It's 2018, Are You Contributing to a Feminist Workplace?

Over the course of my career, I’ve frequently worked within or led teams made up entirely of women. For me, that brought a hyper-awareness of how myself and my teams were referred to by fellow employees and managers, as well as how women were treated in meetings and how committed the organization was to equality. In the post-Weinstein era, it’s increasingly impossible to ignore the treatment of women in the workplace, and rightly so. This is not an abstract “concept” issue, it is a day-to-day reality.

The thing is, building and contributing to a feminist workplace is not monumentally difficult on an individual level. And it’s individual changes in behavior, combined with the commitment to advocate those new standards, that bring about change on a grander scale (oftentimes slowly — painfully slowly — but nonetheless). As we roll into 2018, here are a few behaviors to keep in mind to create a better environment, and ultimately, a stronger business.

It Isn’t “Just” Semantics

Simply put: language matters. You can do a heap of reading about why you shouldn’t refer to women in the workplace as girls. The most frequent argument I came up against when pointing this out in previous working environments wasn’t really an argument at all. It was just something along the lines of “Do you seriously care?” or “Don’t you think you’re being overly sensitive?” Answer to the first question: Yes. Answer to the second question: No.

It’s not a question of sensitivity, it’s a question of mutual respect. It’s a hell of a lot harder to stand up in a meeting room full of male executives and demand respect after having been called, essentially, a child. Everyone in the workplace is a fully-grown adult, and should be referred to and treated as such. “Girl”, although often thrown around without negative intent, is not so far away from “Sweetheart” or “Honey” (myself and my teams have been referred to as worse, but let’s keep this PG). All of these are terms that automatically place power and authority in the user, and detract it from the person in question. It particularly encourages infantile or subpar treatment of junior employees, who may not have the power or comfort level to speak up but whose position and opinions are undermined through consistent use of that kind of language from their superiors. It not only detracts from their efforts, but it encourages others hearing that usage to consider them as less-than-adults, not-quite-proper-employees.

Using “women” instead of “girls” may, for some, require one extra millisecond of thought. Take it.

Amplify at All Times

Men speak significantly more than women in meetings (one study found it was as much as 75% more). In tandem, even if a woman talks less than a man in a meeting, she is still perceived to have talked more. This is essentially a double-edged sword: Don’t talk and it will be assumed you don’t care or have nothing to say, but talk too much — or at all — and you’ll face negative perceptions of being pushy or aggressive, even if you speak only once for every five times a man speaks.

The result of all of this is that women are less likely to have their ideas heard, and it’s the shared responsibility of every person in any given meeting to make sure that all of those present are allowed and encouraged to speak. The best part? It’s easy. Painfully easy. Just ask people what they think — especially if you notice they haven’t spoken yet — and listen when they tell you.

The listening bit is key here, and so is the step after that: acknowledge what was said. This is best exemplified by a shift in meeting strategy enacted by the women working in President Obama’s cabinet:

Female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.

“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,” said one former Obama aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly. Obama noticed, she and others said, and began calling more often on women and junior aides.

It’s important here to note that there is rarely malicious intent in not letting a woman speak in a meeting, or interrupting her when she does. This isn’t a “men are loud and obnoxious and bad” accusation, but rather an acknowledgement that men, from the time they’re young, are rewarded and encouraged to speak up and be aggressive, while women are rewarded for politeness and good listening. There needs to be a shift away from the learned behaviors of both groups in order to find a healthy medium. As women strive to speak up more, both men and women in meetings should strive to acknowledge and amplify the ideas of other women in the room.

The shift this creates in meetings is noticeable and remarkable. Once you become aware of it, it’s impossible not to take note of who is speaking and how often. By way of example, one of the first meetings I had at my current organization was with one man and one woman. They spoke equally, deferred to one another on areas of expertise, and neither interrupted the other. It was a monumental shift from typical meeting flow, which I noticed largely because it was so different from a majority of meetings I’d attended in my professional career.

What We Talk About When We Talk about “The F Word”

A feminist workplace? How terrifying. How extreme. Do we really have to use the F word?

Yes. We do. Feminism is defined as the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes. Every single workplace should believe in that theory. Every. Single. Workplace.

That doesn’t mean that every employee has to wear a shirt proclaiming “The Future is Female” (although if you want to, please feel free). But it does mean that, especially at the managerial and executive level, having conversations surrounding company policy and — more importantly, company action — through a feminist lens is necessary. If you’re struggling to have those conversations, look around the room. Are you surrounded by a diverse group of women who you’ve invited to join the dialogue? Hint: As soon as the answer to that question is yes, you will struggle less in having the conversation. Bonus, your company will thank you. But don’t just take my word for it.

One Final Note

Everyone in the workplace is a human being with equal inherent value. A woman’s value does not come from her relation to someone else (i.e. The classic “Of course I care about how women are treated, I have a wife/daughter/etc.” line) but rather, in a professional sense, from the value she brings to the organization as an individual. A revolutionary concept? No. But one of which we seem to need continuous reminding.

With these things in mind, and an eye on the combined results of dedicated individual change, let’s sally forth into a better, stronger (and yes, more feminist) 2018.

Rachel PComment