Yes, “Not All Men” — But That’s the Problem
How changing our focus can make us better allies
Fellow men, I trust the recent revelations of celebrities and executives preying on women have also left you appalled and outraged. You’re not the sort of guy who would harass or assault someone, right? You value the women in your life and want to protect them from such dangers. You want to reassure people that not all men are creeps or perverts — that you’re one of the good guys.
I get that instinct; I’ve felt it too. But thinking we’re Good Guys™ obscures the fact that all men still have the capacity to do evil. Many of those who have admitted to inappropriate actions also thought they were “good” — notice how often their confessions include the phrase, “this is not who I am.”
Being an ally toward women is not simply an achievement you unlock or a permanent status: it’s an ongoing series of conscious choices to act in a particular way. Even if we see ourselves as meeting some “not all men” standard today, that does not guarantee we will keep making good decisions in the future.
We have work to do, and it starts by changing our focus. People usually invoke “not all men” defensively, but rather than reassuring, it simply highlights the other side of the equation: not all men treat women with respect. Not all men share an ethical baseline that excludes harassment or abuse. Not all men understand definite boundaries of consent and appropriate workplace behaviors. Not all men stand up to other men who cross those boundaries.
Given that reality, we need to set a higher standard. We can start with four basic habits all men should practice.
1. Value Women
People do not wake up and decide to start abusing women for no reason. Such actions ultimately begin with beliefs about women somehow having less value or agency than men.
You find these stories across cultures. Conservative Christians can misapply Bible verses on marriage to portray women as owing certain duties to men in general. Liberal atheists can invoke evolutionary psychology to rationalize cultural gender norms.
Ascribing equal value to women and advocating equal access to opportunities do not require ignoring or removing any differences between sexes. But they do require taking stock of biases from culture, upbringing, or even human nature that influence how we think about women and their roles in society.
Women are not automatically less capable than men. Women do not owe men anything, including their trust. Women are not prizes, objects, or admirers for men to use or gain control over. Take note when your impulses conflict with these principles, such as assuming you need to explain a technical concept to female colleagues or focusing more on their appearance, and train yourself to build more consistent thought patterns.
2. Believe Women
Affirming women who choose to share their experiences does not require blind acceptance of all accusations; writer Christina H gave an excellent analogy in the context of rape allegations: “‘Believe rape victims’ is a fraught phrase, but what I mean is that when a woman first claims she has been raped, we should give her the same credibility as a typical car theft victim.”
Give women the benefit of the doubt. Let them know they have your support. Additional verification may of course be warranted if a question of employment or criminal punishment arises, but most people who hear a woman’s story will not be the ones settling those matters. You can say, “that sounds absolutely awful, I’m so sorry” without having to add an “if true” caveat.
In fact, when someone shares a situation with you, remember that they are the only expert on their experience of it. They may get details wrong or misinterpret events, but only they know what they feel. If a woman says she feels uncomfortable or threatened, assume she is. Responses that dismiss her emotions as “crazy” or “overreacting” not only fail to uncover the real reasons behind those emotions but can also allow real dangers to persist.
3. Amplify Women
In a society historically dominated by the voices of men, we each have opportunities to use our platforms for letting women be heard.
For example, take a moment and skim through the people you follow on social media. Look over the last few posts you shared from someone else. How many of the accounts you follow and retweet are from women? Sharing and subscribing to media by women is one simple way to help ensure you listen to a diverse range of perspectives and help women remain a part of broader conversations.
Similarly, if a conference invites you to speak, ask about how many women they also invite. If you create narrative art, include female characters in your stories. Women are not inherently better sources of insight or entertainment, but both suffer if they primarily reflect the experiences of men.
4. Empower Women
At the outset I mentioned a desire to protect women from danger; while not a bad instinct, it can end up more harmful than helpful. If you try to spare women from ever encountering dangerous situations, you can block their access to powerful opportunities. Such attempts at sheltering usually become condescending or infantilizing as well.
Sexual harassment is not really about sex, it is about power. Men take advantage of women to exercise control. In countering cultures of harassment, enable women to take more control over their lives and careers. Equip them with resources to achieve on their own, place them in positions to execute, and remove barriers to their success. (Often, some of the best ways to help women involve getting out of their way.)
This process need not entail selecting women for tasks based solely on their gender. But proposals for pure meritocracy often ignore a broad range of factors that affect career development and hiring decisions, both consciously and otherwise. Our ultimate goal should be balancing access to opportunities and advancement by countering systemic discrimination.
In fact, these principles for how we treat women apply in other contexts as well. I focused this discussion on how men treat women, but you can easily apply it to any minority or disadvantaged group, such as how white Americans treat black Americans. We have even seen cases where men abuse other, underprivileged men. Men abusing women is only one prominent example of how we fail to show respect toward people we perceive as different or less powerful.
It is not enough for us to declare ourselves supporters or allies of others. We must set clear expectations of what that support means and demonstrate it in our everyday actions. Men can start by setting a better baseline of how we treat women, but in every context, we can set an example by valuing minorities and those who are different, believing their stories, amplifying their voices, and empowering them to succeed.
Thanks to author/blogger Laura Tyson for helpful edits (and for being my wife).