The Easy Failure of Professional Male Feminism

My friend and former colleague Jessica Bennett has a great new book out: Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace. Deservedly the subject of a heated 12-way bidding war among would-be publishers, FFC is already a big deal in both book sales and influence. You should absolutely check it out.

When she was writing the book, Jessica asked if I would verify some personal details about our time at Tumblr, when we worked in the short-lived editorial department there. (Note that she was just asking to verify my height and age, though she was kind enough to send the whole draft passage — it was definitely not my place or intention to “check” what she wrote in any other way.) What appears in the published book’s introduction (I am anonymized) is pretty much what I recall her sending me for review, beginning when we were hired at Tumblr:

But at the core of the problem was the job itself. I’d been hired along with another editor, whom I’d met and liked. We would be co-editors, I was told, and would both report to the CEO. Which was sort of true except that I had accepted the job before we had finalized my title. (Note to self: never accept a job without formalizing the title, even if you’re told you’ll get to “choose” your own.) I was informed casually that he’d chosen the title of editor in chief. As in: the highest possible title a person in our field could hold, typically reserved for the absolute ruler of an editorial outfit. But, no worries, the HR manager assured me, we were all part of a suuuuper flat structure here — so what title did I want? (I chose “executive editor.”)
Now in reality, it was not all bad: said colleague, the editor in chief, was a great guy. (A feminist, even!) Married to a power lawyer, the father of two adorable kids. Progressive! Supportive! Jovial! And yet the fact remained: I had been sneak-attacked with a surprise boss, and that boss was a dude.
I could have complained, had the hiring director — or “head of people,” as he was called — not been fired days after I arrived. (Why would a hundred-person company need an HR department?) Still, my boss was an experienced manager. He knew how to command respect in an all-male room. He spoke sternly and authoritatively, whereas I got nervous. People looked at him, not me, in the meetings anyway — he looked like a boss — whether we were talking about a project he was running or not. He would try to help — repeating my ideas with the vocal authority of a six-foot-two, forty-two-year-old white man who was trying to be my advocate. But then he’d get credit for them, too.

I’m considering “Progressive! Supportive! Jovial!” for my new capsule bio. Directing her frustration at the situation we shared at Tumblr rather than at me personally, Jessica is being very kind to me here.

She’s being way too kind, really.

The fact is, my good intentions didn’t matter enough to actually address the cause of her frustrations, which leads one to wonder: What are they really worth? It pains me to read this like it did when Jessica sent it originally, like it did when we talked about these things during and after working at Tumblr. I do consider myself feminist, progressive, supportive, and jovial. So do most men I work with and for. And yet, workplace sexism continues right under our noses, with our tacit if not overt endorsement.

The reason this happens is because it’s very, very easy to let it happen. Male supremacy has been around for thousands of years! Of course it has built-in psychological defense mechanisms to adapt versus feminist tactics that are barely a few decades old. Jessica’s book is pitched to women in the workplace, but men should read it for the illuminating experience of realizing the many, many ways we unconsciously prop up male supremacy and fail the people we consciously claim to support.

For example, when Jessica and I were both hired, my conversations about the job title were straightforward. I had met Jessica by that point, mulled over the possibilities, and learned about her career and experiences. When I talked to HR about specifics, I just went ahead and assumed I’d be in charge, as editor in chief. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m a middle-aged white guy! That’s how it works.

Sure, I was older and had more experience as a manager and editor than Jessica. But not that much more, and Jessica was then, and is now, a hardcore journalist — way more of a legit journalist than I ever was or could be. A co-editor arrangement was eminently plausible, and it would have left me more time to write, which is what I most enjoy anyway. One could even make the case that I should have been reporting to Jessica. But it was never mentioned to me in hiring, and it never occurred to me to propose it. If we generously assume that HR reneged on that arrangement with Jessica because they just decided to go along with my blasé seizing of the boss privilege, then the whole thing is squarely my fault.

And then there’s the issue of taking credit for Jessica’s work. I never explicitly did this of course; but upper-management attention span is a rare and precious thing. When reporting up about this or that project, it’s all too easy to compress a summary into the editorial “we.” Even when I specifically mentioned Jessica or our video producer Sky Dylan-Robbins (now at the New Yorker), it was still me, the dude, talking to other dudes in charge … or to a roomful of mostly dudes during our ever-shrinking (and eventually eliminated) timeslot at the weekly all-hands meeting. Just me talking about their work attached a veneer of Chris-ness that obfuscated who had really done the work. Jessica and Sky originated the lion’s share of in-house editorial production, while I did blocking and tackling with management, partnerships, ran final edit passes and queries, oversaw freelancers and budgets, all that administrative crap. I know I made a point of crediting them for their work, or trying to; but I also know I didn’t do it well enough, nor try hard enough.

And those failures went unremarked at the time. It never even occurred to me at the time that they were failures, even as I commiserated with Jessica and other female employees about this or that sexist situation at Tumblr or elsewhere. If that’s not outright hypocrisy, it’s a close sibling.

The bleakly comical thing about contemporary professional male feminism is how deeply it’s still veined with sexism — the “soft power” of modern male supremacy. This is largely due to the relaxed satisfaction of considering oneself a sufficiently woke male feminist, when in reality, all of us are already still failing. Being a notch above the office troglodytes of generations past is not enough, and because of its gender-principle camouflage, passive sexism is arguably more insidious.

The only thing professional male feminists should be comfortable with — or really, resigned to — is perpetual self-critique and questioning of one’s actions and motives. The “white knight” of male feminism is a favorite stereotype for anti-feminists who think men only treat women well as a craven way to get in their pants. The professional white knight is a male feminist who makes workplace feminism a vehicle for their own self-congratulatory complacency.

Professional male feminists absolutely must focus on the big pictures of equality in pay, opportunity, and conduct. But we should also always be looking to do more, and living with the fear that we’re probably still making mistakes without realizing it. Ask women you work with for insight, but remember it’s not their responsibility to teach you everything. If you’re not sure what more you can do as a feminist, maybe question anything that feels too easy and natural — and start doing things that are not so easy.