Julianne Helinek, MBA Class of 2017
Jessica Bennett is an award-winning journalist and author who writes on gender issues, sexuality and culture. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, and a variety of other outlets. She is also the cofounder and curator of the Lean In Collection, a partnership between LeanIn.Org and Getty Images to change the way women are depicted in stock photography.SWIB will host Jessica on campus on Tuesday, December 6th for a discussion about her first book, Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace. I chatted with her a few days after the election about the tactics in her book, the state of the women’s workplace movement, and what a Trump presidency means for feminism.
Where did the idea for a book about subtle workplace sexism come from?
It was a confluence of everything in my professional life. I’d experienced a lot of these issues and grew up in a very progressive environment where I didn’t think I needed feminism and lo and behold, I entered the workplace and realized that I did. I’ve been writing about these issues for most of my career now, and I’ve been writing about the problems. Journalism doesn’t really provide solutions or service. As part of my work with Lean In I was embedded in all this research, and I saw there were small solutions to all of these problems I’d heard about or experienced, and no one was talking about them.
Writing the book was about knowing there were solutions out there and wanting to put all of this stuff into a language and format people would want to read. It sounds weird to say that reading about sexism can be fun, but you have to laugh sometimes. I’m not laughing now (i.e., after the election), but I wanted to speak in the language that I consume in and make it really digestible and actionable.
Can you talk about times when you’ve encountered these issues in your own career?
I had a feminist coming out moment at the beginning of my career, which is when I was struggling at Newsweek and discovered the story of the women who had sued the company for gender discrimination in the 70s. No one in the current regime knew this landmark lawsuit had occurred. Two female colleagues and I tracked down the original women from the lawsuit and wrote a story about it—how much had changed, and how much hadn’t changed. There’s a lot of backstory here, but ultimately the piece was published. It was through hearing about their story and how much I could still relate to it that I came to realize this wasn’t just my own personal problem—it was a systemic problem people had been fighting against for decades. I was naïve to think I didn’t need to be part of it.
We have dozens of women in a real-life feminist fight club that has been meeting for years now—we gather every few months to talk about our job struggles. When it started we were young and in male-dominated media environments and all struggling, so when we got together we complained but tried to be constructive and have action points at the end of every meeting—action points to help ourselves or other women. This club has been instrumental to each of our careers.
How do you feel about the tension between people who say women should focus on helping themselves and those who say women should focus on changing systems?
I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. That was a big misunderstanding with Lean In—that they were putting the onus on individual women. I think that’s shortsighted.
My view is, you can fight the system while also needing to have a job. You can’t just totally say “Fuck the system” unless you come from means and don’t need to engage in it. But most of us need to work and can’t just say “Screw it.” We’re going to need tools to deal with some of this stuff while working in it.
You can simultaneously be a mentor to other women, or give credit where credit is due, and not have to see that as giving in to the system. If you have power in your workplace, you can also advocate for parental leave policies. There’s no easy solution, but it doesn’t have to be a battle on a single front. You can overcome self-sabotaging behaviors that women do and you can also fight for wage equality on a broader level. You can be a bigger activist and you can also do these things daily in your office environment.
Many of the people who criticize Lean In haven’t read the book, and there’s something about a billionaire white woman talking to people that people don’t like. But Sheryl Sandberg is able to accomplish a lot because of her position of power and she’s done a lot of good.
What do you have to say to people who accuse women of overreacting to microaggressions at work?
The reason why this book is so rooted in academic research is that I wanted to be able to combat that argument with data. It is easy to be perceived as overreacting or too sensitive when you claim you’re getting interrupted all the time. But the research shows that no, [women] are being interrupted twice as frequently as men are. Even in mixed-gender settings, we assume good ideas emerge from men. We have these gender biases and they’re rooted in research. My response to those people is to hit them with statistics and data, because it’s hard to argue with. Those stats are my verbal weaponry. It’s easy to describe a lot of these scenarios as “It must just be you” or “Maybe you were having a bad day” or “Maybe you were being too sensitive.” With the data, you can say, “No, I’m not.”
Let’s talk about the election. How are you thinking about the book’s message in light of this week’s election results?
It made me feel—I was happy that I made the decision to be combative in the book. It’s humorous, but it’s aggressive. It uses the language of war terminology and that was on purpose. I feel like for so long, we’ve been soft on these issues—talking about empowerment and action.
I have been happy that I made that decision [to be combative] because I think it’s motivated people to get out, and that’s what we need right now—we people need to organize. I don’t know exactly what that organization looks like, but we can’t just cry in our beds. We have to move forward, and motivating people to move forward is really important.
All of these things the book tackles about subtle sexism are all the more relevant now. In some parts, the book seems soft compared to what we’re experiencing right now. This is not subtle sexism; this is overt sexism. I focused on the subtleties because that’s what I’ve experienced throughout my career but this is a whole new game. We do need battle tactics more than ever.
Is there a chance Trump could help us convince people that sexism is a real issue? Is there a twisted silver lining here?
As much as I dislike Donald Trump, maybe. For so long, women have been saying this. Maybe people don’t care, but [sexism] is undeniable now. It’s on tape, it’s front and center, and it makes it much clearer for people to talk about. It’s galvanized people who have never been activists before. People are asking me, “How do you create a protest?” I actually don’t know the answer because I’ve never done it. If there is a silver lining here, it’s that people are ready to fight for these issues now more than ever. It has put front and center what is undeniable, which is that gender is an issue in this country. We can’t just not listen to women’s voices.
When I started out in my career, what was I going to do to solve these problems as a 24-year-old? Nothing. I didn’t have power, I only had agency. What can you do today? You can employ some of these small battle tactics and you might not change the world but you might change something for one another woman. At the end of the day, individuals only have so much power. We need to find a way to work together but to feel like we have agency individually.
Why should men show up to your talk on December 6th? Why should men get involved?
Women cannot do this without men. We absolutely need male allies. And in fact, men cannot do this without women. Your business is going to be more successful if you have women who are in power. You’re going to have more successful and confident children if you are an engaged father and you have a working wife. These things come into play in every element in our lives, and I think most men really do want to help and be part of the solution, but it can be intimidating to insert yourself in the conversation. I hope that for those of you who don’t know how to engage, this an opportunity to do so. We want you there.