On Friday night I went to dinner with two classmates from Earlham. Between quick intakes of breath taken to counter our fatally authentic Indian dishes, our discussion turned toward how women should respond to misogyny in the workplace. One classmate spoke about how meetings in the all-male social studies department at the high school often feel like a locker-room. The teachers, who are all coaches, make the kinds of bro-to-bro comments that make many women roll their eyes and mutter, “Boys will be boys.”
But is the eye-roll a sufficient response?
My classmate felt strongly that eye-rolling wasn’t sufficient. “She’s hot,” one teacher had commented, about the image of a 17-year-old Olympic gymnast displayed on the computer screen. I thought my friend was playing the role of sexism police a bit too ardently, until she pointed out that the same teacher coaches a basketball team of seventeen-year-old girls. Unless he carefully monitors his words when he’s within earshot of his players, he may be making them feel not only uncomfortable, but unsafe.
My classmate heard other similar remarks that indicated the same lack of respect for a woman as a person, distinct from her body. She thought these comments, if overheard by students, would reinforce for young women that their value is in their appearance, and that it is normal for them to be subjected to male evaluation—as “hot” or “not”—even on the sports field where their athletic performance should be the ultimate concern.
My classmate felt that the solution to these disrespectful remarks would come by threatening her male colleague. “I’ll tell him that I’ll report him, and that human resources will be on him. It’s completely unacceptable.” I agreed with her that his comments were unacceptable, but I felt that threatening him would not achieve the desired outcome. I paused. Over steaming biryani, I prayed that God would help me respond to her story in a way that would reduce the need for war in the world.
I asked her whether the real goal wasn’t to encourage him to change his behavior through changing his mind, rather than to change it by making him fear retribution. It seems to me that when people are threatened with punishment, they don’t change their ways—they’re just more careful not to get caught. They also become resentful of she who threatens, and that resentment threatens the possibility of future dialogue.
My friend had no hope that she could change her colleague’s mind. He’d been immersed for too long in the ways in which he was thinking. “I could talk to him for hours about injustice, about the structural ways women are oppressed, about the denial of rights and dignity, about the prevalence of abuse—and he would never change his mind.”
My friend saw herself as having only two options. She could carry out an involved and time-consuming campaign of presenting information to a rational recipient, explaining objective facts about the imbalance of power between men and women. Or she could dispense with the lecture and simply threaten him with retribution for his behavior.
I thought this was a false choice, and it became my goal in our conversation to present a third option.
Relations between the genders will change when minds change, and she was right to think that saying “Shame on you, you’re an educator, this is unacceptable behavior,” would likely have little effect. Yet this approach was the only avenue of dialogue she considered.
I said I could envision her taking another approach, by saying, “If I were a seventeen-year-old girl on your basketball team, that comment would make me very uncomfortable. I wouldn’t want to be on your team.” That’s it. A representation of the minority voice, which he doesn’t hear from his other male colleagues.
This approach isn’t threatening or shaming. Rather, it’s an effort to make a man conscious of the impact of his behavior. Injustice is perpetuated by the underrepresentation of certain voices in our public conversation. We see plenty of young women, but we don’t hear from them often enough.
My friend and I reflected on the opportunities we have to be allies for a minority to which we don’t belong. She noted that the person who had most influenced her perspective on racial privilege was a white woman. We noticed the lesson to be learned from that experience: you don’t have to be a member of a minority to help raise its voice. Anyone can speak up for the rights and dignity of young women. You, too, can speak on their behalf, as my friend did—by imagining yourself in their shoes and voicing their needs: to be loved, not objectified.