Brilliant pie chart and podcast feature illustation by Saskia Warner, featured in Feminist Fight Club.
“Emotional” is a word used to describe “how women are perceived when they express anger or displeasure at work, while a man who does the same is simply viewed as ‘passionate,’” writes journalist Jessica Bennett in her new book Feminist Fight Club. On this episode, we share ideas for navigating sexism and racism at work, with help from Bennett and About Race podcast co-host Anna Holmes. We also hear stories from Popaganda listeners and atendees of feminist nerd convention GeekGirlCon. If you’ve ever dealt with mansplaining coworkers or been written off as “bossy,” this is the episode for you.
FEMINIST FIGHT CLUB
INTERVIEW WITH ANNA HOLMES
STORIES FROM GEEKGIRLCON AND LISTENERS
Earn your women, gender, and sexuality studies degree ONLINE. Explore the role race, social class, age, ability, appearance and sexual identity play in women’s everyday lives. Join the nation of do what you love, push up your sleeves, make the world better—Oregon State University. Learn more at ecampus.oregonstate.edu/wgss.
The band featured on this band is awesome trio Shannon and the Clams.
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SARAH: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
Among the hallowed halls and bureaucratic meeting rooms of the White House, the women who work in the Obama administration recently told reporters that they have a special tactic. A special tactic to make sure that their ideas are recognized and respected. It’s very simple: when a woman shares an idea in a meeting, another woman repeats it and makes sure to credit her by name.
Like, “Kate brings up a very point there.” Or, “I want to build off of Manoosh’s idea….”
They call it amplification.
Every woman I know has a tactic like this, some social practice or way of presenting her ideas to help them get heard (but not stolen!) by male friends and partners, family members, bosses, and coworkers. It’s telling that even as a woman is running for president, women currently working for the president still have to devise ways of getting listened to.
And speaking of tactics for navigating sexism, Hillary Clinton’s way of dealing with a certain outspoken mansplainer has been on full display this election.
DONALD TRUMP: There’s a person with a temperament that’s got a problem.
LESTER HOLT: Secretary Clinton?
HILLARY CLINTON: Whoo! OK!
SARAH: In so, so many painfully obvious ways, our social structures still center white, straight, male experiences to the detriment of everyone else. That means women and people who are minorities of any kind find ourselves constructing elaborate systems to navigate the world to make ourselves heard and understood. Far too often, the burden is still on us to figure out how to work politely within the existing structures, rather than changing the structure itself or making the people in power change the way they’re behaving. The women of the Obama administration have found a great way to make their ideas heard, but that requires some heavy lifting and emotional labor that really should be on the people in charge, right?
On today’s show, we’re focusing on workplace interactions specifically. We’re gonna look at those two different strategies when we’re talking both about navigating the sexism and racism of male and white-dominated spaces, and we’re talking about how to change those spaces themselves. The BURN IT ALL DOWN option!
Just kidding. Don’t burn it down.
Actually, burn it down. Sort of.
I’m not decided on that.
Anyway, we’ve got stories from Anna Holmes, Jessica Bennett, and you on navigating workplace sexism and racism. So, let’s go.
Friends often text me about frustrating stuff that happens to them when they’re at work. Their boss talks over them, their coworker dismisses all their ideas, their lab mate is taking credit for the experiments himself. How do you deal with that stuff? I rarely have good advice, but it’s always nice to have someone to listen and commiserate.
Writer Jessica Bennett has her own version: a low-key monthly meet-up of female friends who called themselves the Feminist Fight Club. They meet about once a month for drinks and snacks in someone’s apartment, and they talk about the annoying situations they’ve dealt with recently, offering each other tips and cheer each other on and, of course, drink a fair amount of wine.
That spirit of banding together to commiserate and push for change is the basis of Bennett’s brand new book, Feminist Fight Club.
JESSICA: Hi, I’m Jessica Bennett. I’m the author of Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for A Sexist Workplace.
