Being hailed as a must watch for every workplace for finally tackling bro culture, Purl, Pixar’s short film directed by Kristen Lester supports the ridiculous idea that women alone can end sexism.
Pixar had a real opportunity to inspire millions of eager viewers to take actions that really solve issues surrounding gender, work, and inclusion. Instead, they created a video about this complex and sensitive topic without thinking through the facts. In this era of “diversity and inclusion fatigue” from misinformation that doesn’t produce change, Pixar has added to the fray and is sending us spinning their wheels on the wrong solutions.
The film shows a working woman, Purl, magically transforming her office’s bro culture into a welcoming, happy workplace simply by including a new female colleague. Under the film’s logic, a woman, who is already under obvious pressure, can simply end all workplace gender issues by being nice to another lady.
(It’s also just as troubling to imagine the parallel scenario: that solving workplace racial diversity is as simple as having the one African-American employee welcome the new African-American employee.)
If women supporting women was the solution to workplace sexism (or any sexism for that matter), it would have happened already. Individual trailblazers and corporate women’s groups have been elevating women for decades; research shows women are still not breaking that glass ceiling (or even getting equal pay at entry level jobs). Also, it’s not actually women elevating women that works best: men (who make up more of the leadership positions and hold more of the power) must usher in women’s inclusion and advancement.
Pixar peddles the offensive idea that women who want to earn respect at work in a male-majority environment should merely conform. This just isn’t true. Women who dress the part, lean in, carry the right briefcase, communicate dominantly, and put the proper objects on their desk from day one are still rejected, underpaid, under-promoted, and under-respected. Pixar’s premise is insulting to women who have done everything “right” but still haven’t been given respect or equal opportunities.
Pixar’s video also hinges on the idea that the problem is that women need improving, not the workplace. As a corporate gender strategist, I am in constant conversation with leaders who admit they would be more comfortable sending their women to a leadership seminar, than (doing the real work of) fixing organizational, policy, and cultural issues.
The first problem with fixing women but not the company is this: boosting women’s skills and confidence is a waste if we don’t also fix companies. Imagine sending confident, talented women into a company that asks them to do the calendaring, coffee-making, and handling the low-risk clients while their male peers are told to run with the most visible initiatives. Straight up, coaching women to “lean in” to companies that aren’t doing the work is a set up for failure.
Second, the latest data (by McKinsey & Co. and Leanin.org) show that women are already “leaning in,” striving for top roles, negotiating for the pay they deserve, etc.… Companies just overlook and underutilize these capable women.
Creating a fair workplace for women requires a consistent, company-wide effort primarily focused on leaders, Human Resources, and middle managers. Companies must crunch their data to see where they are losing, create new policies, and train up managers to eliminate bias, especially in recruiting and promotions. To really do it right, businesses need leaders that actively endorse women and equity and that won’t stand for a “bro culture.” To really do equity well, companies need flexible/remote work programs, strong parental policies, a focus on retaining talented women, pay equity, and co-ed mentoring programs.
I certainly understand why the (female) writer/director of Purl would want to draw attention to the degrading experiences she and so many other women have in the workplace. The bias and disrespect faced by women in so many workplaces and male-majority teams is totally unacceptable. I don’t blame the writer for not knowing how to fix this complicated issue: a single employee shouldn’t have to be an expert in fixing the complex and pervasive business problem of gender equity that she’s faced.
But, I do blame Pixar. A company that so many of us love, follow, and look up to as an important modern voice on our culture has irresponsibly pumped out a video meant to teach us all about “bro culture” – without researching the facts that could have really helped begin to dismantle it.
Instead, Pixar only did enough to seem like they care, but not enough to really fix the issue they supposedly care about.