Why a plea for ‘more women’ doesn’t mean we hate all men and everything they stand for
I work at a tech startup. There’s about 17 people on the team, with 6 women. Recently, big changes in the company brought some layoffs and leavings, dropping our total count to 14 and female count to 4. And one of them only works a half day on Tuesdays.
As you can imagine, this is not my favorite thing. We were already lacking in our proportions, and we should be becoming more equal, not less.
At a quarterly check in with my bosses (for context they are both male), they asked me how I was feeling about the changes.
After mentioning a few points, I decided to boldly bring up my feminist feelings: “I’m sad that there are less women.”
This was met with two surprised looks and even a joke about the CEO dressing up as a lady if it would make me feel better. (There’s a lot going on in just that moment alone, but it’s just so much that we’re going to keep going.)
Then, they asked me why. I calmly, or at least in an attempt not to squeak, explained that I like working with women and equality/equal representation are important.
They didn’t disagree but said it was out of their control. Then they asked me a question that I think is a good representation of a lot of the negativity surrounding the female equality movement today:
“But does that mean you don’t like working with men?”
Hmmm. Okay, let’s think. Does my desire for equality of genders mean I don’t like working with men?
I know it feels like it’s a given - of course feminists don’t hate all men, that would be absurd! And yet, this question is so normal and frequent that I don’t think our collective mind really understands what women are asking for when they say they want equality.
I get it. When I say that I don’t think there are enough women, my bosses are thinking about the actual people in the room. They’re thinking, “So she wants us to fire Ted just so we can hire a woman? Why does she hate Ted so much?”
But I don’t hate Ted! Ted is exactly fine, and he can keep doing what he does (though he could raise his hands in meetings, remember it’s JUST POLITE).
Next they’re thinking, “But I’m a man. That must mean she wishes I wasn’t here too.”
Again incorrect. I can want more women in the room (and specifically in higher up positions) without discounting the hard work of the men around me.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that women are not equal in the workplace, not on the large scale and not in this office. And it cuts me even harder that women have to justify our desire for equality because they think we hate them and everything they stand for.
But if it has to be done, then so it will be. JUST HER ME OUT OKAY.
Why I like working with women but also don’t hate men
I’d like to preface this by saying, these two things can exist at the same time! But only one gender’s representation is being threatened by our entire culture and so deserves to be discussed in this manner, okay Ted??
First of all, Ted, have you ever been in a situation, especially in the tech industry, where more people of the opposite gender were in the space than your own gender? I’m going to guess no, seeing as only 20% of tech jobs are held by women.
So there’s that. Equality. Representation. I like working with women because we often don’t get to, especially a diverse group of women. We have to hold ourselves to that because it’s not going to get better by chance.
If I even need to explain it, representation is important because it allows us to see our potential. It validates our belonging in the space. It brings in a more diversified set of ideas and working styles, and we should be thrilled to use every tool in the box!
Secondly, there’s the whole threat of office sexism and sexual harassment that is very much a thing that women deal with. And much like my experience with office sexism, it was only because my supervisor was female that I felt confident enough to bring it up.
More women in higher up positions means less likelihood that rape culture goes unnoticed.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that we need more women because all men use their power to sexually harass females - again, this is absurd! But when there inevitably is a man who harasses a woman (because our culture has always allowed and even encouraged this kind of behavior), then there are women there to make the harassed woman feel comfortable enough to report it. These women help to validate those experiences, and they’re better equipped for taking action because they understand what it feels like.
There’s a reason the hashtag was #MeToo. Other women have experienced the same thing, meaning they’re more likely to understand how to deal with it.
Thirdly, and we’re going to sweeping generalization station here, I like working with women because they don’t make me feel like an outsider.
Similarly to validating our sense of belonging, seeing female faces in the room helps other women feel safe in a space where they haven’t been all that welcome for most of history. Sure, we can say that this is changing, but the structure of this culture still exists.
The boys club culture doesn’t just disappear (IF ONLY). It has to be slowly broken down every time a woman enters a space, and men feel awkward about the slightly sexist jokes they just made but normally didn’t have to be held accountable for. And in these moments, of which I’ve experienced many, I would love to have multiple women sitting beside me, not laughing too.
No one wants to be labeled that one grumpy feminist girl who doesn’t know how to have fun. But what else can I be when my very presence can make a group of men confront how they regard women in various social spaces?
Finally, I like having women around because it means there’s someone there to borrow a tampon from. Do you have a tampon I could borrow, Ted?
Okay great - but what do we do?
All of those points would have been great options for spewing at my bosses when they asked, “But does that mean you don’t like working with men?”
I wish I could have been prepared to impart wisdom about how women’s fight for equality is not about taking men down - but about bringing women up. I wish I had feminist theorized my way through the issue and made them listen and learn.
What actually came out of my mouth was a simple, “I don’t think it’s fair to make that assumption.” I’m lucky I even managed to get that out.
But at least I said something. Unfortunately, unlike my bosses who very much do have control over this despite what they think, I can’t control who they hire. I could quit but would probably encounter a lot of the same elsewhere.
So what do we do?
We speak up. We show up. We share our experience and take the shit for doing so. Maybe they don’t react the way you want to your face, but there’s a chance they will when they’re sitting at home thinking about it or, more importantly, the next time they’re doing interviews.
And to anyone who says it’s a double standard to want to hire more women or that a man wouldn’t be able to say that they like working with men - take a second and think about how sexism works.
Our system was built to keep women out. If you disagree, think about how 104 countries in our world still prevent women from working in the same way as men, with 167 countries having at least one law restricting women’s economic opportunity.
Yes, the other countries without restrictions have progressed, but they are still sprouting from the same system. We can change the law, but it takes a whole lot more to change culture. And both men and women are crucial to that process.
As Jennifer Hyman, CEO and Co-Founder of Rent The Runway, stated on the more subtle ways our culture supports gender discrimination:
“I don’t think they were intentionally trying to be sexist, it’s just that there’s a shade to which we all operate that puts women at a disadvantage...and I think the more subtle form of harassment slash discrimination or just lack of opportunity is actually the harder more pernicious problem. It's the reason why only four percent of venture capital dollars are going towards women.”
So, in summary, I don’t hate men and everything they stand for. Lots of men are great, as are lots of women. But men were never disadvantaged in the workplace simply for being men, and that’s really the difference here.
(Though they have been disadvantaged for being a person of color or homosexual which is a whole different v important thing!)
I’m trying to think of an uplifting way to end this one. But in all honesty, I’m angry. I’m fed up with people scoffing at measures put in place to empower women in male-driven industries. And I’m furious that we have to justify why it’s upsetting that the number of women in the office is so low.
But, there you go. It’s a culture, people.
Now can someone please come over and explain this to Ted?