In over a decade of working, I’ve had the privilege of exposure to a lot of different industries. I’ve done service (movie theater usher), corporate (analyst), education (high school and college instructor), and even marketing (that dude who walks around neighborhoods taping up fliers for lawn care). Every employer has had its own culture, its own goals, and its own diversity statement that has included a disclaimer about how they don’t tolerate harassment based on race, age, disability status, or gender.
In principle, this is wonderful. In action, we’re lucky if even a fraction of it is actually implemented. I’ve sat through plenty of company up-trainings telling me the procedure for reporting a coworker who uses racial slurs or a (cis-male) supervisor who says that they’ll offer a promotion if a (cis-female) employee goes out with them. Some HR departments might actually do something in these explicit cases, but few will deal in ambiguity, allusion, or anything remotely resembling vagueness.
These are deeply seated problems that require years of effort and work to dismantle, but there are actionable ways that feminist men in these spheres can intercede and work against the sexism that pervades workplace culture. Her are six.
No more “You girls” or “Honey.”
It might be easily ignored when a male coworker walks into a room filled with women and tells “the girls” that there’s a meeting down the hall. This seems to especially go unaddressed when the speaker is of a certain advanced age—a dismissal because he’s probably just talking the way that he always has.
The problem is that it’s infantilizing. In a room of grown women, the term “girls” implies a childish nature. I call my goddaughters “girls,” but they’re seven and one, respectively. While I love them dearly, I’m not looking at them to be managing important affairs or shouldering much responsibility beyond finishing their dinners and saying thank you when someone hands it to them.
The same goes for “Sweetheart,” “Honey,” “Darling,” and any such pet-names. If people wish to use these terms of endearment in their personal lives, that can be its own situation with its own discussion of dynamics and consent. In a workplace, the man who defaults to these terms is choosing to belittle the women he works with, and the men who allow it to happen without commentary are enabling this.
Making sure women talk in meetings and bringing attention back to them when it’s diverted.
Study after study has showcased that in group settings, men are more likely to overshadow conversations than women. They’ll talk more often, interrupt more often, and when women do speak up in equal measure to men, it is regularly perceived that they are dominating the discussion.
Part of the patriarchal programming that we grow up with is to privilege the male voice, and even when these biases are pointed out to us, they can be difficult to unlearn. I’ll admit that while I consider myself pretty ‘woke,’ I don’t really necessarily trust my own instincts in terms of judging how equitable group discussions can be.
The best default for men, who are sincerely interested in combatting this issue is to cede and support. The flow of conversation can feel like it naturally move from male voice to male voice: if we witness a woman who has been interrupted or whose time has been co-opted, we can speak up and we can redirect back to the woman.
This does requires an ego check — it means taking the floor and giving it up, which men aren’t generally programmed to do, but that’s part of the process.
Valuing women’s ideas without condescending or self-congratulating.
I remember being told on a playground that I threw like a girl. I also remember girls who threw significantly better than anyone else being told by the same kids that they threw pretty well…for a girl. I’m almost certain that most of those children grew up, maybe watched The Sandlot, and figured out that that wasn’t the kind of comments one could make in polite society.
What didn’t change though is how they still find ways to condescend, even when complementing or acknowledging women’s ideas in the workplace. Now, getting that acknowledgement at work is its own struggle, but it’s insulting also when women are cut down by men who are making an active effort to give kudos, but they do so with some of those pet names I’ve already discussed, or claiming that they wished their wives had such good heads on their shoulders (I’m paraphrasing that from actual line a coworker of mine showed me from a performance review she received).
For feminist men, the goal should be to act as a bolster for women and their ideas, and for feminist men to support women, as an equal, and to standing up for them when they are unjustly overlooked.
No touching and no tolerating non-consensual touching.
I shouldn’t need to explain this one, but since 70% of sexual harassment in the workplace goes unreported, I’m going to for good measure. We can idolize Don Draper and Mad Men all that we want: that’s entertainment and I have no interest in shaming anyone for how they entertain themselves. When men pine for the days that they could massage a woman’s shoulders without it “being taken the wrong way” or grope or slap or touch in any capacity at work, they are part of the problem.
A terrifying number of men don’t understand consent. Harassers who don’t get that another person needs to clearly and enthusiastically permit touching for it to not be assault often get a pass both from authorities, bystanders, and many victims. Harassers who do get that and don’t care also get passes because of privilege.
Men who witness this harassment typically enjoy the same privileges as the harasser, are at times the best means to stopping the behaviour when all other tactics fail. Those who care about addressing this issue need to be willing to educate where they can and intercede where they can.
More Radical Reads: 3 Ways We Can Challenge Gender Norms in Heterosexual Marriages
Giving up your privileges where appropriate.
I went to graduate school with a cis white man a few years older than me who once vocally admitted that he understood the privileges that his demographics carried, and that while he tries to not generally abuse these privileges, he wasn’t inclined to give them up when they gave him a chance to advance.
He didn’t espouse hate speech. He didn’t denigrate women or minorities. He also didn’t further the cause. We were in a writing program and his characters tended to be other cis white men. The authors he assigned in his classes were usually cis white men (with maybe one token book by a man of color, white woman, or Toni Morrison if he felt frisky).
Does this mean that as allies in a workplace, we should deliberately not pursue advancement when it pits us against those who carry less privilege? I’m not the one to make that decision for anyone. If a man is offered a promotion and elects to pass on it in favor of giving it to a woman, this could be viewed as a feminist act. It can also be viewed as condescending and patriarchal. Our job is to be nuanced and careful about our application of these privileges. The best way to do this is simply…
More Radical Reads: Because America: 5 Must Have Facts On Sexism and Patriarchy 101
Asking how we can help, and listening.
This is the point that supersedes all others, and the one that many good-hearted men completely screw up. We rush in with gusto and play defender to the women in our spaces. We confront and act on behalf of and fail to confer if it’s actually productive.
What we fail to remember is that women know what they need better than we do. And even if they don’t (but seriously though, they do), it isn’t our place to drop in and play with savior dynamics. Ask how we can be helpful. Ask about what they’re dealing with. Don’t take offense if they don’t open up—that’s their prerogative.
If any of the advice that I provide here contradicts what a woman actually requests, go with her words over mine. I’m a cis man and get listened to plenty. We all do. So ask and listen and give someone else the chance.
In order to continue producing high quality content and expanding the message of radical, unapologetic self-love, we need to build a sustainable organization. To meet these efforts, we’re thrilled to share the launch of our #NoBodiesInvisible subscription service. This service will provide our community with access to additional content and rewards for your monthly investment in furthering our radical self-love work.
[A photo of two people sitting at a table in front of Apple laptops. The person on the left has long dark hair and a green sweatshirt. The person on the right has long dark hair and they are wearing a red shirt. A window is behind them. Source: Jo Chou]