Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to (Effectively) Be a Feminist in the Workplace

Let’s say you’re a feminist.

And you don’t exactly work in a feminist workplace.

Maybe you see some shit happening that shouldn’t be happening.

What do you do?

(Note: because non-intersectional feminism is no feminism at all, this article will talk about what individuals can do to combat sexism, racism, and all forms of discrimination.)

This post—the minutes from a Feminists at Work salon—contains some suggestions about calling out sexism, as well as about the self-care you may need to persevere in a hostile workplace.

But this post by C.V. Harquail on Authentic Organizations highlights some of the problems with explicitly talking about issues of concern to feminists:

Any time I bring this up as a woman’s issue, it gets marginalized and put in a corner because women are a “special case.”

Any time I bring this up as a women’s concern, people disregard it and tell me that this isn’t a business issue.

We don’t want that.

You can’t be effective as a feminist if people around you consider feminism to be some kind of quirky special interest you have, one basically irrelevant to business—as in, you’re into feminism and your co-worker is into bluegrass, and those two things are of equal importance.

What you have is not a fun individual hobby; it is a commitment to human rights, dignity, respect, and fairness. You shouldn’t even need a name for that. You shouldn’t have to “come out” as a feminist. A commitment to human rights, dignity, respect, and fairness should just be called “being decent.”

And, more apropos, “being professional.”

That being said, telling everyone you’re a feminist may not be the most effective way to further feminism in the office.

The vast majority of workplaces say that they have a commitment to diversity. Those workplaces are just not seeing those commitments through. It’s not a “special interest” to see that company policies are enacted consistently. That’s really just being a stickler for rules and professionalism.

So be that: a stickler for rules and professionalism. It’s a lot harder for people to write off your concerns that way.

To be clear, there’s obviously nothing wrong with being a feminist and calling yourself one. But in a conservative or hostile workplace, this will cause some people to dismiss your views before you even speak. Do you want to be 100% authentic, or do you want to be effective? No one in a workplace is 100% authentic anyway; our authentic selves mostly don’t even want to go to work in the first place.

So, if someone says something sexist, instead of, “Hey, that’s really sexist,” try, “Hey, let’s keep it professional.”

If Bro Douchebucket keeps it up and you need to speak to a manager or HR about it, phrase it the same way. Lead with, “I’m concerned about some unprofessional behavior from my colleague Bro.”

When pressed, repeat exactly what he said. Let the manager or HR come to the obvious conclusion that the behavior is sexist. If that conclusion is not immediately obvious, try again: “It was obvious that those comments alienate a lot of people on the team.” Also try, “Bro has been insulting his co-workers.” That’s true, right? That’s what sexism does.

This type of language can sometimes be effective in getting people to agree with you and take action without making them quite as defensive. Call people sexist or racist, and they go on high alert and start defending themselves—and you’ll likely be asked to debate whether some obviously sexist or racist thing really is so. Talking about “professionalism” is a little less loaded—a person doesn’t recover from racism with one stern talking-to, but a person can certainly become more professional from just a single kick in the pants.

For example:

“It’s unprofessional for us to interview only white candidates for the job.”

“It’s unprofessional for a manager to rely on stereotypes when assigning people tasks.”

Of course, don’t get me wrong—sometimes the answer to a problem is to call it out explicitly, go to HR, get a lawyer, and sue. (See also: “What to Do About Your Awful, Sexist, LGBT-Phobic ‘Friend.’”)

But you might want to try a few other things first. Here are some ideas.

Speak Up for Other Women

When someone speaks over you, constantly interrupts you, ignores you, or, worse, takes credit for your ideas, it can be difficult to speak up for yourself. You should speak up for yourself anyway, of course. But it’s much easier to speak up for other women. And some of them will return the favor.

Someone took credit for Allison’s work? “Derek, thanks for putting the finishing touches on that. Allison, how did you get the idea for this in the first place?”

Someone interrupted Tamika in a meeting? “Mark, I see your point, but let’s not get off track—I want to get back to what Tamika was saying.”

There’s no need to mention gender when sticking up for other people’s right to speak, and there’s no need to sound offended. Just be consistent and don’t hesitate. Do it automatically—robotically, even—and without making a big deal. “That’s nice, Dave. Julie?” Feel free to speak in a dead monotone to ward off any accusations of being overly “emotional.”

