The 5 Rules of Being a Feminist At Work

By Lauren McGoodwin

In sitting down to research this piece, it wasn’t lost on me that the Career Contessa office is unlike any other when it comes to advocating for women. At the moment, we’re a 100% woman team, run by a woman CEO, and writing articles and throwing events specifically to help other women. And we’re doing it in very close quarters — operating out of an open office space where we punt questions back and forth all day, run most of our meetings while stretched out on a “millennial pink” couch while also occasionally deep diving into a black hole you might know as videos of cats climbing into La Croix boxes.

So yeah, we like each other and we respect each other’s work. But it’s always a learning curve, especially in an entrepreneurial startup environment. Sometimes the fear of hurting feelings means that we avoid giving feedback openly — or at least, awkwardly couch it in a few circular, stumbling statements. And someone’s bad day can translate into snapping at a coworker in a meeting, causing unfair embarrassment.

In the spirit of women supporting women, I’ve pulled together five cardinal rules to help you better advocate for the women around you. Because even this team experiences the occasional misfire. We may be the better sex, but we’re still only human.

photo from j crew

Rule #1: I will point out sexism, no matter how ingrained or seemingly benign.

The only way we can end sexism at work is to train ourselves to recognize the most latent forms — and commit to pointing them out. Have you ever had a male coworker who speaks to you in a different voice than when he talks to other men? Or maybe one who calls other male coworkers by their last names, but then calls you by your first? These are the sorts of politics at play that we often fail to call out in part because they’re just confusing.

Research shows that women are often described in “communal” terms, as in “friendly,” “warm,” and “helpful.” Men instead get descriptors like “intelligent,” “driven,” or “determined.” The problem with this is that it actually costs women opportunities (LeanIn.org calls this “the likeability penalty”).  According to a piece by David M. Meyer in the Harvard Business Review, we often overlook this form of sexism because it’s easier to miss. Says Meyer, “Psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske refer to it as benevolent sexism — a chivalrous attitude that suggests women are weak and need men’s protection, in contrast to hostile sexism (an antagonistic attitude toward women and a desire to control or dominate them)… This kind of paternalism suggests that women need to be taken care of by men, and men who endorse this form of benevolent sexism are more likely to accept the mistreatment and harassment of women at work.”

Take note of instances where men talk about women at your office in these ways, then point them out. Make sure that you don’t use language that downplays a woman’s professionalism. Here’s the mantra HBR suggests men use (and it’s a good guide for all of us to watch for as well): “I will focus on competence, not warmth. I will describe her as self-reliant, not needing my protection. I will focus on her brain, not on her physical appearance. I will enhance her status with titles, not use informal language that diminishes her standing.”

photo from urban outfitters

Rule #2: I will stop men from interrupting — and stop interrupting other women.

Take a minute to process this gem: a linguistics PhD who now works in tech, took notes of every interruption in 314 work meetings at her company. The results are as follows: 60% of the interruptions were made by men. The men were also three times more likely to interrupt women than other men. ??That’s bad right?

Well, ladies, this actually made me feel worse: of the 102 times women interrupted others in meetings, they interrupted other women 89 times. In other words, 87% of the time women interrupted someone, they were cutting off each other.

Make a conscious effort to let every woman say her piece in meetings. If a man interrupts her, circle the conversation back to what she was saying, specifically calling it out by saying something like  “Katie, will you finish what you were saying before we move on?” Or, if someone has run away with an idea that she suggested, go with “This all sounds great, thanks again Katie for coming up with this.” But most of all: stop yourself from interrupting women, too. No more self-perpetuation of the problem.

photo from atelier doré

Rule #3: I will vocalize and celebrate other women’s successes.

Studies show that in mixed gender teams, men tend to receive more credit for any successes than any women on the team. So that’s a very big problem. One way to offset this is to intentionally call out other women’s good work. If you’re a manager, make an effort to publicly point out their successes. If you’re not, you’re still perfectly capable of saying, “I just wanted to say how incredible Megan has been on this project. Her design work has completely changed the game for us.” And yes, you need to say all this in front of other colleagues—private thank yous aren’t enough.

Rule #4: I will offset the feedback gap.

There are also oh… a dozen or more studies that show that men receive better feedback throughout their careers. The biggest one is that women receive only vague information in performance reviews, whereas men get clear pointers on what they can improve or change. So while we wait for that to change, we can give better feedback to the women around us — even if it’s informal.

Talk to your female coworkers and see if they’d be interested in having a performance review coffee where you all agree to talk openly about how you feel each of you is doing at work, as well as give some suggestions for ways to improve. This can sound scary, especially for those of us who fear confrontation, but it gets easier every time you do it. You’re there to help each other — it can’t get much better than that.

photo from sezane

Rule #5: I will forgo the watercooler chat.

Work looks very different for us than it did for our mothers. Often our work weeks are punctuated with coworker happy hours — and we follow our bosses on Instagram. That means that the personal and professional lines get blurry at times, and it can feel natural to talk smack about an annoying coworker to your “work wife.” But that’s toes a dangerous line — afterall, why aren’t you just talking to her about it? Life’s too short to have coworker drama, but this goes a step beyond that — being a true workplace ally means you need to dedicate yourself to working well with everywoman in your office.

You don’t have to love her, but you do have to work with her. And working well with her can make a huge difference — for all of us.

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