Mark your calendar. In October, exactly two years after their game changing article was published in the New York Times, Jodi Kantor and Meghan Touhy’s book, She Said, will make its debut. Many people are hoping it will fuel another phase of the #MeToo movement, launching it towards fundamentally and permanently revolutionizing the response to sexual harassment and gender disparity, in the workplace.
The truth, as most will admit, is that women and their allies are still at a loss, for how to more comprehensively and effectively deal with disrespect and devaluation in any interaction. The systemic problems institutionalized by gender politics remain inordinately complicated to navigate, expose and address. This doesn’t mean they are impossible to solve. Many women are coping, but coping is not and should never be the ultimate goal. Nearly two years of global attention has not proven sufficient enough, to decisively rectify the indignities women suffer daily in their workplaces.
Six months before the Harvey Weinstein story broke, I wrote an article for Oprah Magazine, about the way I handled a drunk man who bothered me while I was having a drink with a friend. I used a technique called flexing, which means to define your value at all times, and to defend it at a moment’s notice. Women began reaching out to me from across the globe, asking for advice about what to do when confronted by demeaning and harassing conduct, those willful acts of disrespect they daily tally in their conscience: moments when men mansplain, take credit, rob opportunities, interrupt, condescend, exclude, intimidate, stand too close, creepy-flirt, grope.
These are the same moments that cause women to freeze, feel embarrassed and self-doubt, often resigning them to walk away feeling disempowered. Worse still, many women self-implicate and justify a response or reaction that protects the antagonizer. Equally distressing is the ritual of reenactment that follows, when women mentally and emotionally replay the offending incident repeatedly, with the hindsight courage that drafts the ideal response and reaction in ways they never do real time, in the moment. This recurring ritual has an increasing depreciation on self-esteem, making the likelihood of self-preserving conduct in the future all the more unlikely.
I responded by launching a series of workshops for women and their allies, from coast to coast, to share non-confrontational techniques that de-escalate the emotion that cause women to have self-forsaking moments. The three-hour sessions ended with participants feeling uplifted and compelled, which is difficult to guarantee when women are swapping stories about the menacing behaviors of men.
One concept that many women found cathartic is having a forensic understanding of how they got to this undesirable place they never selected, approved or legitimized. That “how” often has its origins with the process of gender indoctrination, which begins in early childhood when girls learn that self-expression means to internalize doubt; while boys learn that self-expression means to externalize aggression. In the words of Audre Lorde, women are “taught to respect fear more than ourselves…We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.” With repetition, this becomes the engraved and expected social intercourse between men and women. Even more detrimental, it becomes male entitlement.
An entitlement, as it is basically understood, is a right to claim a benefit or privilege, or to exercise a license for conduct supported by moral standing or legal authority. This is not the same, when we speak of having an “entitlement mentality”. Here, entitlement is a belief that you are inherently deserving of special treatment or exceptional privileges, simply because it is your prerogative or desire to want them and not because you are morally or justly deserving of, assured of or prescribed for having them. This is what whites claim relative to blacks, that they are inherently deserving of power and authority, as an arbitrary premium for being white. All racism is predicated on this, with exclusivity. Likewise, this is what men claim relative to women, that they are inherently deserving of power and authority, as an arbitrary premium for being men. All patriarchy is predicated on this, with exclusivity.
This chronic doubt-aggression dynamic learned via gender indoctrination instills within men the notion that their desire is an enforceable right. The coercive consequence of this is that it prods women into making emotional, intellectual, mental, psychological and physical concessions that undermine their own interest, advancement and in some cases, safety. These concessions become the implied conduct that signal to men that they can act as they do, unchallenged and with an accepted entitlement. Woman talks to man, man barks back. Woman backs off, man gets what he wants. We, women and men, learn that an explicit expression always trumps an implicit reaction. This dynamic is patterned from the outset, when girls talk to boys.
The workshops offer women and allies a forum to relate their professional challenges. In the first minutes, participants are asked to describe their basis for attending. Initially, there is a reluctance or inability to be forthcoming, and to answer candidly and collectively. A smattering of responses trickles out and are cautiously generic: “I want to learn new tools”; “I’m looking for opportunities for professional development”; “I want to hear about the experiences of other women”.
Then I ask them to share examples of sexual harassment or gender disparity they are experiencing, and in tandem I narrate the doubt-aggression dynamic. This inevitably brings about a remarkable moment in which women code switch. With a sudden calibrated sense of urgency, hands shoot up as women become eager to share their specific accounts of unwanted behaviors. They begin to speak rapidly and openly to one another, wanting to maximize this rare opportunity to focus on a topic that has been vexing them.
Only the most egregious offenses are revealed, and no one gives names. Repeatedly, women speak of yielding to men; or giving them the benefit of the doubt by creating narratives that men are unintentionally perpetuating gender politics; or making allowances that men are blind to the repercussions of their actions; or downgrading the indignities suffered as not being significant enough to warrant redress. To this last point, participants can be quite adamant about wanting to differentiate between lesser infractions and those that are undeniably flagrant. They want a scale to grade a range of misconduct. This scale allows them the grant of redemption, to salvage and preserve relationships with male colleagues they deem less offensive and are essential or unavoidable for interacting with.
