If the gender politics of your office has ever made you feel like Mad Men's Peggy Olsen, you're not alone. While the days of overt misogyny may have gone the way secretary pools, the overwhelmingly dude-centric dynamics of the corporate world endure — even after you've been told to "lean in," "ask for your worth," and the million other ways women are coached to do the labour of levelling the playing field for themselves. Yet the workplace's lingering sexism can be pretty insidious — a stagnated climb up the promotions ladder, a maddening lack of in-house salary transparency, especially relative to your male colleagues. And with so little concrete evidence to back it up, the nagging feeling that you aren't being treated equally can be hard to proactively fix.
Strong Opinions Loosely Held host Elisa Kreisinger sat down with New York Times journalist and Feminist Fight Club author Jessica Bennett to discuss how she recognised — and boldly addressed — the stealthy sexism she encountered at her first job. We also got some tips from David Bloom, the director and the head of product at The Wirecutter, for actively addressing workplace inequalities with male bosses. Catch their full conversation below, and don't forget to subscribe to Strong Opinions Loosely Held on Apple Podcasts and follow our video channel on Facebook.
Bennett's slow recognition that sexism was holding her back professionally is probably pretty familiar to most working women. After beginning her career at Newsweek, she started to notice the subtle ways she wasn't moving forward, even as the men around her were consistently getting promoted. "I realised that I wasn't rising up as quickly as my male colleagues, and neither were my other female coworkers," she recalls. "So we started sort of huddling in corners and going out to lunches and meeting in the ladies' room (where all good revolutions start) and talking about the fact that we were frustrated, and why was it that these guys were rising up the masthead more quickly than us, and how can we track it."
Eventually, Bennett and her female colleagues discovered an old lawsuit from the 1970s that had been filed against Newsweek, proving the organisation had a long history of overlooking women in favour of their male coworkers. Together, Bennett's cohort researched and anonymously wrote a piece documenting Newsweek's unchanged legacy of quiet sexism — one that was eventually published by the organisation itself.
"We reported it in secret, much in the same way those women 40 years prior had been huddling and meeting in secret," Bennett explains. "We started reporting, and we didn't tell our editors we were doing it. Eventually we tracked down the original women from the suit, and we wrote a draft and submitted it, with the help of a gay male editor, who became our editor on the piece, without our names on it.
"I think there was a lot of shock that went around, and people wanted to know who had written it. We thought that if the other young women around the office could see the piece, they would support us. And they did, and a lot of the young men did as well. Then for the next six months there was a struggle about whether the piece would be published, and we wondered if we were going to have to take it elsewhere. We wondered if this piece made Newsweek look good, to look critically at itself and recognise the power of that history."
Since the piece went public, Bennett went on to write a book outlining the ways that women can more effectively make their voices heard in the workplace. Her go-to tip? Talking to the female coworkers around you to see if their experience of an office's under-the-radar misogyny jives with your own. "All of us individually felt that we were facing what we thought was sexism, but we weren't quite sure. And so we were constantly asking ourselves, when we were isolated in our respective work environments, is this just me, or is this actually sexist?" she recalls. "And then when we came together and began describing the same, exact experiences, it allowed us to be like, okay this isn't just an individual problem — it's an institutional problem, and it's insidious."
Above all, Bennett and Bloom emphasise open communication between workers and their supervisors as the best tool for combating inequality in the office. Oh, and discarding that whole stereotype that women who speak up for themselves are "bitches."
"I also no longer worry if I come off as a bitch," Bennett explains, "because the more bitches there are, the more we'll realise that that's actually not bitchy, it's just exhibiting leadership qualities and doing what you need to do to get shit done. It's just being assertive. And people who want to succeed professionally need to be assertive."
Check out the episode above for all of Bennett's advice for combating the stealthy gender discrimination you've probably already sensed, but maybe never spoken about — because every boss deserves her own Feminist Fight Club.
This is our last episode of the season, but we’d love to come back for a season 3! Tweet at my boss @Emmerschmidt and @refinery29 and let them know you want one too! You can follow Elisa on Twitter (@popcultpirate) and Instagram (@popculturepirate) in the meantime.