A No-Bullshit Guide to Fighting Sexism At Work

A Q&A with the author of Feminist Fight Club

09.13.16
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It wasn’t until she unearthed a lawsuit from the 1970s filed by the women of Newsweek against the magazine that writer Jessica Bennett experienced what is often termed by feminists as “the click.” Bennett, who was then a 27-year-old staff writer at the weekly, realized that the discomfort she felt at the office wasn’t a figment of her imagination. It was the result of thousands of instances of subtle sexism, and it was institutional. It surfaced in small-yet-frequent ways: constantly being interrupted during meetings, having your great ideas attributed to men, having your boss call you “aggressive” or “bossy” instead of powerful or direct.

The timing of the book, which is out today (pick it up on Amazon here) is pretty perfect considering that right now the interview process is happening live on the national stage. It’s a swirling microcosm of sexism. To your right, there’s a man. He’s loud, braggy, overconfident. He has no experience but that hasn’t stopped him — in fact, it’s considered a plus (!). To your left, there’s a woman. She’s been, over the course of a lifetime in politics, criticized for everything from her hair to her clothes to not smiling to wanting to have a career to hyphenating her last name. She is the most experienced presidential candidate ever. And they are still polling relatively closely!

But let’s get back to the book, which is titled Feminist Fight Club and offers plenty of practical, easy advice for how to deal with commonplace office sexism. It is a great read for women already running into this head-on, but it’s an even better read for those gearing up for this sort of slog — looking at you, college students. I spoke with Jessica by phone to talk about becoming a feminist and why we are not done fighting the good fight (sorry ladies).

Can you explain how sexism in the workplace has changed over the years?
New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who has written a bunch for Newsweek,  said something to the effect of, “Sexism is harder in some ways for your generation because it’s harder to call out and it’s harder to identify.”

And that resonated with me so much because certainly what my mother’s generation experienced was more overt and arguably worse in a lot of ways. A guy literally grabbing your ass in the office. Awful, but you knew it when you saw it. It was clear-cut discrimination, it had a name. Today, what we experience is a lot more subtle. Constantly being interrupted when you’re trying to speak, or having your ideas attributed to someone else, or walking into a pitch meeting — as I have many times — and stumbling over my words because I feel like I don’t belong and that I’m not good enough to be there. These are all really subtle and internalized forms of sexism. So sexism still exists, but it’s easy to say that maybe the problem is just me. Maybe it’s not sexism, maybe I’m just bad at my job. Or maybe I’m not speaking in the right way.

There are large problems in the world, and large problems related to sexism, and it can often seem like that is almost petty. But these things add up.

In the book, you use the phrase “Death by a Thousand Cuts.”
It’s not one large thing holding women back, it’s a lot of small things. And so “Death by a Thousand Cuts” is a concept that describes how this is constant, all the time.

You worked in tech [at Tumblr], I work in tech. Do you feel like the sexism in tech is different than in other industries?
Yes, because it’s newer, because people are younger. Newsweek was an old-boys club and it had been since the magazine began. Tumblr was made up of young people. Young people who were progressive, who cared about feminist issues. And so in a lot of ways, it’s more difficult to recognize these issues as gender-based when they’re coming from people who are like, ‘Of course, I believe in gender equality, I’m a feminist!’ But they still have these ingrained behaviors. To be clear, both men and women exhibit these biases.

Women supporting women is obviously important, but how can we develop more male allies? Especially when we are trying to manage up and are dealing with sexism from male superiors?
Calling it out is the most important thing, and finding a way to do that so the person doesn’t feel attacked. Throughout the book I offer the direct approach and the indirect approach. I use a lot of silly terms like “manterruption,” “bropropriation.” These are meant to be funny. Clearly not every man is an interrupter and not every person who is interrupted is a woman. [hashtag: #notallmen — Leslie) Linguistically, those terms are actually really important because they put a name to a behavior that makes it immediately identifiable to anyone who is experiencing it or doing it. And mansplaining is the best example of that.

How can women change this situation?
We need to normalize female power just by getting women into power. Like having a female as president. Getting women into power across the board or having an equal number of women at all levels will normalize women in those roles and women won’t have to conform to the male standard of power.

I’m so glad you brought up the election.
Watching this election is literally like a case study in gender bias. Every scholar will be talking about this for years to come. Donald Trump is a caricature of every character in this book. He’s a Manterrupter, he’s a Mansplainer (he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about, plus he lies — women are more likely to be lied to in a negotiation), he’s a Menstruhater (he thinks that if it’s that time of the month, you’re not capable of making decisions). He thinks breastfeeding is disgusting. And then Hillary faces every sort of gender bias under the sun. The argument about her being unqualified — no, she’s actually the most qualified candidate. Don’t take my word for it, researchers have studied it. This is common; women many times more qualified are often viewed on the same level as a man. I studied it in politics and I studied it in business. What the research shows is that when women are trying to grasp power, we like them less. “Oh you don’t like her? You did like her when she was Secretary of State and wasn’t trying to GAIN power.” When men are trying to grasp power — and the more power they gain — we like them more. [The criticism even comes] down to her voice. “Hillary is shrill.” Women are called shrill three times more often in the media than men. So, it’s been really interesting to watch because we’re sort of talking about it but we’re not completely talking about it. Even when we do, a lot of people don’t seem to give a shit. Or believe that it’s real.

What are some easy tactics women can use every day at work?
Some of this stuff seems so silly, but it’s easy to do. Before you’re going in to a presentation or something you are nervous about, power pose. Stand, spread your legs, put your hands on your hips and strike a Wonder Woman-esque pose. Stay in that position for 90 seconds. Research has shown that your testosterone levels will go up which will in turn raise your confidence.

When women brag, it’s often viewed as conceited and we like them less when they do. But you know what works really well? Having a friend — it can be a man or a woman — brag on your behalf. They hype you up, and they look awesome because they look selfless and you look great because they’re highlighting the great thing that you did.

I did it the other night. The host was like, “What can we do to support you?” My friend stood up and said, “You can buy a book. She worked really hard on it and you can support her by purchasing this book.” People loved that she spoke up on my behalf and I didn’t have to do it.

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