Be a better ally, resist the temptation to fall into the traps of 'enlightened sexism'

The feminist movement is divided — like any other movement. Factions emerge in every movement, adopting a particular framework as the most beneficial. And, like any other movement, it is these diverse analyses that add to the richness of the feminist movement's tapestry. This piece is not solely intended to congratulate everyone who thinks that the goal is equality — social, political and economic for both sexes. It intends to be critical — an effort to turn the mirror inwards — especially when the temptation to fall into the pitfalls of 'enlightened sexism' is a distinct possibility.

While the internet has given us great many things, especially afforded women a more or less equal space to have a voice; there's also a new wave of activism and discourse that deliberately shuts down those voices. And the dangerous aspect of this activism is that it appears feminist, but it's really not. Especially, when you are a male voicing a feminist opinion, it is important to take note that your voice, then, must take into account the privilege it has — simply by virtue of being a man's — and whatever then you might say should show an awareness of the patriarchal repercussions.

Take a look at the work space around you; deliberately avoid thinking of it as a neutral space — it's not. Workplaces are the most susceptible to gender segregation, the idea that women are better at certain jobs or that they are meant for certain jobs still exists. Notice the corporate ladder, the top levels barely have any women. Notice the trends, are women handed over the more secretarial aspects of a job? Discrimination, especially disguised as "Oh! It's not because you're a woman, but because you're good at organising files', at the workplace is still the unfortunate reality in 2017.

According to a McKinsey report — Women Matter — about senior female leadership in India, found that only four percent women were in senior positions in the corporate sector. As far as mentorship is concerned, in the corporate sector 62 percent men had a mentor who was a CEO or a senior executive compared to the 52 percent women who had a mentor at much lower levels, according to Catalyst India WRC findings. It doesn't come as a surprise that workplaces are dominated by men.

Walk by most conference rooms next time and notice how many women are there in the room. The key here, isn't to immediately think of the offices (as defence) where there is a female majority, because those are exceptions and that is one of the traps of 'enlightened sexism' we must avoid. What about the offices which report a healthy percentage of female workforce, how much of that workforce is actually represented in senior leadership?

Women in management positions in major companies in European countries, 2006-2016 (European Commission, 2016)

Women in management positions in major companies in European countries, 2006-2016 (European Commission, 2016)

Take this graph for example, the Nordic region is considered to have achieved the highest percentage of gender equality in terms of quality of life indices and female workforce, but it's still not 50-50, is it? Why is it that a country that takes steps, through policies and programmes, still hasn't hit the golden ratio? Sex segregation at the workplace, gender stereotyping, poor socialisation, media bias and misrepresentation are the heavy, ever-evolving malpractices that need fixing. In India, in 15 years, only 17 women have risen to the CEO position in 500 of the country's largest companies. According to an ET Intelligence Group report, the IT sector with almost one-third women on the rolls have no female CEO.

On a global front, women occupy 10 percent of all board-level positions. Do you know how many women make up the global work force? Forty percent. That should put some things into perspective and you probably want to ask why? There is a gendered order to a workplace and the mechanisms in place are intangible. This isn't to say that corporate offices are actively conspiring against women, but corporate offices aren't taking a closer look at the ways in which subtle sexism and discrimination play out. Corporate offices, busy chasing profits, are not particularly invested in running an equitable workplace. Avtar Group research says that drop in the number of women in upper management is because many women are unable to penetrate the 'old boys network'. Women who do break that glass-ceiling find it difficult to stay because they aren't able to fully engage in 'being just one of the boys'.

Does this mean that the men running these offices are bigots and sexists? No, not really, but it's enlightened sexism where the right things are said, heavy jargon is used and the allies end up perpetuating the same sexist views and that makes enlightened sexism dangerous — because it is not blatant, it is subtle. Enlightened sexism also gives way for 'microaggressions' to play out, for example, women who are tough get stereotyped as bitchy, talking over women in office meetings — for anything to be discrimination, the deliberateness of the act isn't important. Subtle conditioning can cause us to be hostile and discriminatory towards someone, without realising that we are doing those things. According to researchers, 'microaggressions' are generally unintentional behaviours, often associated with acting on 'traditionally masculine gender roles'.

"[Men] come to the space with a sense of privilege and entitlement and are wanting to address the issues relying on past cultural norms that allow them to step into meetings and take control of the conversations and dictate the way that issues are addressed and to try to get credit when they haven't really done the work, and to minimise women's contributions, or to speak over them, or to say the same things that women have just said and then call it their own… they feel perfectly comfortable taking on ownership around what's just happened and calling it their own." (Exploring the Complexities of Men as Allies in Feminist Movements by C Linder)

It is vital for men in the workplaces to understand these deficiencies and unequal distribution of power — until the men take on the fight and actually resist right along with the women who're fighting, change is unlikely to occur.

Soon after news about the sexual harassment at TVF broke, many comedians addressed the issue of sexual harassment, one response stood out:

More often than not, it is in the 'harmless' fun things that are said that cause the biggest damage. Jokingly saying sexist things and using feminist jargon later on to defend yourself does not make you a feminist, you'll still be a sexist. So now that the International Women's Day is far behind us, maybe the way in which we could take the conversation forward is putting our best feminist foot forward.  And, if you're reading this (man or woman), you're privileged — you speak, read and write English, probably another Indian language as well. You have access to the internet, probably social media platforms. You are upwardly mobile. Recognise this privilege and use it to question the way things are done, not just for yourself, but also for those who don't enjoy the same privilege as you do. Yes, it is probably more tempting to devour the fruits of the privilege with a sense of urgency, but we should refrain. And of course, if you are a man or a woman and you call yourself a feminist, make sure you really are one. The world really could do without faux feminists.

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Updated Date: Mar 19, 2017 08:49:45 IST

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