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Dawn Foster Interview: Equality, Misogyny and Leaning Out

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Social affairs journalist Dawn Foster's new book Lean Out is a mere 81 pages long, but it packs a powerful punch. Inspired by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's likeable bestseller Lean In, it's much more than just a riposte to the popular business manifesto for women. Fascinating, thought-provoking and at times outrage-inducing, Lean Out elucidates the many ways in which women are being subjugated by corporations and the government, and encourages us to take direct action to address these inequalities.

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To prepare for our interview, I read both Lean In and Lean Out. Although both authors naturally want women to have a better deal in life, and both back up their points with statistical data and anecdotal evidence, their books are very different. While Sandberg's tone is breezy and accessible, Foster's is more academic and full of realism and urgency; and while Sandberg says the key to women's success lies in changing our behaviour, Foster states that this is pointless when our institutions are inherently prejudiced against us.

In the flesh, Foster is confident, witty and fun. Still only 28, she's one of the frankest and most interesting people to follow on social media, as she says exactly what she thinks and refuses to be cowed by Twitter trolls; recent tweets of hers lambast the government for being an 'absolute cavalcade of pillocks', praise the junior doctors' strike, and rebuke David Cameron for his parenting classes voucher scheme: 'Man who left daughter in a pub tells people in poverty they need parenting lessons.'

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We meet for drinks in North London. How did you feel when you first read Lean In, I ask? 'Quite conflicted,' Foster confesses. 'A lot of what Sheryl Sandberg said was very practical and needed to be said... a lot of her advice was very very good, but she seemed to be unfailingly positive about the businesses that she's worked for. She didn't say "You need to forcefully speak up more in meetings, because men have a habit of talking over you, and patriarchy encourages male voices and discourages female voices, and you need to work against that." She never criticised the institutions that perpetuate inequality against women.'

She takes a sip of cider. 'And one thing that upset me quite a bit is that the only reason that Sandberg's life is at all possible is because she employs low-paid women to clean her house, do the grocery shopping, look after her children, run her finances... and her advice wouldn't help those women at all. Speaking up more in meetings isn't going to help a cleaner, because they don't have meetings, they just get isolated.'

She gives an example from her own life: 'If I'm in a newspaper office and I write 20 stories a month, and most people do ten, I can say 'Look, I do a lot of work - I deserve a raise'. If you're a cleaner, and you clean a lot, you can't ask for more.'

Sandberg starts her book with a series of disclaimers about the fact that it doesn't address institutional bias against women. Does Foster think she was anticipating a book like Lean Out? 'I don't know. I think she genuinely believes that once you get a couple of women in at the top, then it automatically follows that you get more women slowly throughout the whole structure. So she honestly felt that if you get a female Prime Minister, then the cabinet becomes 50:50, more feminist policies are enacted... and my book makes the point that this hasn't happened.'

As with Thatcher, I say. 'Yeah. And if you look at Theresa May, she has a policy now to keep out immigrants earning under £35K a year, and that really impacts on women, because a lot of immigrant women who are coming in with their British partners won't earn that, because women have children. And when you look at Sweden and Norway, where they've brought in laws to put more women in at the very top, what happens is those boardrooms have more women, but nothing else about the institution changed - and the women that they brought in didn't really change much themselves either. The boards wanted to maintain the status quo, and the best way of doing that was to get some women in that they vaguely knew who wouldn't rock the boat that much.'

Foster speaks quickly and passionately. 'The book assumes that women always work in the interests of women, but people aren't male and female and that's it. If Theresa May is a white woman who is very well-educated and very wealthy, she's more likely to act in the interests of, say, a very wealthy white man than she is a working class poor black or immigrant woman. This is for both personal reasons and career reasons, and she may feel a lot closer to wealthier people of the same background than she would to someone of her own gender from a completely different background. So that's another issue that Sandberg didn't really address.'

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When I mention a male friend who alleged that leaning out of the corporate model would have no effect, Foster counters with the example of a group of cleaners in Birmingham, 'who found out that they were being under-paid in comparison to men. They went to their trade union, and the union said "What we want you to do is to not kick up a fuss, because we're worried that the men will have a pay cut and it will be at their expense." The women replied "Actually, we're going to press on with this anyway", so they removed their labour and they won.'

