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Courtesy of Jessica Bennett
Courtesy of Jessica Bennett

10 Points on Combatting Sexism From Trailblazing Writer Jessica Bennett

Picture of Matthew Janney
UK Books Editor
Updated: 31 January 2018

Jessica Bennett’s book Feminist Fight Club is a highly nuanced and observant account of sexism in the workplace. In this current #MeToo moment, Bennett’s writing has come into sharper focus, offering potential solutions to deeply rooted issues. 

Time’s up. This was the refrain that echoed around the world, following the galvanising speeches by women at 2018’s Golden Globes ceremony in January. What has been described as a watershed moment in the fight to combat sexual misconduct came after months of revelations of harassment cases within Hollywood, sparking the #MeToo moment. While the majority of the media focused on the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the revelations have shed light on this sort of behaviour across the globe, which is now simply too strong to be ignored.

Jessica Bennett, current gender editor at The New York Times and the catalyst behind the mass adoption of anti-Trump slogan #pussygrabsback, is at the forefront of this discussion. In her role she writes about issues relating to gender, sexual harassment, public policy and feminism, and she currently runs an ongoing newsletter on the #MeToo moment.

Prior to this, Bennett wrote Feminist Fight Club, a highly interactive manual for surviving in the workplace as a woman, which grew out of her own experiences of sexism at work, as well as those of her female colleagues. Supported by academic sociological research, the book contains not only the everyday, subtle sexism that most women have likely endured, but tangible ways to combat this – or ‘fight moves’, as she calls them in the book. Feminist Fight Club is, for Bennett, the book she wished she’d had at the start of her career, and one that women and men alike would do well to read if they want to learn more about how to approach these issues.

Eighteen months after Feminist Fight Club’s release, I sat down with Bennett to hear her thoughts on the current state of the wider feminist debate, or, in other words, how attitudes are shifting in relation to feminism. We spoke about everything from the power of language to the concrete ways that employers can target the wage gap.

We also spoke about the role of men in the pursuit of gender equality, especially given their audible silence at the Golden Globes. Bennett highlighted two different schools of thought: one which advocates for men to join the conversation in public shows of solidarity, and another which essentially asks men to let women lead the way. So, acknowledging my own position as a man involved in the debate, this is me standing up in solidarity and simultaneously shutting up, handing over the floor to Jessica Bennett.

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On the everyday emotional labour performed by women 

Jessica Bennett: We go to work. When we are at work we’re typically having to fight for equal pay and equal positions already, in comparison with our male peers. We are statistically asked to take on more of the administrative duties and that can range from grabbing the coffee or taking the notes in a meeting or in a service job cleaning up at the end of a shift. Or sometimes taking on mentorship roles. All of these things tend to fall to women on top of their jobs already.

And at the end of the day, even if we are the breadwinners in our households, we’re still taking on the majority of the domestic chores. Whether that’s childcare or cleaning up. And then here we are in the middle of this #MeToo moment. So on top of that we’re thinking about all the shit that’s happened in our lifetime relating to sexual harassment. So it can feel like a lot, it can be exhausting and I think that’s a reality that women have learned how to endure.

On combatting sexual harassment

JB: There’s not a lot of research on what is effective, and the research that we do have shows that things like sexual harassment trainings are completely ineffective. But what is really effective – the one thing that’s been proven time and again – is bystanders intervening.

I think there are things that people at all levels can do but, of course, if you’re in a position of power it sends a really powerful message if you’re the one to stand up. What we saw in the Harvey Weinstein case is that it was really famous, rich, beautiful predominantly white actresses who spoke up. No matter what you think about the effort to wear black to the Golden Globes, it brought a huge amount of attention to the issue that people who are not of that status would have struggled to do. So I think it’s important for us to talk about ways that people who are privileged can speak up about these issues for people who don’t have a voice.

On fighting the wage gap, an invisible mechanism of inequality 

JB: In California, a law just took effect where you cannot ask someone for their salary history now, which has been interesting. But I actually think in terms of the theme of what people in power can do, if you’re a person running a company, you have the capability tomorrow to asses your company for salary parity. Pull the numbers, just look. If you don’t think you have a wage gap that’s awesome, just do it, to make sure that you’re right. And if you find out that you do have one, correct for it. 

I hear people talking about salary more. For so long its been such a taboo to talk about how much money you make. But some people are sharing those numbers and in some cases like at Google they’ve created spreadsheets where people will anonymously insert their salary numbers and their gender to do their own evaluation when the company won’t. So that’s an interesting approach.

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Two women at the women’s march in New York City in 2017 | © Monica Melton / Unsplash

On the #MeToo moment and the power of the collective

JB: People keep overusing the word ‘reckoning’. I want to ban that word from my own writing, except that I can’t. But I do really feel like there’s been a massive international, cultural reckoning. Where, on the one hand, women who have experienced awful things are feeling liberated enough to speak out about them, on the other, women who have experienced borderline awful things and maybe never thought about it before are realising, oh wait, me too. That actually is part of this larger system. I think a lot of men are assessing their past behaviour. Harvey Weinstein is one thing. He’s a rapist, he belongs in jail. Men who are unsure of whether their past behaviours were misinterpreted or whether they acted out in a way the made someone feel uncomfortable or whether they exploited a power dynamic, some of that can be much subtler and murkier. I think we’re all thinking about it deeply and that’s a good thing.