SARAH: The book is funny and light-hearted. It’s full of drawings and pie charts illustrating everyday douche bags and sexist encounters. But it’s also pretty real. A lot of it deals with naming casual sexist behaviors, like people interrupting you, or assuming that the woman could not possibly be the person in charge. Personally, I found it cathartic to read, and now I have something to gift to those friends who text me and find themselves carrying the burden of frustrating office dynamics.
The book starts out with Jessica describing her experiences working for the social media platform Tumblr.
JESSICA: Tumblr was this kind of cool, hip place to be working. It had really nice offices, people brought their dogs to work, there were unlimited snacks, like more snacks than you could ever imagine that you could just eat all day for free, which is very exciting for somebody coming from the journalism world! And it was great for a while, except that I began to realize that most of the people working there were men. And even though I was supposed to be relatively in charge, people would look to the men when I spoke anyway.
SARAH: Can you tell me about a concrete dynamic that you saw in the office that maybe seemed normal at the time, but then later, you realized oh, gender played a role there?
JESSICA: A lot of the stuff today is so subtle. So it wasn’t necessarily that there were really overt forms of sexism happening, but certainly, there were a lot of dudes looking at a lot of gif porn in that office. And there were things like after work beer pong and a lot of trips to different sports events for team bonding. Which isn’t to say that women don’t like sports and didn’t wanna attend those things, but they were all very gendered, in a way.
SARAH: Jessica and another journalist, a man named Chris, got hired at the same time to head up a brand-new journalism initiative on Tumblr. In a very modern move, Tumblr asked them both to choose
their job titles. They were both co-editors, reporting directly to the CEO. So…equals, right?
JESSICA: Everything was very egalitarian and a flat structure, very tech world. But then, when I arrived on my first day, they told me that Chris, my counterpart, had chosen the title of editor in chief. And anyone in the journalism world knows that that is the absolute highest title you can ever hold. So there was really no recovering from that in the sense that we weren’t going to be considered equal. I could choose the title of executive editor, but that still came below his title. Then he in fact was a wonderful guy and boss, but it sort of felt like I’d been sneak-attacked with a boss, and that boss happened to be a man.
SARAH: It’s not like Chris, Jessica’s co-worker turned instant boss, was a bad guy. But sexism, unconscious or not, certainly played a role in the structure of even this cutting-edge, open-minded business.
JESSICA: Chris, my counterpart, actually wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago after the book came out because I had approved the language with him. I told him I was going to be writing about my experience there. And he knew that all of this had happened, but he didn’t–I don’t think–realize that he had just inferred that he was going to be the one in charge. He chose that title because of course he would choose that title. He assumed that he would be the editor in chief. And so he writes in this piece about this and about this sense that, as a white man, he assumed that he would be in charge, and he didn’t think twice about it. Whereas I assumed the opposite. I didn’t know what title I would be, and probably if given the chance, I wouldn’t have chosen that title because I would’ve assumed that maybe I wouldn’t get it from the state. So some of this is really unconscious behavior. And in his case, he’s a wonderful human and a feminist, and he really wants to fight for gender equality. But some of these things are so deeply embedded and ingrained in our culture and in our psyches that it’s very unconscious.
SARAH: This is the way a lot of discrimination shows up in the office these days. It’s very rare now to hear someone say overtly, “Women shouldn’t be bosses!” or “women don’t deserve to earn as much as a man.” But when you look at the numbers, the race and gender wage gap persists, and it’s rare to see women in upper management even in a lot of progressive companies. It’s subtle sexism, which makes it tricky to recognize and address.
Like, for example, think about the gender assumptions coded into a lot of our language. One section of Jessica’s book lays out a list of words that are often applied to women but almost never to men. Like sassy, feisty, dramatic. “Emotional,” Jessica writes is “how women are perceived when they express anger or displeasure at work, while a man who does the same is simply viewed as “passionate.”