All of these behaviors are the concessions I previously referred to and are what I call default disorders. An examination of the term yields the intended use of it. Default means a failure or neglect to act or perform. It also means having a preselected option, when no alternative option is listed. Disorder means the lack of arrangement or a state of confusion. It also means a condition that upsets and disrupts the normal health and function of the body and mind. These definitions are exactly the outcomes of gender indoctrination that women live as their realities. When we experience situations of disrespect, we often fail to act with self-affirmation (define your value) and self-preservation (defend it), in the moment and instead revert to the behaviors we have been conditioned to respond with. And when we are in these situations, we are often disabled by a paralyzing confusion regarding how best to respond, which results in a circumstance that is detrimental to our well-being, not just our careers. One of the goals of the workshops is to discover and define as many of these default disorders as we can.
I got a sense, when engaging the participants, of how women handle these challenges at work. I identified the most common categories of tricky work situations, and how ill prepared and ill equipped women are about responding to them. Historically, because many women opt not to oppose misconduct, there are few convincing examples that doing so works. Those that become known are judged as being exceptions to the norm, and consequently not replicable.
Just as we can be taught a technique for saving the life of someone who is choking, I teach participants techniques to save themselves or other women when they choke in moments of being disrespected in the workplace. And as success of the Heimlich maneuver is measured by the person’s ability to resume speaking, the success of flexing is also measured by a woman walking away resuscitated by the power and authority of her own voice.
Unlike other techniques recommended in these situations, the primary aim of flexing isn’t to terminate the unwanted behavior, though that is always an intended outcome. This goal is secondary to how capacitated the woman feels in her response. Consistently and insistently acting with this capability is what brings about a desired change. Every great social movement has proven this. The young adults of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who challenged the Jim Crow status quo through the Civil Rights Movement, trained themselves primarily to have the unrivaled courage to confront violently hostile bigotry on its own turf, and to do so without violently responding. It was this capability and daring that eventually aided in the culminating act of the Movement — — passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In every workshop, there comes a moment when most participants resist the concept of flexing. There are two parts to this resistance. Part one is something that plagues all groups that have been historically marginalized — — a negative identity focus. This is an injurious outcome of a caste system indoctrination, which results in disparaged groups incorporating disparagements into who they are. From this identity focus comes the development of a concurrent conduct of self-sabotage, as it forms and fosters a less-than mentality as a core component to identity. And no greater truth exists than this: you will never create a greater-than reality, from a less-than mentality. Any introduction of a new identity construct challenges the old, and people are reluctant to move away from who they are towards who they can be, even when they realize that adherence to who they are undermines their reality. For women, a shift in identify focus often times seems even more insurmountable than countering the mistreatment of men.
Part two is the fear of reprisal. With the daily reinforcement of the doubt-aggression dynamic, paranoia becomes the perspective of survival. The thought of standing up to a man at work immediately triggers trepidation of payback. As was borne out in the workshops, whether consciously or not, women don’t even consider the possibility of defending their value. They design all interactions to minimize the risk that such a moment will arise, and in doing so create a self-fulfilling prophecy of disempowerment. Women legitimately worry that flexing may cause men to ratchet up their microaggressions in both frequency and intensity. The resulting internal dialogue becomes: “If I stand up for myself, is it going to anger him even more?”; “Will he become vindictive, if he feels unfairly accused?”; “Will he lash out at me, if he becomes embarrassed?”; “Will he undermine me, if he has to protect his reputation or career?” Rather than preparing themselves for those reactions, like the “good girls” they are taught to be, women instead spare men from those feelings. They prefer the devil they know. This more equates with picking what level of hell you want, instead of electing the possibility of being in a heaven of your creation.
By articulating their concerns about male backlash, workshop participants inevitably unite against me. Though they are disheartened by not having solutions for their workplace woes, they become riled and accuse me of being Pollyannaish, or acting irresponsibly for suggesting they risk their employment and careers in this way. This pushback is quite visceral, as each participant expresses a personal reaction to a perceived personal jeopardy. They feel alone in acting to counter misconduct, and that the solitary soldier of a just cause will never defeat the army of an unjust intention.
Simultaneously, they will all agree that not challenging this conduct is tantamount to subsidizing it. So, my first effort to mitigate the backlash is to propose they reason and retain an irrefutable axiom: the more you subsidize poor conduct, the more poor conduct you will get. This holds up whether you’re in the workplace, at home, in a mall or at a bar.
My next effort is to guide them to examine and acknowledge their willingness to value the reputations, careers and financial prospects of denigrating men more than they are willing to value themselves. I urge them to establish a line of demarcation with respect to their own value. Essentially, this means to establish within yourself, an absolute boundary of imposition that you will not allow anyone to contravene. With the acceptance of this comes a moment of transformation, which is a vastly more profound and permanent experience of perspective shift than a common understanding of change. I convey this in the workshop, with a simple demonstration.