Like a court reporter, you simply record, quite factually, who was speaking when someone interrupted, and who brought up an idea first.

Of course, this isn’t limited to standing up for women. You can stand up for all the people commonly spoken over.

Expand the Office “Circle” (and Your Network)

Much workplace racism, sexism, and cronyism (but mostly racism) is a result of people in positions of power hiring and helping out their friends. Most white managers would be quite offended if accused of racism; they believe they have never discriminated against anyone. It just so happens that they mostly hire from their network, and their network is made up mostly of other white people. (See this post from the Harvard Business Review—as always, don’t read the comments.)

Is hiring at your company heavily biased toward the friends of people who already work there? Does the 99%-male tech team keep recruiting all their male friends? Think not only about hiring for full-time jobs—what about vendors? What about people brought in for focus groups? What about speakers and workshop facilitators?

If these people tend to all be pulled from the friends of employees, make new friends. Get involved in diverse organizations both inside and outside of your field. You might even be known as a helpful resource whenever the boss needs a photographer to come shoot company headshots or an improv group to come do a team-building exercise—and hopefully when the company needs new higher-ups, as well.

Maybe you get involved in Girl Develop It or another program for women to learn to code (also great: All Star Code is a program to get young black men into tech). Maybe you volunteer for an organization that gets girls into STEM—and you network with the other volunteers.

Even if you’re not formally involved in hiring, you can recommend people you meet through your networking for jobs and opportunities, and you can offer yourself to speak to groups or individuals about what it’s like to work at the company.

When a job posting goes out to the staff via email—but isn’t posted publicly—you could forward it to organizations for women and people of color in the field, along with a note along the lines of, “I thought this might be relevant to some of your members. Please also pass along my email address—I don’t make the hiring decisions, but I’m happy to speak to anyone who has questions about working here.”

If you do speak to someone, that person is now a “friend” whose name you can mention to whoever is making decisions.

Get Involved in Hiring

If possible, get explicitly involved in hiring. (See HireMoreWomeninTech for some resources, and the Colorlines post, “How Tech Stays White.”)

Again, language is important. If you refer to attempts to get more women into leadership or tech positions as a diversity initiative or a women’s issue, you may get marginalized. Try referring to such efforts as “best practices,” which they are.

As in, “Sending out job postings only to just our inner circle isn’t in line with best practices,” and “Writing a tech ad that asks for ‘code ninjas’—sure, that does sound cute, but it’s not in line with best practices.” (Here and here are articles about how certain language in job ads alienates women—or attracts grossly overconfident people, who tend to be overrepresented in certain groups.)

If possible, get involved in interviewing. At smaller companies especially, roles like this are sometimes up for the asking. If the people to be hired are people you’ll be working with personally, or people whose expertise you’re particularly able to evaluate, you have an even better case for getting involved.

One way to make the interview process more fair is to ask the hiring manager ahead of time for a list of questions. Then, if someone comes in and doesn’t seem to be getting a fair shake—for instance, someone’s gender presentation throws off the lead interviewer so much that they aren’t moving the interview forward—you could continue down the list of questions. That gives the person a chance to at least make enough of a case that you can, if they’re the right candidate, advocate for them later.

And even if you’re fairly low in the hierarchy, plenty of hiring managers use assistants to do the first round of resume sorting. Here’s one great idea: Suggest or implement blind resume reading.

Workplace discrimination often begins with the first word on a resume—a person’s name. This study showed that applicants with traditionally white names were far more likely to be called for an interview than those with traditionally black names. This article is about José Zamora, whose job search was drastically improved by dropping the “s” from his name. And here is a man named Kim who did drastically better when he added “Mr.” to his resume.

Perpetuating this crap is hardly best practices. So make a spreadsheet with each candidate’s name in one column and a code (Candidate 101, Candidate 102, and so on) in the next. And then swap out the names on the resumes with the codes before you or anyone else reads them. Do it in Word, slap some labels on paper copies—do what you have to do.

Try to make this a company-wide policy, or just part of the company culture. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could make a change like this that made a more diverse and just workplace well after you had moved on?

Photo of office people courtesy of Shutterstock.