Why Is Fixing Sexism Women’s Work?

Women in Hollywood marching against sexual harassment last November. Credit Chelsea Guglielmino/FilmMagic, via Getty Images
Women in Hollywood marching against sexual harassment last November. Credit Chelsea Guglielmino/FilmMagic, via Getty Images

In 2013, in the stylish atrium of a Seattle ad agency, I moderated a panel for the 3 Percent Movement, an organization founded to address the dismal statistic that at the time of its beginnings, only 3 percent of advertising creative directors were women (according to the organization’s website, that number has climbed to 11 percent). There were three women and one man on the panel. The audience was almost exclusively women.

Our conversation was wide-ranging and sometimes contentious: We talked about the implications of men sculpting women’s insecurities to maximize corporate profits and how even a gender-blind application process isn’t a perfect fix in a society that punishes feminine boldness and confidence.

Whenever talk turned toward solutions, the panel came back to mentorship: women lifting up other women. Assertiveness and leaning in and ironclad portfolios and marching into that interview and taking the space you deserve and changing the ratio and not letting Steve from accounting talk over you in the meeting.

During the closing question-and-answer period, a young woman stood up. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice electric with anger, “but all I’ve heard tonight are a bunch of things women can do to fight sexism. Why is that our job? We didn’t build this system. This audience should be full of men.”

That question — why is it our responsibility to fix the system that victimizes us? — has dogged me ever since. I thought about it when I sat on an all-female panel in front of a mostly female audience talking about how to fix gender bias in comedy. I think about it every time a reporter asks me how victims of internet trolling can make ourselves safer online.

I think about it when abortion rights are framed as men’s to take away but only women’s to fight for. Naturally, I’ve thought about it a lot over the past few months, as #MeToo ripped through entertainment and politics and our own families, illuminating the ubiquity and scale of male sexual entitlement.

On New Year’s Day, a coalition of high-profile women in the entertainment industry, including America Ferrera, Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes, unveiled Time’s Up, a sweeping plan to address “the systemic inequality and injustice in the workplace that have kept underrepresented groups from reaching their full potential.”

The initiative includes a $13 million legal defense fund to help low-income women with workplace assault and harassment suits, an exhilaratingly ambitious project called 50/50 by 2020 that’s urging entertainment companies to commit to gender parity in their leadership structures in the next two years, and teams of lawyers taking smart legislative aim at targets like nondisclosure agreements. The signatories plan to wear black, which is notoriously difficult to photograph, to the Golden Globes on Sunday. They will not be your objects.

Time’s Up feels like an appropriately cinematic turn — it’s the third act and our heroine is angry. She’s finally stepping into her power. It’s beautiful to watch.

But I can’t stop coming back to that old question. Men: What exactly is it that you do here?

One pervasive feature of the post-#MeToo landscape has been distraught men apologizing for their gender, fretting about old drunken hookups and begging for guidance on what they can do to help. (Of course it took only moments to transform a mass catharsis into an emotional labor factory.) O.K., fine. You know what you could do to help? Everything.

How about Matt Damon refuses to show up to work until his female co-stars are paid as much as he is? How about Jimmy Fallon refuses to interview anyone who has been credibly accused of sexual assault or domestic violence? How about Robert Downey Jr. relentlessly points out microaggressions against female contemporaries until he develops a reputation for being “difficult” and every day on Twitter 4,000 eighth-graders call him an “SJW cuck”? How about Harvey Weinstein anonymously donates $100 million to that legal defense fund and then melts into the fog as though he never existed?

How about hundreds of male movie stars spend months developing a large-scale action plan to help female farmworkers battle systemic gender inequality? How about men boycott Twitter? How about men strike for International Women’s Day? How about men take on the economic and social burdens of calling out toxic patterns of gendered socialization? How about anyone but the oppressed and John Oliver lifts a finger to change anything at all?

Sexism is a male invention. White supremacy is a white invention. Transphobia is a cisgender invention. So far, men have treated #MeToo like a bumbling dad in a detergent commercial: well-intentioned but floundering, as though they are not the experts. They have a chance to do better by Time’s Up.

Only 2.6 percent of construction workers are female. We did not install this glass ceiling, and it is not our responsibility to demolish it.

Lindy West is the author of Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman and a contributing opinion writer

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