I’m a bloke. I’m probably a bit sexist. I’m aware of that and I do what I can to make sure that women don’t suffer because of my conditioning.
Charlotte Proudman in today’s Guardian tells us that there’s another bloke out there somewhere who has threatened to chop off her head and put it in a plastic bag because of what she has done. Because she’s called out a third bloke on social media for what she saw as his sexist approach to her on a professional website.
But that – the troll’s evil behaviour – that’s got nothing to do with me has it? The bloke who did that is as far removed from me as those Chelsea fans who chanted at the black guy on the Paris Metro. They are not my responsibility are they? What was it that Edmund Burke said about evil triumphing when good men do nothing?
I’m a good man and so I’m sure are all the blokes reading this. Because of my job I have the opportunity to do something proactive. I talk to people most days about the workplaces they create. Workplaces and workplace cultures are created by the thousands (millions) of automatic social decisions taken by each one of us every day. We don’t think about whether to smile when someone holds the door open or who we stop and talk to on our way back to our desks or whether to pick up the phone when we see who it is calling us. [By the way they know you’re doing that!] But it’s these actions and the casual remarks we make about last night’s TV or the decision not to award a penalty that create your workplace.
This sort of activity is also what, to quote Proudman, “seals and cements women’s subordinate position to men in the workplace.” Just because she says stuff like that does not make Proudman a ‘feminazi’. It makes her someone who is challenging the way workplaces are set up. She is doing exactly what I have been telling people to do for years. She has called out someone who did something she found offensive. She did it publicly rather than privately and what she did has had a great deal of impact. She’s created a moment in time. That we can pick up and run with or we can ignore.
When I say ‘we’ I mean the army of generally well meaning, typically white blokes who run organisations and bits of organisations or who just have influence in workplaces up and down this country and others. I’m looking at three or four of us now on the 7.38 from Burgess Hill as it leaves Gatwick on its way to London. We – you and I – need to do more if the workplaces we work in and those that our sons and daughters will work in are going to be fairer and more balanced.
Where Proudman and I differ slightly is on the question of intent. She thinks that men are consciously doing stuff to “reassert the patriarchal status quo.” Me on the other hand, whilst not disagreeing that there is a ‘patriarchal status quo’, I think that it’s probably more about men being ‘a bit crap’ and being too focused on ‘important stuff’ like delivery and achievement to look at the environment they are creating.
The vast majority of us don’t think of ourselves as being part of the problem. Because we are well meaning and we’d never do anything overtly sexist. I don’t want to use the word smug, but I’ve just written it! ‘Unquestioning’ or ‘passive’ are probably fairer words? My main message is always that you can make a difference: by being more self aware (by thinking about the impact of what you do), by speaking up when you are uncomfortable and bycaring about your work environment enough to do something when you think it might help.
How about we focus today, next week and going forward on some simple steps, on some questions we can ask people when they do something we’re not sure about.
‘How do you think that landed?’ [To the person who’s just done the thing.]
‘Were you actually OK with that?’ [To the person you think may feel uncomfortable. By the way the answer will almost certainly be ‘I’m fine’, but at least that person now knows you care and possibly that someone else thinks the behaviour was questionable.]
‘Can we talk about the tone of that email? I know you didn’t mean it to be offensive …’
My guess is that you won’t get death threats for asking questions like this. If you do I apologise in advance! I’m certainly hoping I won’t get any for siding (again) with Proudman. If I do I’ll let you know.
Blokes out there in workplaces, we can do this! We can care about the environments we work in. We can ask those questions. We can also not be smug, we can keep asking ourselves difficult questions. I may run an organisation whose workforce is 76.9% female, where over 80% work reduced hours and where a third of the (three!) blokes are gay. But why is the only co-owner we’ve brought in since we set up in 2003 the only other straight bloke in the organisation? It needs asking – even if I’m clear about the reasons.
Over the last two weeks I have run eleven sessions in a law firm across three offices. The idea was to give everyone who works there the opportunity to talk and think about some new values. They have been well attended and sparked lots of debate – we’ve ‘started a conversation.’ At the end of yesterday’s session one of the blokes in the room pointed out something that it had taken one of his female colleagues to notice. ‘Why are less than 25% of the people in this room men?’ I’d noticed it already – as I had in all the previous sessions. Men had not been turning up to these (optional) sessions in the same proportion as women. Because …… we don’t see ourselves as part of the problem? Surely not because we like things the way they are and don’t want to change them?
Please prove me right!