I Like My Men Like I Like My Coffee. Strong.
It takes courage to look at yourself, really look at yourself, and accept responsibility for a hurtful outcome or a failed attempt. The easiest path in life is to say nothing, do nothing, and blame others when you feel confused and ashamed. Most people scoff at the suggestion that they have anything to be afraid of when they look in the mirror, yet it’s pathological self-acceptance that perpetuates the nasty isms and phobias of our time. Hostility is fed and watered by self-ignorance.
I’ve always believed that men are the key to equality for women. At face value this is a provocative statement, but history shows that paradigm shifts by those “in power” are necessary before the tide turns on value-based issues. Behind every great woman are more than a few men. Logic prevails. As such, I’ve spent a good deal of time exploring male attitudes toward women and finding creative ways to elicit empathy for women from men.
It mystifies me when men assure me they aren’t feminists. Gloria Steinem often notes that:
“A feminist is…a person, male or female, who believes in the full social, economic, and political equality of women and men. And, I would say, also acts on it.”
She’s quoting the dictionary, not promulgating dogma.
There are increasing numbers of ordinary men out there who see, understand, and feel compelled to speak out against the rampant sexism and misogyny that exist in our society. A standout like Nick Kristof at the New York Times comes to mind. Or Jackson Katz. But in the same way people struggle to list their favorite female authors beyond Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling, women typically struggle to list the male feminists in their lives. That’s pretty horrifying considering that men make up half of our society. Surely we can each come up with twenty or thirty names of guys we know personally who are keeping it real? No? Okay, five. Five is doable. Five guys who are aware of sexism and would vocally back you up in a roomful of coworkers. Now subtract the guys who are comfortable being called feminists. And then subtract the guys who would do the same for any woman, not just you personally. My anecdotal observation is that most women end up with roughly two names. That’s not very many, compared to the number of men we interact with daily. Not enough to make the difference.
Any guy can become a feminist. A reformed rapist can become a feminist. Sexism is a mindset, not an incurable disease, and past behavior doesn’t damn you for the rest of your life. What men may not realize is that women need to hear people articulate the world as it is. It’s soothing and reassuring and hopeful when a guy acknowledges the injustice of gender bias. A simple acknowledgment takes the crazy out of a crazy-making experience and lays the groundwork for change. In time, agreement over the problem becomes a shared goal for change and a powerful engine for achieving it.
The workplace is a prime opportunity for men to lead by example. The sexism I’ve encountered at work over the years weighs heavily at this point. It has accrued. I would be an idiot to walk into a new situation without lowering my expectations because I don’t have the time or energy to deal with disappointment over not being treated equally. There was the thirty-something guy who told me “don’t worry your pretty little head” about aspects of a partnership I was brokering between two multibillion dollar tech companies, or the Hollywood director who told me I’d have serious trouble getting work as a director, no matter how good I was, because, simply, “you’re a woman,” or the agent I was hoping would read my work who instead wanted to know if I or my friends would mind posing naked for photographs. I could write pages of examples that stack up to a mountain of nonsense I climb every time I decide to go get something done. The saddest part is that the guys in those examples weren’t strangers. They were acquaintances and friends.
The worst work-related offenses are when I’m made complicit in the misogyny. I’ve worked in multiple industries and this happens across the board. I’ll be the only woman in a room of guys who throw their elbows around while making comments that objectify or undercut other women. I’m then forced into the position of “boundary-drawer” and “moral-decider.” My energy, which should be focused on meeting people and having interesting conversations about creative projects, is redirected to an uncomfortable inner dialogue over whether to speak up and say I’m offended. When I speak up, I’m frequently shut out of future meetings, and when I don’t speak up I can’t do my best work because I’m concentrating too hard on keeping a smile on my face. Sexism’s mission is accomplished: ultimately, I don’t want to go back to that room. I don’t look forward to being at work, and my motivation to collaborate with the guys is diminished. When I leave a room like that, I take with me the distinct impression that those guys say much worse things when I’m not there, possibly about me, and I’m demoralized. I lose enthusiasm for the game because the guys aren’t playing fair. For any guy who hasn’t noticed, that’s how sexism and misogyny work. And they really do work.
Personally, I think it’s disgraceful that every third or fourth person I meet has an unconscious problem with me before they even shake my hand. Life has enough challenges and I don’t need that one. I wish all people, men and women, would look in the mirror and get curious about their biases, ask themselves how many times they’ve wished a woman would be less emotional, would stop talking, would need less from them, and then ask how many times they’ve wished the same of a man. Even the least biased among us contends with the influences of a biased world. When I’m honest in the mirror, I acknowledge that I still fail to value women equally sometimes, including myself. Sexism is wily, but it’s easy to challenge once you’re willing to see it.