Through watching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk titled “we should all be feminists”, I’ve come to realize that feminism is understood to have no place in business. Although, it is a multi-layered term, a simple description of feminism is advocacy for equality. All feminists want, is for women to be provided the same opportunities as their male counterparts in their respective fields. But, because the term is deciphered to mean “anti-male”, it is often met with contempt by several men and women. This in turn, makes it increasingly harder to navigate the workplace as a feminist surrounded by conservative colleagues and bosses.
I was once in an intervention meeting, where a strong woman CEO urged the “boys” in the team to “please keep the ladies’ emotions in check” because she knows how women “tend to be emotional at times, particularly during that time of the month”.
Prior to this, we had been in a meeting where we were told to dress appropriately because the new building we were moving into, was the company’s headquarters.
“Please be presentable, especially you women. You are always the problem, please cover up your boobs and no shorter skirts.”
However, the intervention meeting truly became a defining moment for me, in terms of understanding the type of leadership I was now under. I searched for reaction from my fellow women colleagues and they were as perplexed as I was but none of us dared to interject.
Sexism is a very subtle form of discrimination, one that almost goes unrecognized. Women all over the globe have been subjected to sexist remarks about their appearance, intellectual abilities or life choices from their colleagues, managers or bosses, at least once.
In most cases, women are the ones pulling the weight but because of their gender, their work is often dismissed or devalued. We all have heard of or witnessed a scenario where Gabby made a valid point during a brainstorm meeting, but Jack spoke over her or said the exact same thing, ultimately collecting praise for it over Gabby.
Or that time when Nandi was passed over for a promotion or a raise because she is a woman.
It takes knowledge and courage to actively fight this oppressive system. I’ve since gained these and know a few tips that could help a feminist effectively navigate the workplace.
- Speak up. Understand that you are within your rights as an employee to voice your concerns. If someone says or does something that makes you uncomfortable, speak up – even if it’s directed to another woman colleague. You can either do this during the meeting or call the person(s) aside. Keeping quiet doesn’t do anyone any favors because unchecked behavior will always continue to thrive.
- Gather support. If you’re afraid of dealing with an uncomfortable situation alone, find out if there are any of your colleagues who feel the same. Like in my case above, I should have used that opportunity where I had back-up from the other colleagues who also felt attacked. Find out if they’re willing to take it up with the person who said or did something to make you feel uneasy.
- Record communication. If there’s a way to record the communication, do so and keep it handy for a day where things escalate to a point of involving HR.
- Ask for what you deserve and have facts while you do it. If you believe you deserve to be promoted or given a raise, ask for it. But to do so, you must have the facts. You need to have a solid back-up for your claim. Bring out all significant company achievements that resulted because of your hard work.
- Appeal for constructive criticism. If for example, your projects or ideas are not being taken seriously, ask your team and or manager to provide you with constructive feedback. This will show that you’re interested in improving and growing as an employee. But if these ideas are being dismissed from you but are praised when coming from your male colleague or attributed to your male colleague even though they were originally yours, refer to the points above.
- Educate yourself about the company policies and your rights. If you feel like you’re constantly passed over for opportunities to grow within the company or treated differently from your male counterparts, you need to know where the company stands with regards to this type of discrimination. This in turn will make you aware of what to do, where to go and how to lay grievances of this nature.
All in all, there is a need for education on feminism in the work place and not just for men but for women too. People need to understand feminism beyond the sensationalized ‘women want to be men’ rhetoric that currently exists. The majority of cases in the #MeToo movement were born in the workplace because the current corporate environment does not recognize or understand feminism and its value.
Written by Simamkele Matuntuta