Foster then suggests other ways to lean out: 'If you're in a meeting and a man talks loudly over you, rather than copying that behaviour and normalising it, what you could do is say 'Can everybody stop doing this and instead put up a hand when we talk?' It's about not aping and copying men's behaviour, and instead taking a stand and moving things outside.' Foster has seen this work in her own workplace. She also talks about taking direct action and occupying spaces to achieve parity, instead of signing petitions or lobbying your MP.

'What Sheryl Sandberg seems to say is that the best thing you can do is basically copy and align yourself as closely as possible with men,' Foster continues, before giving her own example [not featured in Lean In or associated with Sandberg] of why this doesn't work: 'For instance, if you're in the stock market and you're snorting loads of coke and going out until 4am - if you copy that behaviour, it just means the behaviour continues forever. Whereas if a large number of people in finance said "No, we won't have drugs, we'll have normal working hours and we'll be more accountable", then you can change your working environment for the better that way.'

Does Foster think life for women will improve if a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party is elected in 2020? 'Definitely. One thing that I found refreshing about his campaign was that he was very keen to listen to what women wanted - to hold focus groups and travel around the country and see what affected women. One of the main policies he has is to stop austerity and cuts, and 80% of cuts have affected women. So even if he just repealed austerity and nothing else, life for a lot of women would drastically improve quite quickly. Especially for single mums, women on low incomes, disabled women, carers... I haven't seen any policies from the Conservative government that help women whatsoever.'

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Foster takes a breath. 'As much as Theresa May can claim to be a feminist, she's part of a government that has massively cut domestic violence centres, legal aid to women, benefits... everything the Conservatives have enacted disproportionately affects women, because they're poorer in the first place. And at the same time you've got very very rich men and women who are getting richer at the expense of everyone else.'

I'm perplexed by why the press won't support Corbyn, I say. 'I was one of the few journalists who was quite pro-Corbyn from the beginning,' Foster tells me. 'Working within newspapers, so many of them are so used to the status quo, they're so invested in lobby journalism, and assuming that all politics happens in Westminster... but doing social affairs, I spend a lot of time out of London speaking to people who have been hit by cuts, or disabled, or who have been made unemployed. If you speak to those people, a lot of them were ambivalent about the General Election. And now a lot of them are so excited that there's a leader who's pro-union, pro-workers' rights, and seems to be speaking quite directly to people... He's putting forward actual values and beliefs instead of spin and PR.'

And yet, I say, the press prefer to keep digging up things like 'he's so into his politics, he doesn't have time to eat, so he eats cold baked beans from a tin while standing up'. Foster smiles: 'Sheryl Sandberg would approve of that, because he's not wasting time on things - he's leaning into politics!' she quips. 'There was a headline today that said "Jeremy Corbyn won't name his cat". He calls his cat El Gato, and apparently he whistles and it comes to a certain tune, and I thought that was really endearing. Some of the ways to discredit him just show how desperate the press are. But the press are realising that they've called it wrong on two counts: one, because they said he'd never win the election, and he won by a landslide; and two, he is very popular amongst people, and the more the press attack him, the more they get attacked, and the more ludicrous they look.'

Foster draws an amusing analogy: 'Initially I thought "Oh, I'm sure Jeremy Corbyn's all right", and then there was so much vitriol directed at him, I noticed that me and all my friends were suddenly really drawn towards him! It's like if you just met somebody and you thought they were really racy and exciting, and your mum said "I don't think he's very good", you're like "Oh now I like him all the more, you can't keep us apart!" I feel that's the effect that this all has.'

We move on to social media. A cursory glance at Foster's Twitter mentions shows that we're still a long way from equality. When she tweeted '2015 will always be the year we found out the Prime Minister f***ed a pig. They can never take that away from us', a young male commenter tweeted back 'Would rather f*** a pig than f*** you, you ugly c***.' (Foster deftly retweeted the abuse with the caption 'Are no pigs safe from Tories?') Does she think there's a certain kind of man who can't stand strong assertive women?

'Yeah, definitely,' she nods. 'I've got a few male friends who are very similar to me in their sense of humour and politics and how they tweet, and they never ever get the same level of abuse that I do. They will tweet, and the worst they ever get is 'you're wrong'.'

I can't imagine a woman tweeting 'I'd rather f*** a pig than f*** you' to a man, I say. 'Exactly,' Foster agrees. 'And as a friend pointed out, if you'd rather f*** a pig than a human, I'd keep quiet about it on the internet!'

Lean Out is published today by Repeater Books, priced £8.99.

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