By Gaby Del Valle for Vox
Fall is, without a doubt, the best time to buy office supplies. Yes, office supplies are sold year-round, but fall’s back-to-school vibe spares no one, even those of us who haven’t been in school for years. Fall is when the planners come out to play.
For me, this is the happiest time of the year. I love buying useless little journals and covering my desk with piles of colorful sticky notes. Fall and its corresponding school-and-office-supply bonanzas are a sign of a fresh start: I love telling myself that these journals and sticky notes will make me more organized and therefore more productive and therefore better at my job and therefore happier. Is it true? Not exactly. Does it matter? Not at all.
There’s just one small problem: so many of the office supplies that are marketed toward women are incredibly condescending.
Allow me to give you a few examples. There’s this day planner, which reminds you that ”every day is a fresh start” in the bouncy, stylized cursive script that The Goods’ Eliza Brooke dubbed “bridesmaid font.” The hundreds of notebooks that have “She believed she could, so she did” written across the cover, often in that same font. This Kate Spade “planner companion set,” which you can use to fill your affirmation-emblazoned notebook with stickers that say “the world was hers for the reading.” (You are the “her” in this situation. The world is yours, baby!)
This pencil pouch, which lets everyone know that you are “very busy.” (We are all very busy, because capitalism stops for no one.) These pencils, which would like to remind you that “you got this.” Or these pencils, which announce to the world that you are not only a “boss lady” but also a “goal digger.” Or any of these boss lady name plaques.
These products are a far cry from the boring legal pads and other cubicle accoutrements of yore. They’re kind of fun and seemingly innocuous — after all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a notebook that dares to be anything other than black or navy blue.
The point of these various fancy desk accessories isn’t just to help you get your work done. It’s to help you get your work done while reminding everyone that you are a woman who works, just in case the labor you do on a daily basis isn’t enough of a reminder.
The issue isn’t that some office supplies are marketed toward women, but that there don’t seem to be any equivalent products for men. Of course, men already have structural power; they don’t need a notebook to remind them that they’re capable of achieving their professional goals.
These products are the logical extension of the genre of professional self-help books that seem to exist solely to tell women that if they stop apologizing in emails and learn to “power pose,” they, too will ascend to the ranks of the She-E-Os.
The point of these books is to blame women for their own professional shortcomings, or at the very least, to rationalize why women are paid less money and taken less seriously than their male co-workers. The accompanying office supplies are meant to give women a way to rectify those perceived shortcomings — for a price, of course.
It’s not enough to be inundated with this advice day in and day out; you have to carry it with you constantly, in your head and on your notebook.
Even if life is easier for working women than it was a few decades ago, the fact remains that most workplaces weren’t designed with women’s needs in mind.
A 2017 report by Lean In and McKinsey, which surveyed more than 70,000 employees at 222 companies, found that corporations hire women at lower rates than men at all levels. Once they are hired, entry-level women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues, which contributes to the oft-cited pay gap between men and women. They also receive less face time with managers and other senior-level staff and are given less advice on how to advance. All of these issues are compounded for women of color in general and for black women in particular, the report found.
Across industries, men are generally paid more than women, and women of color are paid less than both white men and white women. A 2017 report by the National Women’s Law Center found that black women who work full time, year-round are paid 63 cents for every dollar white men make. That figure is 57 cents for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women, 54 cents for Latinas, and 87 percent for Asian women, though there’s also a wage gap between different groups of Asian women.
That’s just at the corporate level. A 2018 report by Fast Company found that women who freelance tend to receive lower rates than their male peers, and they’re less likely to receive payments on time. Minimum wage workers, most of whom are women, are rarely granted the same amount of paid leave as those who work at the corporate level. Women at all levels also experience sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting said harassment, which can have detrimental effects on not only their job performance and earnings but also their mental health.
Given these difficulties, it seems trivial to get annoyed about a planner that encourages me to treat every day as a gift or whatever. Honestly, buy whatever maniacally happy shit gets you through the day; the last thing any woman needs is yet another “don’t” on an endlessly long list of things they shouldn’t do at work.
But what infuriates me about these professional products geared toward women is that they seem to occupy a realm where structural issues are only alluded to through inspirational quotes about overcoming adversity and being a #girlboss. The world of women’s office supplies is pastel-colored and impossibly peppy. (I’m fine with the pastels, but I don’t love the pep.) This is a world where, given the right combination of planners and pencils, anything is possible. It is a world laden with positive affirmations, because reality is so bleak. It’s a world where she believes she can, so she does.
Then again, I doubt a planner that says “That ignoramus who sits next to you is going to get a promotion before you do because he’s a dude” would be a best-seller.