty into the minds of hundreds of millions of young girls worldwide: the Barbie doll.

Barbie recently turned 40, but you wouldn't know it. Her waist is still tiny, her legs long and slim, and her large breasts still defy gravity after all these years.

Barbie leads a charmed life. She has homes, accessories, camper vans, boats, a wardrobe that even Imelda Marcos would envy. She has friends, a loving, handsome — although genitally challenged — companion, Ken. She also sports a wheelchair in the differently abled version, the "Share a smile" Barbie doll, and still carries it off with the style and glamour we have learned to expect from this polished but plastic performer.

From all indications, CEO Barad also seems to be living a charmed life. With her fabulous wealth, Barad's life choices are far greater than those available to the overwhelming majority of women, who worry about bills and making their meagre incomes stretch to feed the kids and the pets, in a world where child-care is unaffordable and job insecurity is the norm. Compare the choices for the 3000 workers (around 10% of its work force) about to be laid off by Mattel after a major toy distributor cut back stock levels again last year.

These women are bombarded every day with images of the "perfect" woman — who can juggle work, family and end the day on the leather lounge looking every bit the super model.

Mattel reported a US$17.9 million loss for the first quarter of 1999. But its CEO need not worry: the company has decided that shedding staff is the best way to cut costs, so her little nest egg is not in doubt.

Some might say that Barad is a role model, that the road to equality is paved with the examples of high-powered, high-earning women like her. If you work hard enough, you too can break through that pesky glass ceiling, so the argument goes. If enough of us achieve that sort of success, won't that solve the problem of gender inequality?

But Barad's wealth will not benefit women in general. Her success will not push the cause of women's liberation further, or win back some of the gains of the 1960s and 1970s that have been sacrificed in the name of economic rationalism. The only people to gain from her success will be herself and, eventually, those who inherit her substantial estate.

Barad's and her ilk's wealth comes from the exploitation of women and girls as workers and as consumers of a product whose image they can never achieve.

"Feminists" who see equality and empowerment in terms of how many millionaires are female ignore how little power the majority of women have.

The kind of feminists I want to stand, struggle and work alongside are those who fight for real equality between women and men, a better deal for all. Feminists who find it unacceptable that ordinary working women are still brought into, then kicked out of, the work force at the whim of company profit calculators. Feminists who recognise that sexism, like racism, is used as a tool to divide ordinary people who stand to gain from united action. Those are the feminists who will succeed in achieving real equality for women.

By Margaret Allum