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Are You Subtly Sexist? (Most Likely, Yes.)

But I’m not sexist, we all think. As journalist and author of Feminist Fight Club (an unexpectedly wry and funny guide to navigating sexism in the workplace) Jessica Bennett’s fascinating work shows, we—women and men—exhibit subtle sexist biases, many of which have disastrous consequences at work, and elsewhere.

In the same way that cutting out, say, processed food long-term has much more significant effects on your health but is much less sexy/exciting/memorable than a one-time crash diet, the power of the subtle and the constant is easy to underestimate. With overt sexism (sadly and shockingly) still very present today, it’s tempting to downplay the damage subtle sexism is still doing, day in and day out.

Subtle biases are, by definition, harder to pinpoint and to wipe out. With her trademark wit, Bennett details the subtle sexism to watch for in ourselves and each other, and the vitally important steps that you can take to deal with subtly sexist thoughts and behaviors in the moment. She also gives bigger-picture advice on how each of us can more fully support all women. (To Bennett’s required feminist reading list—see below—we add her book, named after the Feminist Fight Club she started years ago with a group of women in a NYC apartment. Her tribe has since grown; you can join it here and follow along on Instagram here.)

A Q&A with Jessica Bennett

Q

How do you define subtle sexism?

A

Subtle sexism (n.)

The kind of sexism that makes you wonder, Am I actually just crazy? (No, you are not.)

While overt sexism is inarguably bad and inexcusable, that doesn’t mean subtle sexism isn’t damaging—often times it’s even more dangerous, because it’s harder to document, and even harder to call out. It’s things like being interrupted when you speak—something that happens twice as frequently to women as men—or being mistaken for the office secretary when you’re actually the one in charge. It’s the fact that women who lead are perceived as bossy or too aggressive; that when we negotiate for money we’re disliked (and less likely to receive said money); and when we ask for something twice we’re viewed as nags. Subtle sexism shows up in the way people of all age groups and genders just didn’t “like” Hillary Clinton (fact: the more power women gain, the less we like them, while the opposite is true for men), to the way, more recently, Elizabeth Warren was scolded for “persisting” and speaking up on the Senate floor.

Q

Is it possible to quantify its impact?

A

Taken individually, these things may not seem like that big a deal. But that’s in part what makes them so damaging: They’re insidious, and yet they’re easy to brush off. I call it “death by 1,000 cuts.” These things aren’t prosecutable in court; they’re typically not illegal; and yet they impact huge swaths of our working world, from the leadership roles women (do not) attain to how much money we make.

Q

Can you give us a few examples of subtle sexism in the workplace that you see often/find particularly problematic? What’s the appropriate response?

A

Illustration by Saskia Wariner

Subtle sexism can be internalized, too. I just wrote a book, for example, which means that people are constantly congratulating me on having written a book. But you know what I do? Instead of saying “thank you” I deflect: “Oh, I couldn’t have done it without my editor, my research assistant, my boyfriend who supported me, my dog”—literally any possible human or non-human who may deserve an iota of credit I am naming. Why? At first I didn’t know, but when I thought about it, I realized I didn’t want to come off as braggy or self-promotional. Again, why? Well, because we don’t like women who are self-promotional—and all sorts of academic research backs this up. So in this case, the appropriate response is to tell my internal voice to STFU and say “thank you,” but these things extend to all sorts of scenarios, from women feeling competitive against one another for no good reason, to the fact that women’s ideas are very often attributed to men:

THE MANTERRUPTER

That’s the guy (or gal) who interrupts you when you speak—which, again, happens twice as frequently to women as it does to men, and even more if you’re a woman of color.

What you can do:

  • Employ verbal chicken: Just keep talking and do not retreat until the other person shuts up.

  • Lean in (literally): Physically lean into the table, if there is one. Research has shown this makes people less likely to be interrupted—conceivably because you’re asserting your authority through your body language.

  • Interrupt the interrupter, and encourage your colleagues to do the same: If you see someone else being interrupted, chime in on their behalf. “Hey, can you let Jess finish?”

THE BROPROPRIATOR

The bropropriator appropriates credit for another’s work: presenting the ideas of his team as his own, accepting credit for an idea that wasn’t his, or sometimes doing nothing at all and still ending up with the credit. (Yes, research shows that women are less likely to have their own ideas correctly attributed to them, whether somebody is purposely taking credit for our ideas or not. Sometimes that credit is simply assumed to belong elsewhere.)

What you can do:

  • Employ the “Thank n’ Yank,” in which you yank the credit back by thanking the person for liking your idea: “Thanks so much for picking up on my idea!” You’re being nice, but the key word is my: my idea.