JESSICA: I feel like I’ve probably faced almost every word in here: aggressive, ambitious, bossy. I certainly was called “bossy” when I was younger. I was called “crazy” once by a female editor who’d never actually met me, and that was passed along down to me through a friend. All of these words that either are assumptions–you know, crazy is a very easy way to dismiss a woman, and it’s a word that’s been used for centuries to do so–or things like bossy, ambitious, aggressive, words that, were they describing men would actually be pretty good behavior. Like, the behavior required to be bossy or to be ambitious is actually great leadership qualities. So in men, we don’t use those words; we just assume that they’re acting like a leader or behaving like a person in power does. But when women are too ambitious, we don’t like them because we have all of these deeply-rooted stereotypes that tell us women shouldn’t be ambitious; they should be nurturing.
SARAH: I have my own complicated relationship with the word “intimidating.” Men often describe me as “intimidating,” and immediately I say, “What’s so scary about me? Are you intimidated by smart women?” Which, of course, is probably legitimately intimidating, but hey! That’s their problem, not mine.
JESSICA: I think that more than having a quippy response, which I’m not always equipped with, I try to call attention to the double standards at work. So for me, the easiest thing to say is, “Would you call me that word if I were a man?” And you see this in things like performance reviews where women are called things like aggressive, and the reviewer can to take a step back and ask themselves, “Would I be describing the candidate or the employee that way if she were male?” And more often than not, I think the answer’s no.
SARAH: In Feminist Fight Club, Jessica also uses language in another way, by listing terms for workplace dynamics that are often hard to talk about.
JESSICA: Part of the tactic to overcome this is calling out the behavior in the first place, being able to recognize when it’s happening. So throughout the book, I’ve given these titles to different types of behavior like Manterruption, when a man interrupts a woman at work. Broppropriation, when a bro appropriates a female idea. And the idea is not to call out every man for being an interrupter, because that’s not true, or every guy for stealing ideas, but to put titles and maybe sort of fun, easy to roll off the tongue titles, on behavior that statistically has a pattern.
SARAH: Of course not every guy is a serial interrupter, and of course not every person who takes credit for ideas is a man. But when you step back and look a pattern of behavior, like who spends most of the time talking in meetings, there’s definitely a gendered dynamic to it. Not every guy is a talker, and some women, like me, are prone to talking a lot. But several studies have shown that, as a pattern of behavior, men take up way more time during meetings and in classrooms than women do. One 2012 study showed that men took up 75% of time in an average business meeting. A 2004 study of Harvard Law classrooms found than men were 50% more likely to volunteer a comment in class. So what Jessica Bennett is trying to do in Feminist Fight Club is have us recognize patterns of behavior that might otherwise not be on peoples’ radars.
JESSICA: I was in a meeting recently, and a man and a woman came in. I instinctively assumed that the woman was junior to the man, and she wasn’t; she was the man’s boss. I sort of caught myself in that moment and was like, “Oh shit. I just did that thing that so many of us do, which is to assume that the man is in power.” And so I do a lot of these things. Some of them are traps that I fall into myself, like apologizing before I speak or being unable to take a compliment. I’m on book tour now, and so I’m getting a lot of congratulations from different people, and my gut instinct is to say, “Oh, well, it’s not a big deal. It wasn’t a big deal. I couldn’t have done it without So-and-so. This person deserves the credit.” While there are a lot of people who helped tremendously with this book, I still wrote a fucking book. I should be able to say, “Thank you” and take some credit for it. So from those things that I place upon myself to actually jumping to these assumptions about other people, I struggle with a lot of this stuff. I think that part of the challenge here is each of us, even those of us who are the most well-intentioned and call ourselves feminists, can actually fall into some of these things.
SARAH: I wish that there was some point in my life where I’d have this all figured out, and I would always have the perfect way to point sexist behavior and the perfect quip on the tip of my tongue when a guy restates an idea that I literally just said. But…I don’t. It’s always a process of learning and trying to do better. And a lot of what we can work on is recognizing that the onus for changing discriminatory behavior dynamics usually falls on the people who are being discriminated against. It’s often on us to change our behavior, to negotiate better, to speak up for ourselves, to really fight for
promotions. But, I asked Jessica, “What can we do to get the people who are in power to change their behavior? What advice do you give to dudes, to white people, and to other people who are typically in positions of power for checking themselves and changing unequal dynamics?”
