Anna Holmes has had a long career in media. In her 20s, she worked for Entertainment Weekly, Glamour, and HBO. Then she wrote a book about breakups and founded the website Jezebel. These days, she’s a columnist for the New York Times Book Review, where she writes about very tricky issues in the world of writing, like the line between empathy and exploitation. Very recently, she’s become a regular co-host of the Slate podcast About Race. That’s a weekly podcast about the ways we can’t talk, don’t talk, would rather not talk, and sometimes embarrassingly do talk about culture, identity, politics, power, and privilege in America.
I got the chance to talk with Holmes about an issue we all face: navigating workplace patriarchy. I was excited to get her insight on dealing with everyday sexism and racism in media.
This interview was featured on our Popaganda podcast episode “Navigating Workplace Patriarchy.” You can listen to the whole episode below.
SARAH MIRK: So Anna, one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about is the words that people use to describe women that they don’t use to describe men. And then of course, in this election we’ve seen so much rhetoric around Hillary Clinton being “shrill” or “over-prepared” that you just wouldn’t see about male candidates.
ANNA HOLMES: [laughs] Yeah.
So what are your least favorite words that people use to describe you?
Oh. Well, that’s a great question because I’m sure there are words that people use to describe me that I don’t hear because they’re not ever said in my presence. And they’re probably not very complimentary. I mean, I think sometimes people use words to describe me that I don’t agree with, but those aren’t gendered maybe. Although, maybe they are. For example, someone once described me as very confident. And I’m like, “Me?” But they might think that because I’m tall, and I’m loud [laughs]. But that doesn’t mean that I’m confident. So maybe there is something gendered there, right? Perhaps because to be tall and loud and have a really deep voice maybe codes as more male than female, then that translates to confidence. I’m not saying I’m totally unconfident, but I would not describe myself as a confident person. I would describe myself as a normal person who, like anybody else, is trying to figure out his or her way through life, and all the insecurities and confusions and self-doubt that accompanies that. I’ve heard someone before describe me as articulate. That again, it felt more maybe racialized than gendered, although I’m not sure if the person who used it to describe me knew that I’m Black. I’m trying to think if there are other words that I’ve heard. Gosh. Loud, to me, I don’t take as an insult because well, it just, I just kind of am loud, but I always have been. And I would rather be loud than quiet. I realize that it’s historically not something that women are supposed to be or children are supposed to be, but I don’t take it as an insult when it’s being used to describe me. And it usually isn’t meant as one, and I don’t think of it as coded for something else that’s far more sinister like uppity.
Yeah! So you work as a writer and editor primarily. What words, when you see them in print or in other people’s stories, raise your hackles when they’re describing women or women of color?
Brash, ambitious. Actually, maybe loud would actually bother me if I saw it used to describe somebody else. I think it actually might. I think I might actually flag that even if it doesn’t feel untrue when directed at me.
Because you’re like, “I actually am loud. I know that as a truth.”
Yeah, that’s like someone saying that I have brown hair. It’s like, yeah? And then certainly words like shrill or preachy. All of the words that we already know are coded either in gendered or racial or both ways are the ones that would raise my suspicions and my hackles. I think I’m pretty attuned to that stuff and good about ferreting it out when I see it, which isn’t that often, at least among people that I work with in terms of their writing. I certainly see it in publications that I read, but I don’t encounter it as an editor that often.
Okay, so this next question is kind of tricky. But the first step, obviously, toward getting better at addressing sexism and racism and other forms of discrimination in our work spaces is recognizing that they exist at all and that those dynamics are present. Can you think of times in your work experience when you’ve seen dynamics occur in an office that you’re like, “Ah, that’s a gendered interaction,” or “Ah, that’s a racialized interaction”?
It’s funny cuz something happened a couple weeks ago. There was someone in our office, an outsider, who was coming in to present a technology that he wanted us to use in the course of our putting together stories. So he was brought into a conference room with myself, another senior female editorial person, a senior female operations person, and one male who’s a little bit less senior than us and younger. And the individual, the contractor if you wanna call it that, addressed all of his comments to the other male in the room. He was looking at him the whole time, and I noticed it, and I started getting irritated about it. Then I had to leave the meeting early just because I had to, but I wasn’t—that made me so much more likely to not take his pitch seriously, the fact that he was addressing his pitch and his comments to the other male in the room. It suggested to me that he didn’t see us, that he hadn’t done his homework as to who was really in charge in that room.