  • ​Amplify the ideas of your female colleagues. This is what the women of the Obama White House did when they felt they weren’t being heard in meetings. They’d commit beforehand to having each other’s backs, then walk into the meeting and make sure they repeated ​each other’s ideas—always with credit to the authors. Not only were they less likely to be interrupted, but their ideas were always attached to their rightful owner. Both the amplifier (who came off like a great colleague) and the person she was amplifying (who got her rightful credit) came out on top.

THE WOMENEMY

She who views other women as the competition, and undercuts them as a result. Of course, none of us has ever been that person, and yet behold: Research has found that 95 percent of working women have felt undermined by another woman at least once in their careers, which means that most of us have met this woman, or been her.

What you can do:

  • Rule No. 3 of the Feminist Fight Club (FFC): We fight patriarchy, not each other. Take a vow to treat other women as your allies (even if you don’t like them). Try to address conflict directly. Catch yourself if you automatically feel competitive. Remember, we are in this together—we’ll be more powerful if we help each other out.

  • Employ what my friends at the Call Your Girlfriend podcast call “Shine Theory,” the idea that another woman’s success, or shine, is going to make you shine brighter, not look duller, by comparison. It’s a radically simple shift in thinking that I use regularly. So instead of competing with awesome women or feeling jealous of their success, surround yourself with them, and bask in their glow.

Q

Given that this a subtle bias, how do we recognize it in ourselves if/when it is at work?

A

The first step is to acknowledge that we all—women and men—exhibit subtle gender bias (and racial bias, for that matter). If we come from a starting place where we know that we are going to have to overcome these barriers, then we can catch ourselves, check our behavior, to make sure we’re not feeding into the system. It can be as simple as noticing if women are being interrupted in meetings, and jumping in to let them finish. Observing if we instinctively feel competitive with another woman, and taking a moment to pause and ask why that is. It’s viewing a woman who touts her accomplishments as “braggy” or the woman asking for a raise as “aggressive”—and then catching ourselves, and asking, Would I think of her that way if she were a man? Knowing the landmines is so important—and being able to name them—because it allows us to catch ourselves in the moment, or notice when somebody else is exhibiting the behavior.

Q

What can we all (women and men) do to change our office (or other) environment to get rid of subtle sexism in the first place?

A

Acknowledging it in ourselves (as noted above), as well as others, is crucial. The best response to subtle sexism when you see it is to find an appropriate way to call it out. More often than not, I think most people are receptive to that feedback when delivered in an effective way. But getting rid of subtle sexism also means advocating for systemic change: i.e. salary transparency; clear hiring goals; implementing family-friendly policies.

Q

What about overt sexism—any wisdom to offer women navigating blatantly sexist landscapes?

A

Call it out openly and don’t tolerate it. At this moment, more than ever before, if you see something you think is inappropriate—do not stay silent. Helping (all) women means speaking up. What gets me through is knowing that we are more powerful together. That for every one woman who sticks her head out to call out sexist or racist behavior, if she has other women—and men!—supporting her, she’s going to be more successful. So, talk to your colleagues about these issues, even if you have to do it in private. Form alliances. Support one another. The reality is that it’s easy to dismiss an individual who calls out injustice, but it’s much harder—maybe even impossible—to dismiss an army of individuals.

Q

How do we draw the line between giving people the benefit of the doubt and identifying a sexist comment/behavior?

A

Trust your gut. For years when I was a young reporter, I repeatedly noticed that my story ideas would be given away to male colleagues, that I wasn’t getting published with the same frequency; and I suspected I wasn’t making as much money. Initially, I thought I must be doing something wrong. I must not be good enough. Turns out, it wasn’t me—and once I started talking to female colleagues, I began to realize we all felt this way, and suddenly it wasn’t my problem, it was a collective problem.

Q

For people who haven’t previously thought of themselves as activists, what are some small first steps to supporting feminism?

A

There are all sorts of ways to engage, from to writing or calling their local/federal representative (this really does work!; research has found that calling or writing is much more effective than sending an email, and politicians really do listen), to taking the time to mentor young women, or volunteering or donating to an organization like the ACLU. You can also form a Feminist Fight Club! This can literally be half a dozen women—or men too; anyone who believes in and is willing to fight for equality can be in the club. Meet at a coffee shop once a month. Talk about what what’s going on in the world and how you can engage. Ask each other how you can support one another, how you can stand up for what’s right. Your FFC can be structured however you want it to be—but the point is that you’re gathering, you’re meeting, and you’re talking openly and honestly about the issues.

Q

What’s your required feminist reading list/people we should be following?

A

For Your Bookshelf:

For Your Bathroom:

For Your Coffee Table:

For Kids:

Newsletters

Instagram:

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