I move a chair from one location in the room to another. I also reposition it, turning it on its side and face down. With each change, whether in location or position, I ask the participants what I am moving. They answer, obviously, a chair. Exactly. Though I have changed its location and position, I have not essentially changed what it is. I suggest that I can also paint that chair and change its color, or add cushions to it, or reupholster it with a different fabric. No matter how I change its appearance, it is still a chair. This is often what happens with the concepts and language of gender disparity and our response to it. From decade to decade and generation to generation, we can change our focus and scope of conversation about it, its outward appearance as a social issue, without any essential and elemental difference in our response to it or the reaction of men to our response.
My intended point is that to create such a difference, women need to think beyond change. A transformation is a process of alteration so evolutionary and absolute, that what becomes can never again be what was. The butterfly can never again be the caterpillar. The transformation of how women self-identify, value and defend themselves is what will profoundly and permanently revolutionize the workplace — and society.
With this realization, comes my next effort, which is to get women to understand that the same unity they demonstrated in their pushback against me, is the unity they need to take to the workplace to transform it, collectively. This must become a shared and supported effort. Though Rosa Parks initially acted alone against the segregation of the South, it became an entire city and then a nation that galvanized and magnified the dimension of her protest with exacting results. When women are prepared to do this, the desire of their intention is as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun —or the United States Women’s National Soccer Team winning a World Cup.
Lastly, one other crucial realization emerges from these workshops. There is one thing that women feel much maligned for, but it is the very thing they need to rely on to enable themselves to flex. At the same time, women recognize that they need a better understanding of how this one thing is regarded by men and more importantly, how to adapt their use of it more advantageously. The one thing — feelings.
Women regard “feelings” as valued and informative emotions that not only convey vulnerabilities, detect threats and alert dangers, but also appraise a current state of mind and the quality of interaction. In this sense, feelings are intuitive tools than enhance survival and aid in community building. When women say to men, “I feel”, or ask “How do you think that makes me feel?”, they are relaying a self-awareness perception, or inviting a discussion about the cause-effect impact of what they are experiencing.
Gender indoctrination instructs men to think differently about feelings. They are taught to interpret them as psychological tells, the signs and cues that divulge indications of strength or weakness. Men are also taught that feelings are inflated reactions that offer no practical, constructive or strategic value for input. Combining the two instructions, men are led to conclude that feelings are irrational disclosures of vulnerability, and nonessential obstructions to reason. It should be no riddle then that patriarchy has likewise judged women as being irrational and nonessential. We are, after all, emotional creatures whereas they are rational beings.
Through the workshops, women are able to comprehend that when men experience women conveying and expressing their feelings, it can be a signal to either act against them with aggression to gain an advantage, or to be completely dismissive of them for having judgment incompetence. The foundation of this is laid for men in their childhood, when they are taught that masculinity is, in part, defined by the denial and rejection of pain, and that femininity is, in part, defined by the confirmation and valuation of it. This is further extrapolated to mean that admission of pain is a weakness, and weakness is to be exploited. This not only desensitizes men to their own emotional awareness, but it also impairs their sensitivity to empathetically recognize and react to it in others. Phrases like “Big boys don’t cry” and “Man up” are frequent reinforcers of this emotional detachment.
This emotional differentiation between women and men is not breaking news to women. What is different, as evidenced through the workshops, is a desire for women to make their enhanced understanding of this, an application for their interaction with men. This is most serviceable in the language we use gender to gender, when signaling emotional exchanges.
Men can be very emotional, whether what they feel is exuberance or anger. But rather than discussing their feelings, men simply display them — facial expressions, gestures, voice volume, body posture. In the workplace, to the degree that they do employ some safeguards for emotional restraint it can be found in how they code phrase emotional expressions. Men are less likely to use the words “feel’ or “feelings”, but instead will camouflage feelings as aspects of reasoning by saying things like “My reaction to that is…”, or “The course that sets us on is…”, or “Where that leaves me is…”. When women hear such phrases, they can gain insight about the emotional disposition of men in those moments. Women can also adopt similar language to better position themselves for actualizing the reality they want for a gender-neutral environment.
The ultimate outcome of the workshops is to transcend empowerment, because to be empowered speaks more to a feeling of potential than it does to a conduct of actuality. Without an understanding and application of how to effect transformational conduct, that feeling can dissipate to dejection or be lip serviced, waited out and arbitrarily ignored by the inexorability of patriarchy. At the level beyond empowerment lies capability. When women are instilled with and fortified by the concepts, know-how and abilities for a new conduct, they not only feel eager to engage in it, they feel ready and able to. That will lead us to the day when our daughters, granddaughters and nieces will flex not as an extraordinary act of social or political assertion, but as a normal, self-preserving behavior. And when their female peers and male counterparts witness it for the first time and inquire, “How did you know to say that?” or “Who taught you to do that?”, they will be able to tell them that my mother, grandmother or aunt taught me to flex, when I learned to tie my shoes. To define your value at all times and defend it at a moment’s notice should be as basic an instruction as that.