Anyway, I was irritated, and then the meeting ended. Later on in the day, I went up to my male colleague, the one who’d been the recipient of this pitch. I said, “Did you notice that that dude was only looking at you when he talked?” He said, “Oh yeah, I totally noticed.” It made me feel so warm and fuzzy, first of all, that he noticed, and that he was irritated by it. I think where it becomes difficult is well, do you say something in the moment? I didn’t, and I don’t know that I would have. It’s possible that, had I been irritated enough if I had said goodbye to this contractor, like if I’d stayed for the entire meeting and then done the good-bye thing, I might have said something. Or if he had emailed me later to follow up, like “Are you interested in this,” that I might have said, “Well, it sounds like you have a great product. But I would give you one piece of advice.” I probably would do that, but I think that just feeling that I could vocalize my frustration about that, and the fact that I noticed it, to a coworker, to a male coworker who totally got it was something that felt really heartening to me. I was very appreciative that he noticed. I think we’re all more attuned to that sort of thing. I can’t tell you, to be honest, I’m not sure that 20 years ago when I was first starting out in the work world, that I would have noticed. I may have noticed that, but I don’t know I would’ve noticed it so quickly. And maybe I’m looking for that stuff more, the older I get, which is fine. But I felt kind of proud of myself for noticing and proud of my coworker for noticing it and proud that we both had the same reaction to it, which was, “That stinks.”
Yeah, it’s tricky to navigate these situations. There’s no hard and fast rules because every situation is different. In that case, it’s a contractor. You’re probably never gonna see him again versus somebody who’s your boss or somebody who’s your co-worker. There’s a different relationship there.
But I’m interested, what advice would you give to your 20 year old self who was just entering the working world 20 years ago about how to navigate these kinds of situations around racial dynamics and gender dynamics?
It’s just so tough because it’s not like I have the answers now, 20 years later. I mean I really don’t! I think that we live in a culture, and let’s be honest, maybe when I say “we,” maybe I’m only speaking of places like New York where people are, for the most part, progressive about issues around—or at least comparatively progressive about issues around—gender or race. I think the best thing to do is to take notice of a situation or situations and try to determine whether this is an ongoing thing, like a trend. Because I really do think that [sighs] if someone said something that was explicitly racist in my presence, I would definitely say something to them. It’s more difficult with sexism. It really is. I think sometimes it’s maybe harder for observers to determine when something is sexist because they’re not as primed to be able to recognize it as they are racism. I’m sure there are people who would disagree with me about that, but that’s where I think we are right now. I would say to someone who is just starting out to take stock, take notice. I think that talking to a trusted colleague. Again, when I said something to my colleague, he’s a trusted colleague. I don’t know if he’d been from a different department, I didn’t know him, that I would’ve asked him if he’d noticed the dynamic that I’d witnessed. But I think talking to a trusted colleague.
And then, it’s really tough because it’s like, I don’t like creating conflict either. Although, one could argue that the mere utterance of something that’s sexist or racist is the creation of conflict even if it’s more passive. I think it’s good to give people the benefit of the doubt, but that doesn’t mean you don’t say anything. But I think the best way to have your concerns heard by someone—whether it’s your mother, sister, coworker, neighbor—is to present it in a way in which you own your own feelings. This is just a good rule for life. So instead of saying, “You made me feel x, y, or z,” you could phrase it like, “When I heard you make that comment about whatever, I felt demeaned as a woman.” Now, it’s very likely that the person is gonna get defensive anyway, right? But they can’t argue with you when you say, “I felt demeaned.” They can argue with you when you say, “You made me feel like,” or “You did this,” or “You are that.” But they can’t argue with you when you’re just basically presenting it as your feelings. So I think that’s a good way to try and communicate in general with people, but also in the workplace with regards to things that you hear that are upsetting. With regards to situations or trends that you’re witnessing, which for example, the men are getting promoted, and the women aren’t, it’s not that easy. You can’t just go up to someone and say that and expect to be heard or expect the situation to change. In that case, again, this is really hard for me to give advice about because I’m not sure it’s the right answer. But to talk to people outside your workplace who you trust about what they think you should do. I think that there are a lot more options for young people and older people in terms of how to navigate the workplace just because of the internet and because of the ability to canvas other friends and even unknown people that you’re conversing with on the internet about strategies and techniques.
Well, it’s so interesting you bring up there how when you’re somebody who tells somebody that something that they’ve said is upsetting to you and that it’s made you sad, you’re seen as the person who’s creating conflict there, and that you can shy away from being like, “Ugh, I don’t wanna tell this person that this was screwed up.”