JESSICA: We live under a patriarchal structure that for years has taught us to be ladylike or not ask for money or not be too braggy about our accomplishments, when the opposite of those things is required in the modern workplace. So there are some things that I think women can change about their behavior, but I think it’s important to note that the onus should not be on them. They shouldn’t have to do this stuff. But the reality is that we still live in a very male-dominated world, a white male-dominated world. There are also things that men can do to help or people in positions of power can do to help. I mean, it’s all very specific. So throughout the book, I try to give really concrete, small advice for things you can do in the moment, on the daily. For example, if you see a woman interrupted in a meeting, you can interrupt the person interrupting her. You can be like, “Hey, can you let her finish?” so that she can say her piece, and she doesn’t have to look like a nag by being the one to say, “I’m not done talking.” You can give credit where it’s due. So often, women’s ideas are not correctly attributed to them. So if you see that happen, you can jump in, and you can bring the credit back to the person where it originated. You can do things like if you’re in a hiring position, for every white man you interview for a job, you need to interview an equally representative number of women and people of color. That just needs to happen, and there’s no excuse for it not to. If you can’t find those candidates, you need to look harder. So I think that there are some things that we can do daily as we’re facing these struggles and some of the smaller things that occur in our everyday lives. I also think we need to fight for larger structural issues like equal pay and paid parental leave for both men and women and raising the minimum age. But I guess I’ve found that when I was beginning my career, and I wanted all of those things, I felt pretty powerless to do it. So the tools that I try to provide are the kind that you can keep in your back pocket and employ at any moment. But it has to be coming from all sides. This needs to be bottom up and top down and from really every side and every which way. Men need to be involved. Those in power need to be involved. Companies need to care about these issues. And those of us who are facing this need to have tools to fight back against it. I mean yes, a lot of times this stuff is really depressing, but I try to find ways to laugh about it, because in some sense, humor is the only thing that will make you wanna keep fighting.
SARAH: That was Jessica Bennett. Her book is Feminist Fight Club.
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[crowds talking, R2D2 bleeping]
SARAH: As any Star Wars nerd will recognize, that’s the futuristic sound of little droid R2D2. I’m hanging out with R2 right now at GeekGirlCon in Seattle. Nerd subcultures have reputation for not being very welcoming to women and non-binary folks. Comics conventions can be the definition of a male-dominated space where harassment can be a big problem, and panels often tend to be male-heavy and white-heavy. So in 2011, a group of intersectional feminist nerds founded their own
convention, GeekGirlCon. This year, about 8,500 fans descended on the Seattle Convention Center for panels ranging from Rolling for Boob Size: Being a Woman in a Masculine D and D World to Getting Away with Murder: Forensic Science in TV and Movies. All around me right now are women dressed as Miyazaki characters, Steven Universe gems and Ghost Busters. Running all around R2D2 are little girls dressed as Rey from Star Wars, and riding the escalator is a mom dressed as the doctor with a little baby Dalek. It’s like being in an alternate reality from most conventions where women and people of color aren’t an afterthought squished into one panel on diversity, but front and center at all times. While pop culture creators often overlook women, GeekGirlCon shows what a huge, diverse, and loyal fan base is out there.
I brought along my microphone to ask GeekGirlCon attendees for advice on navigating sexism and racism in their lives. Also, we did a shout out on the last Popaganda episode asking you all, the listeners, to call in with your stories. So here are tips and anecdotes from GeekGirlCon attendees and Popaganda listeners about what they’ve learned about navigating patriarchy.
MORGAN: My name is Morgan. I’m a local events producer and DJ in the greater Seattle area.
SARAH: OK, so Morgan, you said you have a lot of experience navigating sexist areas [chuckling]. Can you tell me where you find yourself navigating those scenes, and what’s one piece of advice you have?
