In her new book Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual (For A Sexist Workplace), former Newsweek scribe Jessica Bennett shares her top tips and tricks for taking down the patriarchy in a professional environment. Mixing humour with specific “how-tos” (and multiple Beyoncé refs), the guide is a must-read for working women dealing with subtle misogyny…so pretty much all working women.
FLARE chatted with Bennett about some of the more common instances of sexism in the workplace and how to fight back.
Sexist scenario #1: My boss is constantly asking me to take on administrative tasks even though I am an associate and he never asks the same of my male colleagues.
The person who always asks women to take notes during a meeting—I call this person “The Stenographucker.” Research shows that administrative tasks in an office more commonly fall to women, whether that’s being asked to take notes or grab coffee for the meeting you are leading. It may not even be malicious. We have these internal biases, and our gut instinct is to ask the woman in the room. And from the other angle, women are more likely to offer to do these things. I call her “The Office Mom,” the woman who routinely takes on planning the office holiday party or making sure that there’s a cake order for birthdays.
The fix: The easiest thing to do is not offer. To recognize that if you’re spending your day planning the holiday party, that’s taking away your ability to contribute to larger things, things that get you more recognition and more credit, with the assumption being that you want to progress. You can also say no. I have one friend who is a woman of colour who works at a tech company and she is constantly in meetings with all white men who will ask her to take notes. She’ll pause for a second and she’ll say, “Guys, the optics of asking the only woman in this room and the only person of colour is really bad.” She does it in a playful way, but they’re horrified, and you can bet they’ll never do it again. I have another friend who will say, “I don’t know how to make coffee. My mother never taught me because she said I’d get stuck making it at work if I did.” Every work place is different, so my advice is to find the one that works for you. Sometimes it’s the really direct approach. You can site a study: “You know, it’s more common for women to be asked to take on these tasks, so please don’t ask me. I want to take this time to contribute my ideas, not write down yours.”
Sexist scenario #2: My boss is an older man who sometimes calls me things like sweetie or honey. I think he means to be friendly.
I call him “The Undermine-her.” Even if he doesn’t mean it, he is belittling you with subtle language. In particular if he’s doing this in front of other people, that can be bad. If you’re being called kiddo all the time, it makes it seem like you’re in an inferior position. Honey and sweetie are just not acceptable for the workplace, period, but people still do this and they may even mean well. They may be from a different generation. I’ve had men that I really like call me kiddo.
The fix: What I have found to be the most effective is to take that person aside and say, “Hey, look, I know that you consider me a valuable member of this team and I want to come off as competent as I can. I worry that when you call me [insert non-professional name here], it undermines me in front of people.” That would be the kinder approach. If it’s just some asshole, you can say, “Hey, I don’t know what generation you come from, but, honey is not an appropriate way to refer to a person in the workplace.”
Sexist scenario #3: I am constantly being interrupted while I’m speaking in meetings, usually by louder male colleagues.
This is “The Manterrupter.” Research shows that women are twice as likely to be interrupted in meetings—and certainly not every man is an interrupter and not every interrupter is a man—but it does happen a lot.
The fix: The easiest thing is to say, “Hey, can you let me finish? I’m talking.” But sometimes women struggle with that because then they’re perceived as being too sensitive or bitchy, so what I have found to be really effective is to have someone else do the interrupting for you. So basically to have a wing woman or a wing man do the interruption of the interrupter on your behalf. Think of Kanye and Taylor Swift at the VMAs. Can you imagine if Beyoncé had also been up on stage and said, “Hey Kanye, can you let Taylor finish?” Everyone would have shut up. You can also try what I call verbal chicken, which is literally just don’t stop and get louder and louder until the person shuts up.
Sexist scenario #4: I am recently back from maternity leave and I get the sense that some of my colleagues are questioning my priorities.
“The Lacti-hater” is the person who views a working mother or someone who is planning to have children or needs to breastfeed at work as uncommitted to the job. The research shows that working moms are really penalized—they’re offered less money and people perceive them as being less committed. The most obvious way to combat that is to emphasize your commitment to the job.
The fix: When you’re coming back from maternity leave, you can set a meeting with your boss and say, “Look, I’m really committed to this job.” That should nip the bias in the bud. You can fight for flex time, which is tricky because only some people have the power to do this in their job. If you have the power to effect policy then making sure there are allowances for working mothers and fathers is really important. We live in a digital world, so you don’t necessarily have to be in your cubical to work. This isn’t just a women’s issue. All of the research shows that if both partners are contributing [to family life], everyone is happier and healthier, but until men start fighting for these things too then it will be considered a woman’s problem.
Sexist scenario #5: I recently had pneumonia. I am up for a really big job and I know the other guy in contention is going to use my illness against me to suggest that I am weak and not up to the task.
The mental and physical health criticism of women has been lodged against them throughout history. In the past; women were called hysterical when they weren’t happy being housewives. I think the tactic here is for the rest of us to recognize our own bias: Would we think a man was weak in the same position? It is so easy to paint women as too emotional or weak and that comes from years and years of structures that allowed us to do that.
The fix: I think the best way to fight back is to emphasize that you are just as committed as ever and then just maintain your calm and your cool. The research shows that when women get even the slightest bit emotional—even just stating something in an emphatic way—it’s viewed as hormonal. And when men do the same thing, it’s passionate.
Some of these fight moves are asking us to overcome things that are really f-cked up. It’s a challenge and women should be able to express anger or displeasure and just have that be what it is. Men can, but we can’t. I think what’s important is doing the things in the moment that are going to be effective and also keeping the bigger picture in mind which is chipping away at these sexist structures.
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