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Why The Rise Of 'Work Porn' Is Making Us Miserable

© Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Instagram posts of photogenic freelance life bear no resemblance to most people's working day - is it time to call bullshit on aspirational 'work porn?' Asks Vicky Spratt

I think I’ve got something wrong when it comes to my career. You see, I know I’m supposed to be “killing it” and behaving “like a boss” but, to be honest, I’m mostly just quite tired and a bit rough around the edges. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I’m hardly breaking rocks over here. Nor am I saving lives. I read, think and write for a living and, in return, most of the time, people pay me for it.

Sometimes I have to go to difficult meetings, occasionally I have to stand my ground while defending ideas in front of people who are a lot more senior than me and, sadly, I’ve experienced more than my fair share of workplace sexism and even harassment in the last 10 years but, on the whole, I know it’s a sweet gig (particularly when I think about the options that were available to my parents and grandparents).

But, my work life looks nothing like the work porn I see on Instagram and it’s making me feel like I’m missing something. I can count the number of times I’ve been to the gym before work on one hand, my lunch is usually a jacket potato, my boyfriend jokes that I don’t know how to use our iron (it’s true), I couldn’t tell you what a bullet journal is (and I don’t care), the offices I work in have no natural light and I don’t have time for a side hustle.

Growing up, I would thumb through the glossy pages of Vogue and Elle and read about successful women. They were perfectly manicured, blow dried, made up and wearing impeccable and expensive clothes. They were featured on perfectly laid out pages and spoke authoritatively about how much they could do in a day without breaking a sweat or a nail.

When I first started working, I would try to emulate them by wearing heels all day. I quickly realised that this a) slowed me down b) hurt and c) made me hyperaware of the times that I was the only woman in the room. That ‘working women’ porn was a precursor to supposedly motivational memes like ‘you have just as many hours in the day as Beyoncé’. What’s never said, though, is that Beyoncé - like the women so often held up as examples of female success – has a net worth of around $250 million and an entire company’s worth of staff to facilitate her every move.

When it comes to careers advice for women, duplicity has long been the order of the day. Take Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’ for example. For all she has advocated publicly as COO of Facebook, reports recently emerged that an American data scientist quit her job at the company after her request to work remotely and part-time to bond with her newborn baby was denied.

Today work porn comes to us via Instagram via accounts like @Girlboss or @Bosseduporg. The colour palette is millennial pink, the quality of the advice varies wildly and often seems to be along the lines of ‘go freelance’. It’s not always easy to figure out exactly what those dishing it out do, let alone how they pay their bills. One the one hand, it’s great that there are spaces where women can find careers inspiration online, come together in a community and talk about the struggles they face. But, on the other, the expectations fostered by all of this not only means that the reality of working life falls short, but that we are ill-equipped to deal with it when it does.

And let's be honest, working life does fall short - a lot.

The World Economic Forum says that women will wait another 217 years before the gender pay gap is closed, this year’s gender pay gap reporting showed that fewer than one in seven companies pay women more than men. We also know that 24 per cent of young women fear reporting sexual harassment at work in case they lose their job.

Otegha Uwagba is the author of the internationally published ‘Little Black Book: A Toolkit for Working Women’. As she sees it, anyone who has a platform to talk about women and work on needs to be ‘responsible and give people a really honest account of what their work life is like’. As with most things pertaining to feminism or women’s progress, Otegha things women and work is ‘popular’ right now and, if the sales of her book are anything to go by, women are crying out for this sort of honest and pragmatic content.

‘It’s a topic that’s now as trendy as it gets which means brands often try to latch on to it’ she explains ‘in fact, recently a brand approached me to post something about feminism and empowerment for them – it was all about buzzwords, fluffy and fashion focussed. I’m happy to do events or campaigns like that but I think it’s wrong to categorise them as “empowering” for me there have to be more practical takeaways for women.’

Practical tips and realism, says Otegha, are what’s missing in a lot of careers content. ‘Work isn’t always glamorous’ she says ‘it can be physically and mentally draining which is why I always put gross photos of me slogging away in bed on Instagram’.

There is a crucial distinction which is not often made, Otegha says, between ‘your own personal development and the fact that none of us work in a vacuum or in isolation – even if you are self-employed, you’re still beholden to people and you still have to develop relationships so career advice has to look outwards as well as inwards’. There is, she says, a danger about making it all too much about us as individuals.

It’s true, you can practice all the self-care you want but when you find yourself confronted with a sexist manager, a failed attempt at getting a pay rise or an archaic attitude to what happens after maternity leave, meditation is only going to get you so far.

‘I get a lot of women coming to me through the agony aunt section of my podcast’ Otegha says ‘a real theme, that comes up over and over again, is dealing with chauvinist male colleagues. It’s also very common for women to be acting in senior roles but not being given the senior job title and pay to go with them’. Dress women’s careers up how you like but, Otegha says, this is the coalface of workplace progress and we need to address it while supporting each other in a meaningful way.

Realism matters, honesty is crucial, and, above all, we need to remember that getting ahead at work and smashing ceilings while important is – whisper it – not all there is to life so maybe it’s OK if your work life isn’t perfect. More than this, an individualist approach to your working life which only showcases the best bits can actually reinforce the oppressive structures that are still preventing other women getting a look in.

In The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan chronicled the dissatisfaction of a generation before us who awoke to the bullshit myth they had been sold of ‘domestic bliss’. It was a narrative about the cult of the perfect housewife which sold women spray mops and can openers as though they were the key to nirvana. In doing so, it made them miserable and, then, cruelly made them feel like a failure because they were so unhappy. See Mad Men’s Betty Draper.

Do we need to wake up to the myth of work bliss? A 2015 study conducted by PWC found that workplace sexism slowly dawns on women, we enter work full of ambition and by the age of around 30 are dissatisfied that we don’t have enough female role models, that our employers don’t promote diverse hiring and that rising to the top of our companies is far from a well-trodden path . The women who responded to the study also said that the more senior they became, the more apparent the problem of gender diversity was.

Our generation was told that we could be, that we could do anything, and we have entered the working world to find that it’s just not true yet. Things have improved but there are still huge obstacles to overcome and pursuing perfection along the way will only make that harder to do.

Looking at work porn and trying to recreate its perfect image is a bit like running in heels. You’re doomed to fail and, when you do, you’ve set yourself up with farther to fall. Let’s be honest about how hard things really can be at work because that’s the only way it will ever change.