How to make the world better for women
You don’t have to take sweeping action to defeat sexism.
Or, let me rephrase: We have to take sweeping action defeat sexism. But you, as an individual, can spend 5 minutes today and make the world better for women thousands of times over.
It starts with the one thing you can control: your self-awareness.
That’s right. You don’t need to gravitate towards ambitious, all-encompassing solutions to have an impact (though if that’s your style, don’t let me discourage you!).
All you need is some self-scrutiny. Commit to any of the following activities, and you’ll be on your way to creating a more equal culture.
Now, let me clarify…
I’m all for improving parental leave, passing policies, going to marches, creating task forces, founding diversity initiatives, and donating to organizations that enhance women’s lives.
But unless you’re powerful, wealthy, and granted the luxury of time, these macro initiatives can seem out of reach.
And that’s a problem.
What we can all do is start making tiny, micro changes everyday. So without further ado:
1. Write down one instance of your own unconscious bias
Write down 1 instance today when you noticed your own unconscious bias, internalized sexism, or aversion to femininity.
Unconscious bias is defined as “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.”
Unconscious bias affects us all the time, but it can be especially nefarious when hiring.
In one study, Skidmore psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin sent out hundreds of identical applications for a lab manager position. In some, she named the candidate “John.” In others, she named the person “Jennifer.”
It turned out that gender mattered. Among 127 responses, the “Jennifer” candidate received lower ratings overall and a lower average salary offer — even though she had literally the same application and credentials as her counterpart “John.”
A similar finding came out of a 2003 Stanford Business School study by Frank Flynn. To test gender perceptions, he leveraged a Harvard Business School case study featuring a venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen.
When he handed out the case study to students, he did an experiment. He kept the name Heidi Roizen in the case study for half his class. For the other half, he changed Heidi’s name to “Howard Roizen” while keeping the rest of the text exactly the same.
Though Howard and Heidi performed identical actions, students judged Heidi more harshly than Howard. They were also less likely to want to work with Heidi.
These are bleak findings.
There’s good news, though: unconscious bias isn’t fixed. It’s malleable. And with the right techniques, you can start to address and unravel your own.
The first step, according to behavioral scientist H. Anna Han, is being aware of your bias, and having the desire to change. So, by writing down your unconscious biases, you’re training yourself to recognize and dispel them.
2. Stop yourself the next time you’re tempted to interrupt or explain something to a woman
Refrain from an urge to interrupt when a woman is speaking today, or if you find yourself interrupting or over-explaining something to a woman, apologize.
“Mansplaining” became a term when feminist writer Rebecca Solnit published an essay called “Men Explain Things to Me” in 2008.
In the piece, which she later turned into a book, Solnit tells the story of going to a party in Aspen. A man asks her what she does, and she says she writes books. Her most recent book, she tells him, is on the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge.
This man at the party proceeds to explain that a “very important Muybridge book” has just come out, which he knows because he read about it in the New York Times.
He waxes on, unaware that he’s describing Solnit’s own book. Her friend has to interject several times before he acknowledges her voice and, in Solnit’s terms, “turns ashen.” Solnit and her friend walk away laughing, but the lesson isn’t so funny.
In fact, it plays right into the unconscious bias that women are less competent and informed than they actually are — a bias that women often hold against themselves, too. As Solnit says:
“Most of my life, I would have doubted myself and backed down. Having public standing as a writer of history helped me stand my ground, but few women get that boost, and billions of women must be out there on this six-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever."
This isn’t to say that men are big, bad explaining machines. But, by refraining from unnecessary explanations and interruptions to women, everyone can show they value women’s voices and knowledge.
3. Replace the term “political correctness” with “empathy”
Watch this 7-minute video by one of my favorite companies, The School of Life. It lays out a new perspective on why people recoil from political correctness, and how the term is often misconceived.
The video suggests that by replacing “political correctness” ”in our minds with the word “politeness,” we reframe our motives. Instead of feeling anger at being told to conform, we feel freedom in choosing to be kind.
I don’t agree 100% with everything the video says. In fact, I do believe that our thoughts matter as much as our actions. And, if it were up to me, I would suggest “empathy” or “kindness” as even better alternatives to “politeness.”
That said, the video opens the door to a great thought experiment. Every time you feel frustrated by political correctness, challenge yourself to replace that phrase in your head with “empathy” or “kindness.”
After all, political correctness isn’t about following a set of arbitrary rules or restrictions for the sake of show. It’s about choosing to respect another person’s or group’s wishes.
By the way: you’re allowed to ask what those wishes are.
Here’s a great example. A former manager of mine once asked if I minded that he referred to me and our female co-workers as “girls.” I did mind. After all, we were adults, and I felt like being called a “girl” undermined our maturity. I shared my opinion, and without a trace of resistance, he stopped using that term and started calling us by name.
This experience gave me a sense of agency over how I was being treated and talked about. To this day, I appreciate and remember this story as an example of truly respectful behavior.
4. Realize the danger of guilt and defensiveness
“Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures.” — Audre Lorde
Write the above quote on a Post-It, and stick it onto your desk. Refer to it every time you’re accused of making an offensive remark to a woman (or to anyone, for that matter).
If you’re accused of sexism, you might find yourself resorting to defensive behavior. Maybe you say to yourself, or to your accuser:
I’m a good person.
I was only joking.
You’re being way too sensitive.
I’m definitely not sexist.
You social justice warriors are out to get me.
Maybe these defensive gestures might be motivated by guilt. Or maybe you’re worried about your reputation. You might even be struggling to preserve your self-image, worried that by confessing you’ve made a mistake, you’re putting on a permanent “bad guy” label.
It’s easier to deny there’s a problem than to contend with your role in creating the problem.
But, we all make mistakes, even when we have the best of intentions. Being too afraid to admit them helps nobody — least of all, you.
If you strive to be a better person, you’ll prioritize your own self-growth. In so doing, every accusation becomes an opportunity to examine yourself and your impact on others. It’s an occasion for gratitude, and a chance to set a positive example.
Take Chris Sacca. On June 30, the prominent Silicon Valley investor published an open letter to apologize for perpetuating sexism in the tech industry. He has quite the reputation to preserve. But he also has a lot of influence, and he chose to use it for good. If he can acknowledge his slip-ups, so can you.
5. Apply Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” to learning about sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck contrasts two competing mindsets: the fixed mindset, and the growth mindset.
Take a look at the graphic below, and consider how you might leverage the growth mindset when you want to stop hearing and talking about sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination:
People with the fixed mindset have a static self-image. They see events that reflect negatively on them as threats to their self-worth. Notice that fixed mindsetters “avoid challenges,” “give up easily,” “see effort as fruitless or worse,” and “ignore useful negative feedback.”
Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like somebody who prickles when they’re accused of being sexist?
Someone who puts up a shield of defensiveness instead of learning from their mistakes? Who never talks about sexism because it’s “pointless” to try and solve a problem that large?
On the other hand, people with the growth mindset are eager to learn, grateful for feedback, and confident that they can always improve.
If you “learn from criticism,” as growth mindsetters do, you won’t feel strangled by guilt or compelled to defend yourself when accused of sexism. Instead, you’ll take the feedback as it comes, and apply its lessons to your daily life. In so doing, you’ll signal to women that you care about making the world more welcoming to us.