We’re all familiar with that uncomfortable comment or interaction that was just subtle enough to make you think, "is it just me, or was that kinda sexist?" While overt sexism is now less common and sexual harassment is at least not the socially accepted norm, women still encounter obstacles at work that men do not. They call it the “death by a thousand cuts.” The steady, quiet chipping away at your validity as a woman at work. “You’d be prettier if you smiled.” Because apparently catering to the male gaze was hiding somewhere in your job description. Men refusing to address you with the same respect they use to address your male peers—I had one coworker who refused to call me anything but “little girl.” Having your ideas attributed to (or outright stolen by) men; because for some reason it wasn’t worth listening to until it came out of their mouth. And of course, being interrupted over and over. And over. And over. Taken one at a time, these are perhaps mere annoyances. Something to shrug off and ignore as you keep kicking ass at your job. But these occurrences are not things that happen once and then let you move on with your life. These are small, but regularly occurring slights that women have to deal with on the regular. Sometimes weekly, daily, many times in a day! And as these nicks accumulate, you start to realize your passion for what you do is bleeding out.
The Feminist Fight Club, by Jessica Bennett, is your manual for combating sexism in the workplace. It reads like a manual too; you can sit down with it from start to finish or just flip it open to the relevant section. You can read about the behaviors you might encounter, strategies for dealing with those behaviors, self-saboteurs and how not to be one, and even how man can support women at work. The premise for the book grows out of experiences Jessica had early on in her career. She and a group of friends would get together, and often end up talking about the frustrations they were facing at work. They worked in a variety of positions, but were all women in the early phases of their careers. Each of them, in different ways, was experiencing those tiny daily attacks. Being interrupted, having their ideas attributed to someone else, noticing male counterparts being promoted faster despite comparable performance. So they became more deliberate. They scheduled these meetings, invited other women into their circle, discussed the obstacles they were facing, thought of ways they could address the problem, and they held each other accountable. They did all of this over hearty meals—meals for an army! Because that’s what they were becoming. A militia, fighting for respect and recognition in the workplace.
I love the idea and am laying the groundwork for my own sort of fight club. It is important that we all have some version of this support system. Too often we stay silent about these issues because we worry that we are being “too sensitive,” or that maybe “it’s all in our head.” Staying silent contributes to this cycle; more women feel like it’s just them, so they don’t say anything, so nobody knows that they are surrounded by women with almost identical experiences! Creating a community where you share these experiences and grievances openly allows us to move toward a solution instead of quietly fuming and trying to just ignore it. Your ladies have your back. And a handbook like FFC is a worthwhile addition to any gathering. It’s your personal reference guide. Coworker talking over you? Try out a game of verbal chicken! Or if that approach is too aggressive for you, you can ally yourself with the other women in your office. Make a pact to interrupt the interrupters. When one of you gets talked over, another can interject-- “wait, I’d like to hear the rest of what she has to say.” FFC can help you identify the strategies that are right for you.
While each group's FFC meetings might look different, some core components are critical to a successful, supportive fight club. Each member should have the freedom to air their grievances openly and without fear of judgment. Everyone’s feelings are valid. But a meeting should be more than complaining (although that is an important step). There must be a response to the problem—develop a strategy to combat the issue. Brainstorm together. And in the next meeting, follow up on these strategies. It is up to you to hold each other accountable. While the primary goal of these meetings is to be productive, it is also important to have an element of joy. Eat good food. Do something creative together. Love each other. You are sisters in arms against a common enemy: inequality.
If sexism is wearing you down, reach out to the women around you for support. Jessica Bennett has some tips for starting your own group, but you can also take action in more informal ways. Have you read the book? Do you have your own version of a fight club? I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.