MORGAN: Well, being a DJ is definitely a very male-dominated field. There’s a lot of times where I show up, and there’s kind of two ways that it can go. Either I’m not dressed up enough, and people are kind of like, “Oh, who are you? You’re not really here to perform and entertain us.” Or if I’m dressed up too much, or I look too sexy or whatever, then people assume, “Oh, you’re not really a DJ,” or “You must be lacking in skills somehow.” It’s definitely a very male-dominated field; it’s a very male-dominated industry. There’s a lot of ways that I’m kind of dismissed as a model DJ rather than an actual functioning DJ. And even just the club and dance communities and scenes in general has a lot of sexism and predatory behavior. There’s a lot of men who come out just to creep on women. One of the most effective ways that I have found to deal with that is to just kind of, in my mind I call it projecting the alpha stance, where there have been many times where I see men displaying predatory behavior, which once you know what to look for, is very obvious. And standing in the DJ booth, arms crossed, looking at them, staring at them, being like, “Hey, I see you. I’m watching you. I know what you’re doing,” more than once, I’ve seen a guy–once they realize that they’re being watched by someone who is an employee–simply take their jacket and leave.
JULIA: My name is Julia. I’m 15 years old. I’m a Girl Scout, and we had to earn our silver award. So about a year ago in May, actually it was this year in May, I held a leadership conference to decrease the stigma on menstrual health. We raised over $1,500 for girls in need of feminine hygiene products around the world. We had a uterus piñata and other things that helped decrease the menstrual stigma. And then, the uterus piñata just makes it sillier, I guess, and more easy to talk about. So it decreases that shame and that stigma, I guess. Yeah.
APRIL: Hi, my name’s April, and I just wanna talk about an experience I had at a networking event that was put on by the Democratic Party of my state. So I walked into this event and noticed a man that I’ll refer to as Head Honcho. He’s very high up in the Democratic Party. So I thought to myself, “Ooh, I need to go meet this guy.” So I noticed he was surrounded by a group of young men. They were all laughing and talking, and I just thought, “I’ll go join the conversation.” So I walked up, made a space
for myself in the circle, but was immediately met with almost a sense of hostility. I felt very unwelcome; nobody looked at me or acknowledged me. They just continued on with their conversation, but I still sensed such a deep feeling of discomfort that I was there. But at that point, I felt it would be even more awkward if I walked away. So I decided to just hope for a break in the conversation so that I could introduce myself and just stood there feeling awkward for about four or five minutes until finally a young man walked up, and he stood right beside me, basically did the exact same thing I did, just made a space for himself in the circle and stood there. And seconds later, Mr. Head Honcho leaned right past me, extended his hand to this young white man, and said, “Hi! Welcome! What’s your name?” So I was furious that this guy got invited to the conversation immediately, and I just stuck my hand in Mr. Head Honcho’s face and said, “And I’m April.” I’ve seen this man several more times since then at different events. I don’t think he’s a bad person. I think he does care about equality. I don’t think he realized that he had treated me with such disrespect.
CHRISTINA: Hi, my name is Christina. I’m 26 years old, and this is my story of feeling like a minority in a male-dominated place. When I was 23 years old and pretty fresh out of college, I got a job as a scientist for a construction-based company in the Bay Area of California. I was put in a full-time field position, meaning hard hat, steel-toe boots, the whole nine. So in their perspective, a few problems arose when I walked in on my first day. First, I was a woman; I was the only woman in the field. Second, I was a young woman, in some cases 30 years younger than the men who I was managing. Many had spent over two decades in the construction industry. Third problem, I was an attractive woman, by kind of general societal standards. So I was completely foreign to this group of men, and now I was their boss. So from here, an interesting dynamic unfolded. I went into this thinking that playing the cool girl would earn me the respect I needed as their manager. And this backfired.
