Even though I absolutely love my job, I try not to talk about it much on this blog. I’m going to break that self imposed rule for a moment because something happened a few weeks ago that was so positive and inspiring that I wanted to share it. I put it off for awhile because I couldn’t find the right words. Then this week my Facebook feed exploded with posts about Emma Watson’s speech to the U.N.
I knew I had to sit down at the computer and wring the words out somehow, because what I was trying to say so closely echoed her purpose.
It happened at a staff training, and the topic was how to deal with difficult clients. We shared difficult situations we had experienced with clients and gave each other feed back. As you may have guessed already, we are a touchy-feely let’s-talk-about-our-feelings and hug-it-out kind of group.
While the training didn’t provided a thunderstruck revelation, I walked away from it with new ideas. Then, as the session ended and we transitioned into other topics, Steve, one of the men I work with, raised his hand. I can’t quote his exact words but what he said was essentially this:
“I just want to recognize, especially for the other guys here, that many of the women who work in this organization have had their authority questioned or diminished by clients because they are women. It’s not something that I know how to fix, but it’s something we should be aware of and try to think of ways to work together and be allies for them.”
I was floored. Here’s why.
First of all, even as a woman and fairly well informed feminist, gender was the last thing on my mind. It was clear that the most upsetting situations I had been in were when clients questioned my judgement, ignored me, or dismissed several years worth of experience. These were the events that stuck with me, that still made me feel lousy months later. At the time I even noticed that some of these clients interacted differently with my male colleagues. Yet when we discussed how to work with these clients, my focus became what I should have done differently, and not that I was treated differently.
More importantly, I was floored because even though I hang out with a touchy-feely crowd that values diversity, I had never heard a man that I actually know speak up for women like this. It’s not that my male friends or co-workers don’t say positive things about women, but it was the first time I’ve heard one of them speak up to acknowledge gender inequality.
Steve seemed nervous to broach this topic, uncertain and careful of the words he chose. And while I can’t speak for them, I don’t think it sounded like he was accusing the men I work of having it easy. He didn’t use that horrible, loaded, gut wrenching word “privilege.” Yet he acknowledged that inequality exists, and that some of the solutions offered in our training wouldn’t be effective if screwy gender dynamics were working against you.
Then he encouraged us to challenge that. He didn’t say that the women needed to just work harder to get along with difficult clients, or that the men we work with should step in and fix it for them. He invited everyone to fight this problem together.
His handful of carefully chosen words couldn’t go back in time and change the actions of these clients, but they did make me feel better. And they open up the possibility that in the future I (and my co-workers) would be more understanding when we see someone struggling with sexist clients.
And, damnit, being touchy-feely doesn’t mean that we aren’t smart. Even if we don’t find a magical solution that fixes the problem, I feel better knowing that our brilliant collective mind is working on it.
So, why did I feel the need to share this?
In part because I hate the word “privilege,” and the confrontational ways it is often addressed. I think it’s important thing to be aware of, but I want to see how we talk about it change because, frankly, phrases like “unpack your privilege,” make me want to run away screaming. I really admire how Steve managed to acknowledge privilege in a gentle way. Rather than shutting people down, his comments created further discussion and they also made me reflect on my own privilege.
I also wanted to share because I have felt crushing frustration after seeing the ugly backlash against women and feminists. The positive words of a single individual might be a small victory in the long run, but they are worth celebrating.
Finally, I hope that others will be encouraged to speak up in similar situations. This is exactly what the U.N. HeForShe campaign is advocating. It was a powerful thing, to hear someone else speak up for me. It’s not that I needed Steve’s words to validate my own experiences, but it is a personal relief to know that the people I work with (of all genders) are aware of this imbalance of power.
I went to Steve later, to tell him how much his comments meant to me. Steve works with children in Vietnam suffering from Agent Orange exposure, and he told me that his perspective was greatly changed by the experience of realizing that he had something in common with someone with fewer opportunities.
So speak up, even if you are nervous or fumble your words. Even if you are laughed at or not taken seriously. Someone will hear you, and I can now say from experience that even if it doesn’t change someone’s mind, it will mean the world to those that you are defending.
To get involved with the HeforShe campaign check out their homepage, or the UN Women page. There is also an awesome blog post about privilege that I think everyone should read.