2017 was a year that saw sexism and harassment exposed like never before. Many of the stories that were told, especially the ones centered around high powered players in the entertainment field, had been known secrets for years, sometimes decades. The media, and men, finally took notice of things that women had been talking about for years.
While men are ultimately responsible for policing their own behavior, making sure that they are not perpetuating sexism or harassment, and policing the men around them, women do have a role to play in changing the dynamics in the workplace.
Work with other women, not against them.
In some situations, achieving solidarity can be difficult. When it feels like everyone is working against you, finding a way to band together to change the situation can be very difficult. This can be particularly true in the workplace. Women may feel individually targeted by particular men in their company, or feel their wages are unfair, but not know how to do something about it.
When women work with each other to identify harassers and to bring complaints to HR and other authorities, it can be more useful than a single person speaking out. When it comes to pay in particular, women need to be open about how much they’re making, and work together to ensure that wages are transparent. One person will struggle to demonstrate that her wages have been unfairly lowered, but a group of women are more likely to show a pattern.
Speak out whenever possible.
Women know: sometimes it’s not safe to speak out about harassment or sexism. There are times when the only solution is to remove yourself from the situation in whatever way is necessary to maintain personal safety.
But there are other times when sexism can be combatted head on. For example, if women are in a meeting with men in their company and men begin talking over the women in the room or repeating ideas women have already shared, women can back each other up. Someone could say for example, “Yes, that’s exactly what Barbara just said,” or “Excuse me, Sam, I don’t think Jane was quite done with what she was saying?” Some of this falls to meeting leaders, but women can also support this push.
Studies have shown that men think women are dominating the conversation when they make less than 50% of the comments; by pushing back on that and drawing awareness to what’s happening, women can change the atmosphere in meetings.
Be aware of relative power.
Feminist white women often think of all women working towards a singular goal. What they sometimes miss is that women of color, women in the LGBT group, mothers, and disabled women all have different needs and relative power in a moment. Black women face different structural barriers to advancement and different internal struggles than white women do. The same is true for disabled women, LGBT women, and others.
When marginalized women bring an issue to the table, other women with more relative power may be tempted to dismiss the issue as something that doesn’t happen to them, and therefore not consider it relevant. Being aware of this tendency can make it easier to avoid doing.
Recruit men as allies.
In many situations, men have more relative power than women do. Women also tend to have access to higher levels of a company than women do, and some men are more likely to listen to another man than a woman. What all of this means is that having men on your side can be helpful during a particular struggle or for a particular cause. Knowing that men in the room will stop a sexist joke from being told, fight for a woman to be hired, or step up if a woman is being harassed can change a company’s culture all on its own.
It’s true that women need to make sure that not all of their focus is on relying on male allies; ultimately, men need to learn to listen to women for sexism to really change. But as a transition, listening to other men who tell them women have something worthwhile to say can be helpful.
Women can’t stop sexism or harassment in the workplace on their own, but by standing up to it, working together, and fighting in the ways they can, they can improve the culture of a company, both for themselves and for the women who come after them. Ultimately, changing the culture that allows sexism to flourish in the business world – and society at large – will take time, but women can begin that work now.