The first issue was sexual harassment. It started off fairly harmless: men would leave me complimentary notes on my car and write on my windows. But eventually, it turned into a picture being taken of my butt every time I bent over to grab a shovel and then that photo being circulated between all the men on the shift. It took me a really long time, sadly, to build up the courage to stand up for myself over these sorts of things. But I had gotten in so deep being everybody’s buddy that no one really took my threats seriously. Eventually, I got some guys in trouble, and things quieted down for a while. But after that, I didn’t realize that a couple of the guys I had written up had fostered a resentment towards me. It kind of came to a head when one man started using the women’s bathroom onsite and would leave it a mess when he was done. I asked him to stop, he didn’t, I wrote him up. I started to lock the women’s bathroom behind me when I left, when I wasn’t onsite so that he couldn’t use it. And a week later, he squeezed super glue into the lock so that I couldn’t get my key in. Of course, it was on a day that I had started my period and had to run to the Taco Bell across the street to change my tampon [chuckling].
So I quickly got this man fired, and for about six months after that, received from him threatening, violent, and extremely hateful text messages because somehow, based off the way I had presented myself or social media stalking, he had figured out that I was bisexual or at least not identifying as straight. So he harassed me for many months after he was fired until I finally blocked all of his phone numbers. I guess at the end of the day, I would just like to say that now I don’t take crap from nobody [laughs], and I learned a lot.
MATT: Hi, Sarah. This is Matt. I’m a teacher from Stamford, Connecticut, and I teach 8th grade English. A teacher and I have this club called Wave Three, and it’s a feminism club where we kind of focus on
all these ideas of gender equality. We explore topics with the kids. There’s about–well, I haven’t started it up this year yet, but–last year we had, oh, probably about 15 kids. There would be 10-15 kids there each meeting, at least. Well, I mean sometimes it would be four kids or five kids, depending on what was going on. But we would kind of teach each other about things, read articles on stuff, and then we would have a bulletin board outside in the hallway. We would try to kind of make whatever we had learned into something that would work on a bulletin board so that when other kids walked by, they could read it. We even made a zine once, just a few pages. We made it look subversive. It was dope. It was very, very cool. And English teacher always has to use examples, and every teacher has to use examples. I just try to make my examples non-heteronormative, non-cisnormative, you know what I’m saying? Instead of Jack and Jill went somewhere, just Jack and Frank went somewhere, or Jill and Jane went somewhere, or whatever. Those are just a few ways I do things. I’m sure there’s plenty of other things that we could talk about, and that’s all. Thanks a lot.
CHELLE: Hey, Sarah. This is Chelle. I work in the construction industry. So does my friend, Sam. She works in an office of almost all men. I work out on construction sites where I’m typically the only woman. During one of her first weeks of work, Sam was on her way out of the office when she passed the conference room where all of the guys in her office were drinking beers and watching The Entourage movie. They invited her in, but after about 20 minutes, she was disgusted by the content of the movie and left. This office is a complete boys’ club of alpha males clashing heads, and her first bonding activity was an uncomfortable experience where she couldn’t feel included. One of the worst things I heard on a construction site was just last year. I had to pass out paperwork to truck drivers and keep track of how many rounds of trucks left the site each day. The superintendent on my site came up to me one day that a few of the trucks hadn’t returned in a timely manner and said, “We should put a low-cut top on you and have a sign that says, ‘Coffee, tea, or me. Come back for another round,’ and we’ll see if the truck drivers don’t come back faster.”
After Sam worked for the office for a year, proving herself to be one of the most competent and useful members of the team and performing complicated tasks that no one else had the expertise to do, she is still the one in the office who is asked to order lunch when there’s a meeting. Very often on construction sites, I am accused of not smiling. I may be walking with purpose to inspect one end of the site and pass a group of men who I have never interacted with and never will need to interact with, when I receive an accusation: “Don’t look so happy to be here.” Well sir, I didn’t realize that I was just here to look pretty. I bet if I was a man walking through the site, you wouldn’t expect them, or demand them, to look excited or enthusiastic on their way to do real work. I’m lucky that Sam and I have each other to vent to. Since I’ve started working in the construction industry, I’ve began to value my female and gender non-conforming friendships so much more. I really enjoy the work that I do. I just wish that men would understand how isolated we are in this field and change their behavior accordingly.