To bring it back to the Golden Globes, it has been encouraging to see those actresses who spoke out have actually taken this cause and turned it into concrete financial support for working-class women who cant afford legal fees. It’s one thing to wear black to the Golden Globes as a show of support, it’s another thing to commit $15 million to a legal defence fund. That’s a really concrete action and it’s been really heartening to see that.

I think the world has changed in a number of ways. I think there is a lot of anger. Social media has fuelled it. We’ve seen throughout history all these cases where something has sparked up and then died down and I think there’s a sense of being really fed up. And people have started to believe women. People are speaking out in cohorts rather than individually, and I think that’s huge. Anita Hill vs Clarence Thomas is a case of ‘he said she said’ or ‘she said he said’, and all of these famous celebrities against Harvey Weinstein is ‘he said vs she said she said she said she said’. So I think there’s huge power in the collective, there really is power in numbers.

On the power of language to bring about change

JB: I’ve talked about this mostly in the context of mansplaining, because that’s the word everyone uses and it’s entered the lexicon of popular culture. The idea that men explain things to women in a pedantic and condescending manner has literally existed since the dawn of time. But I wasn’t going to be sitting in a bar and able to articulate that in a manner that anyone wanted to listen to even three years ago because its complicated, people tune you out, it sounds like you’re being emotional. And now we have this fun word for it and as soon as you say it people know exactly what you mean. It put a simple language to this complicated concept that every woman has experienced. I think that language can be incredibly effective towards achieving social change.

On the importance of humour as a tool for survival

JB: I think you’re more likely to reach a larger audience if you can be humorous about something. Humour opens up subjects people aren’t comfortable talking about. Especially when it comes to men, I think a lot of men who mean well and want to be part of this conversation don’t know how to approach it because they’re afraid of offending. And so to inject a little bit of humour in it, we can actually get to a better place. If you don’t laugh, sometimes it’s just too depressing. So I would prefer to maintain my sanity with humour so that I can continue the fight.

On the necessary participation of men in the pursuit of gender equality

JB: This can be really tricky for men, especially right now. If you’re a good man and you want to be an ally and you want to support, there is a narrative that you should actually shut up. There’s one argument that you should allow women the space and the chance to speak because they don’t typically get it. But, by the same token, I think there’s more impact to be made by men who do support equality speaking up. Because A, people still listen to men and B, if this is just a women’s issue, then only women are going to care about it. This is a human issue, we should all care, and men can have a huge voice in getting us there. I think there’s incredible power in having men as allies and my view has always been we will not get anywhere if we don’t have men as part of this conversation.

Pussy grabs back sign at the 2017 Women's March in Washington DC | © Lorie Shaull / Flickr

Pussy grabs back sign at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington DC | © Lorie Shaull / Flickr

On the word feminism and screwing up

JB: I’ve thought about how we eradicate the stigma around it a lot, even in the last 5–10 years, for women anyway, it really has been transformed. People did not want to call themselves feminists and now it’s cool. So we have to get there for men as well. We’re all a little bit sexist. If we can begin from that starting point, of it’s not your fault, we have unconscious biases, your brain literally takes a cognitive shortcut based on things that we’ve learned and, if you can begin from that place, you can correct for it. I have been in situations where I’ve caught myself – you just wrote a whole book on feminism and sexism and you were just in a meeting with a man and a woman you hadn’t met before and you assumed that she was his secretary – and you’re like oh shit, I just did that. OK let’s not do that again. I wish more people would talk about that openly because I feel like it gives permission in a way for people who want to be part of the conversation to screw up. 

On reaching critical mass

JB: It was interesting for me to learn that to reach critical mass you don’t actually have to have half. We should have half. But it’s a lower bar and it was fascinating when I finally found the sociological research that lays this out. Having the equivalent of a third means that people will see women more, they will acknowledge their presence, they will listen to what you’re saying, they will let you speak more. All of the issues we face in so many contexts are actually solved just by having more women in the room.

When you’re the only woman in the room, you take on the pressure of having to do and be everything. If you’re the only example, if you’re the only woman running for President, you have to literally be perfect because you’re representing all women. If you’re a woman of colour, you’re representing all people of colour and all women, so it’s this incredibly impossible bar to meet. 

On writing the book, now and then

JB: Simultaneously the book feels more relevant than ever because of what’s going on in the world but also more outdated than ever. In the original edition of the book I didn’t really address sexual harassment. Because the book is so rooted in research, nothing is in there that doesn’t have a concrete actionable fight move associated with it that is backed up by academic research. There’s no real effective solution to sexual harassment except for maybe outing your harasser. So we didn’t include it. And then the Fox News thing happened. Gretchen Carlson spoke up. So it’s updated in the new version, and there’s new battle tactics that I compiled based on what we know from the research. It’s unbelievable to think that I could write a book just 18 months ago and not include a chapter on sexual harassment. Now we need a whole book just on that.

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Feminisf Fight Club _ hi res

Cover courtesy of Penguin Random House

Feminist Fight Club: A Survival Manual For A Sexist Workplace

by Jessica Bennett

Penguin | 336 pp | £9.99