Growing up, I never felt like I was treated any differently for being born a woman. My mother and my teachers and Disney Channel taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be. I believed that so much I never even considered it might not be true.
I still believe I can do anything, but I’ve started to realize that not everyone has that same confidence in my ability. Because when I take over my position from a man and work twice as hard as him, I still have to be three times as aware of how my tone comes across. And even when I pay attention, even when I temper my authority with politeness, I’m still “abrasive.”
Last week, a man told me, and I quote, “You’re dry and sarcastic, and it comes off as abrasive.”
Let me set the scene for you, not that it should matter. This is someone I work with in a semi-professional capacity. Let’s call him Rob (not his real name). Rob is in his thirties and not a college student, but in regards to our work, we are equals. In certain situations, I am his boss. Rob calls himself a feminist, and he calls himself a feminist quite often.
One day last week, Rob snapped and talked over two of my (female) peers and myself. We were trying to ask for clarification, because Rob was saying and doing two different things. I pulled Rob aside afterwards and told him that he couldn’t speak to us like that, especially not in front of the entire group, and that he needed to listen to us.
Rob flipped it back around on me and said I’d been condescending towards him. I needed to trust him to do his job, and I needed to stop telling him what to do. He concluded the conversation by admitting that we both needed to work on our bedside manners. He said that he was sassy and sometimes it can be taken the wrong way, and I come off as abrasive.
I don’t have to defend my opinion that he wouldn’t have said all of that if I were a man, but I will. It’s the “bossy v. boss” phenomenon. I went to Rob with a concern about his behavior in a professional environment, and he not only fought me on my behavior in the same professional environment, but he also attacked my character when I was only trying to do my job. Thanks, Rob.
If I were a man, would he have told me I was abrasive? Maybe, but I don’t think so.
The worst part of it is that Rob doesn’t even realize he’s done anything wrong. The next day he approached me and said, “About yesterday, I’m good. I think I’m good.” As if I had something to apologize for and he was letting me know he forgave me.
There’s more to being a feminist than applying the label to yourself. Every human being — but particularly men — needs to examine their potential inherent misogyny. It’s not enough to say you believe in gender equality. You need to observe the ways in which you speak and act with people of different genders and consider why you behave the way you do.
It’s okay to blame your inherent sexism on media or on your parents or society. It’s likely that if you’re calling yourself a feminist, you aren’t actively trying to belittle the women in your life. But that doesn’t mean you’re immune to sexist behavior.
When I told my roommate about what Rob said to me, she said that he was “performatively woke.” I’ve been thinking about that ever since, how people can put on an air of being progressive and socially aware but demonstrate entirely different behavior.
There’s a certain amount of slack we give to men who identify as feminists. They say they believe in gender equality, and they say they want women in positions of power, and they say they’ve never discriminated on the basis of gender and they never will. They say they’re feminists, and we laud them as woke and progressive and essential to The Cause. Because without these so-called “woke” men, how can we expect to improve the plight of women?
It’s not enough for me to say I’m a feminist, and it’s not enough for you to pretend you’re a feminist. We all need to admit that we make mistakes, and we all need to work to change our behavior. Sexism doesn’t disappear just because we want it to.
Gillian Lelchuk is a Writing Seminars and mathematics major from Los Alamitos, Calif. She is the News-Letter’s Magazine Editor.