SARAH: Thanks to Morgan, Julia, April, Christina, Sam, and Chelle, and everyone else who called in to share their stories.
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.
SARAH: So Anna, one thing we’re talking about on the show is 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: [laughs] Yeah.
SARAH: So what are your least favorite words that people use to describe you, that you’re like, “Ugh! Gah! Don’t do that!”?
ANNA: Oh. Well, that’s a great question cuz 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.
ANNA: 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 un-confident, 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.
SARAH: [laughs] 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?
ANNA: 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.
SARAH: Because you’re like, “I actually am loud. I know that as a truth.”
ANNA: Yeah, that’s like someone saying that I have brown hair. It’s like, yeah [laughs]? 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.
SARAH: OK, 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”? And whether you called it out or not, that you were just like, “Oh, it’s on my radar. This is happening,” and the men–usually the white men–in the situation don’t necessarily see it.
ANNA: [chuckles] 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 good-bye 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.”
SARAH: 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 coworker. There’s a different relationship there.
SARAH: 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?
ANNA: [sighs] It’s just so tough cuz it’s not like I have the answers now, 20 years later.
ANNA: 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.
SARAH: 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.”
SARAH: 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.
ANNA: Right, right. Well, I’m not sure how you change that, is the thing. Cuz 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. But I don’t know how you change [chuckles], I mean, 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.
SARAH: 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”?
ANNA: 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. But life is not– 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.
SARAH: 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”?
ANNA: 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 life is short [laughs] and feeling confident in myself in ways that have nothing to do with my career. So there’s both the career part: OK, 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.
ANNA: I mean, I’m not trying to give the impression that that doesn’t happen. It happens a lot. That’s part of being a mature adult is putting up with certain things that are irritating. You can’t react to everything that’s difficult in life, or else you’re never gonna get anything done so.
SARAH: 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
ANNA: That’s great.
SARAH: 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.
ANNA: 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, or maybe even 5–5 to 10 to 15 to 20 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.
SARAH: What do you think you’ll be like when you’re 60?
ANNA: [laughs] Probably loud.
SARAH: That was Anna Holmes. Check out her work pretty much everywhere, but specifically on the podcast About Race, which is produced by Slate and Panoply media.
When I was younger, a teenager and in my early 20s, I thought that sexism wouldn’t affect me very much. I grew up in the ’90s, in the era of “you can be whatever you want.” And very few people were going around saying, “You can’t do this, or you can’t do that because you’re a girl.” So I thought that sure, some people were jerks, but it wouldn’t hold me back in any major way. It was only after graduating from college and being out in the world with a job that I started to recognize the much more subtle ways that sexism still seeps into every part of our society. Now that I’m 30, I’m angrier than ever. And that’s a good thing. I’m quicker to notice the assumptions behind people’s language and the unequal dynamics in a meeting. And it also feels like our community is stronger than ever. Between crafting uterus piñatas and forming feminist fight clubs, people around the world are finding powerful ways to change the sexist stuff that many people would rather ignore.
This show is nothing–NOTHING–without you, the listeners! If you like the show, please share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter. Most people find out through podcasts through word of mouth. Also, I know it’s a super hassle to write one, but iTunes reviews really help us out. This week’s listener note comes from an iTunes review from a listener with the user name Momo Dottie. She writes, “As a third year female college student, the topics discussed in Popaganda feel especially relevant to my life. Popaganda has made me a more mindful member of society.” That’s right. We’re making our culture better, one college student at a time. Thanks for listening.
The music featured on today’s show is by the band Shannon and the Clams. If you’re in the Bay Area and need a surf rock fix, they are you’re jam. They’re Shannon and the Clams.
Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue.Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward. We recorded the narration for this episode at Streampdx, a community podcast and storytelling studio in Portland. It’s located in an adorable airstream trailer in a warehouse. Check them out at StreamPDX.com. Thanks for listening.