Jessica Bennett’s Feminist Fight Club: A Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace, is our very entertaining Lead Mama Lead pick for the Book Group this month. I was handed this funny, concise and practical guide to navigating the overt and subtle gender biases in our workplaces when I began a new job after a rocky return to work after my second child last year, and it has become my go-to-guide for workplace encounters of the (invisible) gender biased kind.
As Jonathan Knee wrote in a New York Times review of the book in 2016, this is a manual for the Generation Y that I straddle (I was born in 1980 so am a little bit X, a little bit Y!) – and a good reminder to younger women and men that our workplaces and communities need to be constantly prodded, poked and shaped to create better spaces for everyone to thrive.
I have picked up from this entertaining guide so many useful tactics to help manage (often with humour), characters we encounter in most workplaces, like the Manterrupter, the Bropropriator, or the Undermine-Her. This Cosmo article by the same author has a great summary of some of the best moves to counter these characters, which include leaning in (literally) to mirror the body language of the guy who keeps talking over you; thanking the guy who tried to steal credit for your idea (“so glad you agree, let’s talk about next steps”); and to the guy whose references to you as “hon”, “doll” or “darl” make your blood boil – well confront him, outshine him (“this doll had better sales than you last month!”) or gently explain how these terms undermine you – it depends whether he’s aware of it, whether it’s happened more than once (yes you can let it slide and still be in the Feminist Fight Club!), or whether he is just obnoxious, or “a product of his time”.
I’ve thought a lot about how the words I use at work can amplify or undermine what I say (“I’m not an expert, but…” = you don’t need to listen to/value my next statement). Saying sorry a lot – a typically female trait – has attracted a lot of discussion over the past few years, with interesting arguments for and against self-censoring/modifying our speech to take out the qualifiers. I have personally found it useful to try and reduce the qualifiers in my speech.
Feminist Fight Club has helped me find the confidence to negotiate for additional pay/hours (twice in the last 6 months) and ask for – and receive – money for the work I do around looking after my kids when I’m not in the office (work that many part-timers just quietly do, unpaid, not wanting to rock the boat).
I have thought about my body language and listened to the words of the more confident men in the office, and tried to mirror some of their more positive traits in my own way.
And I have called out overtly or subtly sexist language and behaviour when I see it (including in myself, to office amusement) – like having a quiet word with the older woman who suggested I was very bossy (I was facilitating a world cafe-style discussion with 35 people at the time, using my mum voice to be heard!) to note that she would not have made a similar comment to a male facilitator.
The book addresses the subtle biases we see each day as working mums, whether the colleague asking “leaving early are we?” (“haha”, I say, “I’ve actually been here since 7.30am”). In short, this book was exactly the catalyst I needed to start acting on the feminist instincts I had already been honing throughout my career.
So, here are some of my favourite moves and grooves from Feminist Fight Club to help our Mama Leaders navigate sexism at work:
Call out the bad behaviour
At Lead Mama Lead, we want to make our workplaces better for working mums (and more flexible for everyone). This means we, as mama leaders, need to call out the subtle or not-so-subtle gender bias/sexism we see or experience. Don’t just stand there, do something about it! This might mean speaking up in a meeting to take credit for your own idea (see the Bropropriator, above), or educating the “Lacthater” – the guy who (consciously or not) doesn’t think that working mums pull their weight – whether through Katy Gallagher’s approach of showing them you do pull your weight by doing excellent work, or being direct and referring to the growing evidence base that working mums are more productive workers. For example, a 2013 Ernst and Young study showed that women in contract, part time or casual roles are actually the most productive members of our society.
Use your words
Something I love in the book is Jessica’s advice to “say it out loud” – don’t let people make assumptions about what you can/want to do as a working Mum, talk to your boss, colleagues, and peers about how you work, what your ambitions are, and it’s less likely you’ll get counted out of big and small opportunities. I check in maybe once a month with my bosses (male and female) to remind them of my goals, and to count me in. I don’t want them to assume I won’t accept an opportunity unless they have discussed it with me first. I see so much well meaning, but incredibly patronising, behaviour from bosses when women first come back to work from maternity leave and towards part time workers in general. When I first came back from maternity leave last year, I was told myself that I wouldn’t get any “time pressured or important” work since I was only working two days a week. As my new, flexible, fulfilling job shows, this isn’t truly the case – but you do need to push for change, and use your words (as I tell my children so often).
Support other women
Too nice, too bitchy, too bossy to lead – why are these words used to talk about women and not about men? Particularly women in leadership positions – “how does it feel to be bossed around by a girl?”, “she’s above her station isn’t she”, “gosh she’s bossy” – are phrases I have overhead at work about female leaders (myself included). Women in leadership can struggle to find the perfect balance of style:
“not too authoritative, or you’ll be deemed unfeminine, but … go too girly, and you’re suddenly emotional, soft, not capable of making the tough calls”.
Do you have a female boss? Are you a female boss? The evidence cited by Jessica in Feminist Fightclub is that we are much harder on our female leaders, so she suggests a simple tactic – switch the genders in your thought/statement, and see if it sounds odd. If it does, then you’re probably unconsciously making a gendered judgement.
Carry yourself like a mediocre white man
Jessica writes that we should ask ourselves what an over-confident, white man would do in a situation, and see how that would help us approach it differently? She suggests you “femulate” him: stand tall, speak confidently, take a risk, lean in.
Start your own feminist fight club
I hope you enjoy reading Feminist Fight Club as much as I have. It’s not perfect (very US – centric for example), and the author doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but nonetheless this is a very useful way of naming – and responding to – so many of the subtle fights we still have left to wage in the workplace to make our working mama lives easier.
At Lead Mama Lead we encourage you to create your own mama leadership book club. In way, this is our own version of a feminist fight club. We get together to discuss our challenges and frustrations, our hopes and our dreams, and we support each other to work towards meaningful and challenging work. Why not start your own group with your friends, and make feminist fight club your first read?
You can purchase a copy here.*
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