The Girl On Wall Street: Why a Statue is Not Enough

On the value of public symbols

Business Features Wall Street
The Girl On Wall Street: Why a Statue is Not Enough

International Woman’s Day is a great idea, and it is wonderful that we celebrate it. Until women are truly liberated, none of us are free.

Therefore, I was a tad confused when I saw certain members of the financial community place a statue of a little girl in front of their famous graven image, the Bull of Wall Street. Indeed, the picture of a child on the verge of being gored by a giant, rampaging creature, which nobody can tame, is a truer picture of the Street’s relationship to the rest of us than any other image.

But I thought further about what powerful moral lessons may be summoned into the brain by this inspired pair of metal shapes.

Here is the official explanation for the statue, per CNN Money, in an article titled “Why a defiant girl is staring down the Wall Street bull”:

Early on Tuesday morning, State Street Global Advisors installed a statue of a defiant girl, with hands on her hips, chin high and pony tail out, in front of the charging bull. The bronze statue, entitled “Fearless Girl,” was installed a day ahead of International Women’s Day. “Fearless Girl” is designed to call attention to a new initiative by the asset-manager to increase the number of women on their clients’ corporate boards. “Today, we are calling on companies to take concrete steps to increase gender diversity on their boards and have issued clear guidance to help them begin to take action,” Ron O’Hanley, president and CEO of SSGA said in a statement. “A key contributor to effective independent board leadership is diversity of thought, which requires directors with different skills, backgrounds and expertise.”

I am informed by the same article that “SSGA invests in more than 3,500 companies in the U.S., UK and Australia. Altogether, it represents more than $30 trillion in market capitalization.”

The story of the little girl staring down the bull is the worldview of the neoliberal order; a sensibility which thinks all the oppression of the world will be solved by installing women on corporate boards: oppression is fine, if the oppressor class is diverse enough. The world is just when oppression is dismantled, not made more diverse.

The statue on Wall Street is the perfect embodiment of all the problems which exist in modern liberalism: as long as you’re performing the right stance, you don’t have to fight. Imagine a martial art that claimed that the correct pose was all it took to win a brawl!

And this is the sensibility which modern liberalism is stuck on: “If domination is diverse enough, we don’t need to worry about domination.” This is the view which tells us that if a demographically representative section of the populace is wealthy, we can forget about the poor: that if there are enough rich women, the many impoverished women may be ignored. In this worldview, a billionaire placing a cold, metal thing in the shape of a girl on Wall Street is the same thing as striking the chains from women.

Of course symbols are important. Of course diversity matters. Of course representation matters. They are crucial. It is excellent that they are encouraged.

But they by themselves are not enough. And they are especially, definitely not enough when they are used by systems of oppression to pretend that they are enlightened.

Maria Hengeveld wrote about this in Slate. Nike, an immensely wealthy company, loves to boast of its astounding wokeness:

Just as Nike has worked hard in recent years to elevate the status of women on the field and court, it’s been successful doing the same in the world of global philanthropy. … Nike didn’t invent the idea that tapping into the earning potential and selfless spending patterns of impoverished women can ignite economic development. It’s been promoted by the World Bank and other international development organizations since the 1980s; before that, attention to girls was substantially absent in global development efforts. But by coining and investing in the Girl Effect, the Nike Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, “gave it authority and made it catchy,” says Kathryn Moeller, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is writing a book about the Girl Effect.

Celebrating the strength and virtue of women is both moral and good business. But this same awareness does not percolate down to the women who make Nike shoes. Hegenveld interviewed many of the ladies who work in Vietnamese factories:

Although they may be unfamiliar with Nike’s global campaign, the goal of the women I spoke with sounds a lot like the Girl Effect—to raise themselves and their families out of poverty. Each of the 18 women, however, reported pay so low they could not even meet the basic needs of their families, let alone save money or contribute to their communities. (Four had been laid off less than three months before we met, after their factory building burnt down; they spoke only about their wages and child care, cautious of giving critiques that might jeopardize their chances of getting hired back.) They told me that they would need to earn between three to four times their current salaries to offer their families a basic level of economic security. The average monthly wage for manufacturing in Vietnam was $200 in 2015. Their stories highlighted something the Girl Effect campaign is silent about: the importance of a living wage.

Woke, bougie liberalism coexists, and is to some extent dependent on, economic exploitation. It is methadone for progressives, who tell themselves they are doing righteous work to buy socially-aware brands. It is especially frustrating when it is used as placeholder for doing the vital work of opposition.

Why should it be this way? Because modern liberalism—neoliberalism—made its peace with late-stage capitalism, about the time the Democrats started taking Wall Street’s money in huge amounts. And the one thing that the finance industry and liberalism agree on is diversity. Diversity is wonderful, but diversity alone does not challenge the systems of exploitation and power. Cultural progressivism is wonderful, but it is nothing without economic progressivism. Diversity alone does not challenge the power of Wall Street. If you are arguing for diversity of one class—the boardroom class, the ruling class—then you are selling every other class up the river, including countless numbers of working women who are exploited by that system.

If Wall Street was serious about diversity, if they were genuinely, honest-to-god serious about the liberation of women, then they would care about the representation of all women, not just those who have gone to good schools in the developed world. Perhaps they ought to read the data on women’s equality across the world. Here’s an article by Oxfam:

Yet in recent decades, working people, in rich and poor countries alike, have received a smaller and smaller slice of the economic pie, while those who own capital have seen their assets grow disproportionately. Low wages for the majority of people, and particularly for women, are at the heart of this scandal. At the same time, women continue to carry out the majority of unpaid care and domestic work, which is essential to keep economies functioning but is unrecognized and undermined in policy making

Late-stage capitalism is down with diversity because it means more consumers, and more people selling the goods. But a pluralistic corporate board does not help the millions of women who work in factories overseas for less than a living wage.

Even in this Wall Street-dominated system, there is a place for business-folk to fight for justice. I think of my grandfather, who insisted his employees of every color sit together in the segregated South, at a time when it was not popular to do so. I think of the business owners out there who are doing quiet work towards liberation, in their own way—giving their employees more than “the market” demands, keeping an eye towards the worth of people, not the amount of the bottom line.

I think of the women and men who started their own firm from nothing, and have chosen to share when they could have taken it all for themselves. I think of the owners who, even in an unfair system, have gone out of their way to be decent and just and give people a chance. When I think of goodness in business I remember these people, whose ethics are written in living action, not in public displays of carved metal.

What do I think when a trillion-dollar company places a statue in front of a bull, on International Women’s Day? I think they co-opt a day of liberation with the purpose of continuing the same old oppression. The little girl in front of the bull isn’t the opposition; she’s the accomplice.

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