People sometimes ask what motivates me to speak out publicly as an advocate and an ally to women and other underrepresented groups. Sometimes these questions are sincere. Mostly they are not.
As I have found my voice on this topic, I have become aware of a pattern of discouragement, insinuation, insincere questions, and intimidation from some of my male peers. This pressure, and my fear of it, turns out to have been part of why I hesitated for so long before engaging publicly.
My hope is that naming this phenomenon will diffuse its power, both for me and hopefully for other men too. Speaking only for me, I can assure everybody that there is a much better and more enlightened adulthood once you get past the schoolyard bullies.
Anybody who has dealt with bullies knows that it’s a mistake to engage with the details of any particular taunt. A bully’s taunt is a front. It’s the convenience store that’s open until 2am but never seems to sell anything. You have to ask yourself what’s really going on there.
Let’s go ahead and unpack a few of those:
Taunt #1: Virtue Signaling
Let’s start with the idea that advocacy is “just virtue signaling.” It’s supposedly a hypocritical, self reinforcing in-group activity. The particular words carry no more meaning than the back-and-forth honking of geese.
Wikipedia describes virtue signaling as a “pejorative neologism,” in which one “signals support for a cause without actually acting to support the cause in question.” The call-out example is a picture of a man doing the “ice bucket challenge” that was all the rage back in 2014 to raise funds for ALS research.
The example is misleading. That particular campaign raised more than $100M, which transformed and radically accelerated ALS research. Apparently the participants inspired action with their chilly signals.
Bullies don’t get hung up on details.
I am, in fact, trying to signal a directional change here. Honk, honk guys, we’re off course. Let’s steer away from systemic bias and towards equity. Don’t worry about what the haters say.
Taunt #2: Points with the Ladies
I’ve also been told that my advocacy is just a hustle aimed at scoring points with women. Sometimes it’s specific: “Bro, she’s not gonna sleep with you.” Other people seem to posit a sort of gender-wide currency, redeemable with any woman, worldwide.
I’m disturbed that some of my peers still seem to subscribe to the toxic and juvenile model of woman as vending machine. Offer enough tokens and a prize emerges. Most of us got over that idea sometime during or shortly after high school. Bro, you know that’s not how it works – right?
More succinctly: Women don’t owe me (or you) shit.
What I’m being told is that I’m embarrassing myself. I should stop. I look pathetic. They seem to be saying that everybody can see that I’m desperate and lonely. They say that I’m doing it wrong.
They’re saying that speaking up for women is performing manhood incorrectly.
Nasty stuff, right?
Taunt #3: We don’t talk about it
Then there’s the idea that it’s inappropriate and crass to talk about your advocacy. I’ve been told by more than a few peers that they do way more to help women than I will ever know. They just do it so subtly that nobody can detect their good works.
While this is theoretically possible, I think it’s unlikely. The things they are so proud of likely amount to the bare minimum required by law. Failure to abuse women doesn’t count as advocacy. Hiring the occasional woman and paying her equal to her male counterparts is the baseline, not some laudable crime-fighting secret identity. Treating daughters and female spouses with respect and dignity is basic human decency.
The idea that a privileged person should not have to be bothered to even hear about bias is, in fact, part of the structural problem. The freedom to not have to talk or think about equity is the very definition of privilege. This is the domain of the “gender-blind,” or the “color-blind,” with an emphasis on “blind.”
Perhaps the real problem here is that I’m messing with that privilege.
The point: Shut Up
If you keep speaking up for long enough, the threats emerge.
I’ve been told that having a reputation for public advocacy will hurt my career. This hasn’t been my experience, in fact I’m hard pressed to think of a way that my career could be going better. Of course, there’s bias and privilege at work there too. I started from a good place and I got loud only after I was well established. I do suggest that early career folks, to quote a speaker at a recent RFS event, “secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others.”
That’s because vulnerable people do suffer consequences when they speak out. The people who most need advocacy and sponsorship put themselves at substantial risk of reprisal, quiet and loud, when they advocate for themselves. That’s why it is so patently unfair to push the work of advocacy off on members of underrepresented groups.
Bringing it full circle, that’s why I speak up. If I don’t, the burden falls to folks who are much more likely to suffer career consequences for it.
It’s all in your head
Anybody who started off as a child (everybody) has these patterns baked into them. We impose social judgements on ourselves without requiring external censors or gatekeepers. The only bully needed is the one inside my own head. I’m honestly a bit grateful to my peers for giving voice to those quiet thoughts and allowing me see them clearly.
A few years ago, a young colleague approached me, worried that people might think he was “creepy” if he offered to help with the women’s advocacy group at work. I asked, “well, are you doing it for creepy reasons?” After a bit of conversation, we convinced ourselves that his intentions were not creepy. I encouraged him to go for it. It’s good to get a sanity check on these things, and it’s a shame that worry held him back.
Talking about it helps.
How to shut me up
That said, I actually am talking more than I would like here.
There is limited space in any conversation. Attention paid to one voice comes at the cost of others who deserve to be heard. A really important and challenging aspect of advocacy is the art of holding space so that underrepresented voices can be heard. It’s about knowing when to speak up and knowing when to shut up. A recent New York Times opinion piece implored men to “lean out” instead of merely telling women to “lean in.”
But how to lean out without simply maintaining the status quo?
To the bullies and the haters, here’s my commitment: I will quiet down and stop making such an unseemly fuss when our whole conversation is so rich, diverse, and safe for everybody that I feel obliged to back off.
Until then, get used to it.