But the issue that’s creating conflict there is what they’ve said or what they’ve done or the pattern that exists. But the onus for it is put onto the people who were ignored or offended.
Right, right. Well, I’m not sure how you change that, is the thing. Because the onus is always gonna be put on them unless people refuse to have the onus put on them, in which case they just walk away from the situation. Which is not necessarily the most productive or healthy thing to do. If it is, it is. If it isn’t, it isn’t. I just think that’s part of life, that we are forced to deal with and bear burdens that are unfair and seem unfair and feel unfair and are unfair—in many cases—but there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s just part of existing and interacting with society and other people. I’m not sure if I’m making sense, but I don’t know how you turn the onus back on somebody else when they’ve created the conflict! That’s the thing.
Well, do you feel like there are ways you’ve changed your own behavior in the working world? Do you feel like you’ve become more forthright or more quick to call people out or more quick to walk away and be like, “You know what? It doesn’t matter. I don’t have to deal with you”?
Well, the thing is, oftentimes I do have to deal with them. So if I’m in a situation where I can say, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t have to deal with you,” then I’m much more likely to walk away. If only life were so easy. Most of the time, the people that I deal with on a daily basis are people that I deal with on a daily basis, whether they’re my family members or friends or coworkers, and I don’t have the luxury of just walking away from them in that way. Especially in terms of family and coworkers. I almost feel like it’s easier to break up with a friend, although it might be much more in the end, traumatic, than to walk away from a family member or a coworker. We have jobs. We need to pay our bills. Most of us don’t have the luxury of saying, “Fuck it” and just flouncing out. So I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more likely to express my feelings about something to somebody. Again, I usually try and do them in the context of owning them, as I just kind of outlined before. I don’t know that I’m more likely to say something. I think that I’m less afraid, the older I get, which is either a function of just being older and wiser, or perhaps it’s a function of feeling more secure in my career so that I don’t feel that the repercussions of my speaking out would be as dire as perhaps I feared they would be when I was younger. So I think that I’m more likely to say something. But again, I have to decide when I wanna have those fights. And maybe using the word “fights” is in itself too provocative. I have to decide when I wanna have those conversations.
So now you’re often in the position where you’re a manager, or you’re in charge. You’re the boss in a lot of circumstances. So can you think of things you try to do as a boss to get around sexist and racist ways that offices are often structured? Are there intentional things that you do as a manager or as an editor to say, “Hey, feel supported,” or “Hey, I’m gonna make space for this”?
Yeah, I mean, if I feel that someone is being overlooked or ignored, and that person comes from a historically marginalized background, whether that’s because of their gender or sexual orientation or race, then I will often try to include them in conversations. I’ll be more aggressive about trying to include them in conversations, perhaps. I’m more likely to say something, say something to higher ups if I feel that the complexion of an office is not really in keeping with the stated goals and mission of the company I’m working for. And part of this is just getting older and feeling more secure, yeah, in my career. But I also think a lot of it is related to feeling confident in myself in ways that have nothing to do with my career. So there’s both the career part: Okay, I feel like I’m fairly well established, and if this one thing doesn’t work out, then hopefully I can find something else. But it’s also just being older in general and being less willing to stand idly by or put up with certain things. Although, I do stand idly by and put up with things.
But I think I get what you mean, which is I just turned 30 this year, and I thought it would be kind of like depressed about it. But instead, I’ve been feeling very powerful [laughs] is the only way to put it.
I’ve been feeling like, “Oh hey, I have skills, and I know what I’m doing. I feel good about my body, and I feel good about myself.” That’s changed the way that I approach all encounters, even ones that aren’t in the office.
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. When I was in my 20s, the women I admired the most tended to be older than me, which suggested to me that getting older was gonna be a good thing, not a bad thing. I didn’t tend to freak out about those milestone birthdays like 30 or even 40 because of the fact that the women who were 10 years my senior were, for the most part, the ones that I encountered, they felt much more self-possessed and confident and a part of themselves than I did at that moment and that a lot of women around me who were my age felt as well. So to me, that suggested that there was a certain growing into one’s own skin and comfort level that happens as you get older. I’m sure that maybe it’s the same for men too. But I think it’s especially poignant for women because women are prized for their youth in a way that men are not. So sometimes those things, the idea of embracing getting older seems at odds with what we’re expected to want of ourselves and are expected that other people want of us.
What do you think you’ll be like when you’re 60?