January 24, 2011

Corporate Man

Apparently if you work for Swiss bank UBS you’re about to get a break. Not the usual bonus, mind you, but a loosening of the corporate leash. I read in the news that UBS has a 44-page handbook telling its employees how to be – everything from their general appearance to their underwear and diet – and that this handbook is being revised and relaxed. As things stand, women aren’t supposed to wear red underwear (rather, it must be flesh toned), and garlic and onions are to be avoided. They’re instructed on their make-up, stockings and perfume to boot, with lifestyle tips for how to recover from wardrobe malfunctions. Men, for their part, undergo the same culinary prescriptions, as well as being told how to knot ties, to get regular haircuts, and to avoid unruliness in the piercing department (at this I am baffled. Is any amount of piercing on a man good?). Everyone is reminded to keep their glasses clean and shiny, lest they look negligent; but given the overbearing nature of the employer I wonder why they ever hire anybody with less than 20/20. ‘Our bankers can really see’ might be a unique selling point in this day and age.

All of this is nonsense, of course, and knowing the Swiss as I do I’m sure they take it all in the right spirit, which is to say, I’m sure they completely ignore it. Still, I’m given to wonder about what it takes to survive the cut and thrust of corporate land, so I’ve plundered the self-help shelves, subsection ‘executives’. There’s not much for men here, at least, not explicitly. There’s plenty of stuff for women though. Apparently, ‘a profound fear’ has ‘bound... women together over the course of the last 2000 years and continues to bind [them] together’. It is ‘the existential primal fear of sanctions and punishment’, associated with transgressing the role of ‘the unassuming, good little girl’ (Buholzer, Frauen starten durch, 1999). Another guide suggests that the ‘thing that stands between many women and the ability to get what they want is a proclivity toward self-denial… a preference for powerlessness’ (Rubin, The Princessa: Machievelli for Women, 1997). Meanwhile Corporate Man is everything Corporate Woman is not: he regards ‘new things as a challenge, and [is] usually of the opinion that accepting challenges is part of the essence of being a man’. Men are ‘primarily concentrated on themselves’; women are ‘afraid of exposing themselves to criticism’ (Haen, Das Zicken-Prinzip, 2000).* Which is to say, men should take a pill, and women should get over themselves. And all of this is sheer drivel.


The problem with self-help as a genre is that it is full of generalisations that, as an academic, I would immediately cross through in red ink if written by a student. The other problem with self-help as a genre is that it is not really self-help at all, but the preachings of self-assumed authorities. People who blindly follow its advices are no more asserting themselves than the rats who followed the piper out of Hamelin. The corporate idea that men are thus (sharks perhaps) and women thus (more like dolphins, if you were to believe Dodo Lazarowicz (Erfolg steht mir gut, 1999)), is not a foundation upon which the bonds of gender stereotypes can be broken, any more than Corporate Woman will be assisted by being given permission by the bank to wear red panties. Corporate World has gone through a crisis of late, and its population has shown itself to have lacked presence of mind, or the individual verve to think creatively around a problem. Corporate Man has shown himself to be afraid, like a little boy, of dealing with the enormity of new challenges, and, like so many lemmings, one by one they have walked over the cliff.

In sum, Corporate Man and Corporate Woman need be no different to any other man or woman of distinction in his/her character and general comportment. The uniform, such as it is, will merely give impetus to an attitude, but it will not by itself finish the cutting of jibs. In Corporate World there is more fear now than in living memory, but nobody, after all, is fearing for his life. It is a test of mere civic virtue to overcome it, and, on recent evidence, this is just as much of a challenge for Corporate Man as for Corporate Woman.

*Translations by Ulrich Bröckling, from ‘Gendering the Enterprising Self’, Distinktion (2005).


  1. Doctor, I believe it's high time academia starts taking the blame for this sort of thing. Self-help is an old con - and if you think about Ben Franklin's rules and almanacs, it's much smarter than it may first seem; but scientific self-help, littered with jargon and theory, is entirely the fault of academia. People in the street do not get the urge to write a feminist theory of world history and sex it up with psychoanalytical asides. How are these people any worse than the myriads of conmen running rampant in history, let's say? Up until academic sciences are not destroyed and discredited, you cannot stop these things. Corporations were working fine long before gender studies became a trademark of the revamping of academia. Maybe the problem isn't the corporation; maybe the problem is the too-clever-by-half self-appointed social scientist...

  2. Don't expect it to improve any time soon.

  3. Self-help books are like philosopher kings - they would work wonderfully, so long as they agreed with you, were perfect, and could be relied upon in all circumstances!

    As is, they're nicer in small bites: essays, blog entries, and the reprinted agony aunt pages of Jackie magazine.

  4. More of a "Boys' Own" man myself, but I understand the sentiment precisely.


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