Ed. note: This is guest post by Feministing Editor Emeritus Courtney E. Martin.
On a recent speaking engagement at the University of Richmond, one anxious senior asked me, “I want to be a professional feminist—do I have to work at a women’s nonprofit? How do you bring your feminism with you into the ‘real world,’ especially if you end up in a work culture where they just don’t get it?”
I fear that college students are led to believe that, in order to be dedicated feminists, they have to work for nonprofit organizations specifically devoted to girls and women’s issues or go the academic route. If young women, or young men for that matter, want to go in this direction, more power to them. But there is a lot of valor in braving the kinds of organizations that don’t yet “get it” in this student’s parlance, and agitating for change from within. Audre Lorde warned against the perils of dwelling in “the master’s house,” and yet, there are such rich opportunities there—especially for young people with the energy for some serious remodeling.
First and foremost, you have to overcome your own inevitable sense of “imposter syndrome,” take up space, and speak up. When I’m at a meeting in an intimidating place with what I perceive to be lots of smart, successful people, especially if the room is mostly populated by men, I force myself to say something at least once. It doesn’t have to be right away (sometimes I gain courage by listening and observing first), but I can’t leave the room without contributing something. That’s not just for my own advancement; it also helps the team get used to hearing women’s voices and perspectives, in general.
I’ve also learned that the squeaky wheel really does, in fact, get the grease. I used to think that if I suggested a woman or person of color in an otherwise white, male-dominated space—whether for a speaking opportunity or a consulting gig—and the powers that be didn’t select her, the case was closed. I didn’t want to suggest her again for fear that it would seem annoying. But it turns out that people with a lot of power tend to be both under a lot of pressure and way too busy; as a result, they are more likely to go with what is familiar to them, the “known quantity.” In a world still so demographically segregated, this tends to be someone just like them.
But, if you say someone’s name enough times, and spin their merits in enough different, compelling ways, all of the sudden, they become just a little bit familiar. Or maybe they just want to shut you up. Either way, I’ve found repetition with a little variation works.
Similarly, I’ve found there is huge, unpredictable power in being at the right time and in the right place. Because the modern work place is such a fast-paced environment for most of us, there are lots of little last-minute decisions that get made, no matter how on top of it we all try to be. In these moments, if you’re at the ready with your “binder full of women”—thanks Romney—you can swoop in and diversify the workplace in one golden moment. This is why just showing up actually matters a lot in historically sexist work environments; your very presence transforms expectations and widens the pool of possible collaborators.
Finally, ask yourself, “Whose got my back?” Sometimes it’s a lot easier for those in power to hear an egalitarian message from people that look like them—still disproportionately white dudes. I happen to be married to one and I’ve found it infinitely useful for the feminist cause. My husband, thanks to my careful indoctrination, now writes about gender and racial representation in his field of architecture and insists that there be an equal number of women on any panel that he facilitates. He makes a dedicated effort to mentor young women, especially young women of color.
This, to my mind, is the first frontier of increased diversity in the workplace. If we can shift the consciousness of the already privileged and powerful, and arm them with lots of practical ways that they can live their new found ethics, it won’t be long before a critical mass of women and people of color can advocate on their own behalf without being written off as “difficult.”
Some of the most effective young feminists I know are not working at the NOWs and Ms. Magazines of this world. Instead, they are at TED and Purpose and other cutting-edge strategy firms. They are writing about, not necessarily “women’s issues,” but education and fashion and technology—with a feminist lens, of course. And they are transforming workplaces, not with the “masters tools,” but with persistence and courage and a little bit of help from the “masters,” themselves.