When Jessica Bennett and her female colleagues noticed pervasive sexism at their workplace, they formed a Feminist Fight Club. Every month, they’d come together to discuss their frustrations, share advice and provide support. Bennett, an award-winning journalist and critic who covers gender issues, sexuality and culture, explains that a Feminist Fight Club is, “a group you call your squad. It’s the people who support you, who advise you, who lift you up when you need it, your unconditional professional support system, your girl gang.” Bennett’s own Feminist Fight Club inspired her new book Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace, a compulsively readable, insightful yet humorous manual and manifesto that provides research, statistics, exercises and advice for identifying and fighting modern-day sexism.
What is a Feminist Fight Club, and how was your own inspiration for your new book, Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace?
It’s a group you call your squad. It’s the people who support you, who advise you, who lift you up when you need it, your unconditional professional support system, your girl gang. My inspiration for the book was my own fight club — a group of women I’ve been meeting with IRL since I began my career at Newsweek almost a decade ago. We’d meet every couple of months, and we still do, to share advice, support and tricks of the trade — as well as the occasional b*tch-sesh — from our respective jobs.
I wrote the book because I was tired of hearing about the problem, and I wanted solutions. Feminist Fight Club is the book I wish I’d had when I started my career. It’s a tool kit for any working woman — as well as the men who want to support her — full of cutting edge social science research for how to combat daily sexism, but delivered (I hope anyway) in a way that you might actually want to read.
You’ve spoken about sexism as a “Death of a Thousand Cuts.” What do you mean by that phrase, and what are some of the subtle signs of sexism you address in Feminist Fight Club?
Sexism today is different than it was during my mother’s generation. Back then it was worse, certainly — but at least you knew it when you saw it. It was sexism with a clear cut definition, discrimination with a legal basis.
Sexism still very much exists today, but it’s harder to spot. It’s underground, subtle, insidious, harder to identify and thus harder to call out. It’s things like being interrupted when you speak — something that happens twice as frequently for women than men — or having your ideas attributed to somebody else (typically: a man) because that is where we instinctually think good ideas come from (also backed in social science research). It’s being perceived as “pushy” when we negotiate for a raise, or constantly being mistaken for the office secretary or asked to grab the coffee (another thing women are more frequently tasked with — and even more so if they are a woman of color). Individually, these things may not seem like that big a deal — but they add up.
In Feminist Fight Club you write about the impostor syndrome. What are some cues we can recognize and reverse?
Women are prone to self-doubt, and the reality is that it’s not their fault: this is the product of centuries of history, of being constantly told that we are weaker, less intelligent less capable of being told we don’t belong. How could that not saturate your psyche? But it’s also this reality that as women, we face more scrutiny of our every move — and again, this is backed up by data. So there is this incredible pressure to be perfect, to be flawless, to not mess up, and I think even if we don’t realize it consciously, that pressure can be crippling. Women’s mistakes tend to be noticed more and remembered longer than those of our male peers. That’s backed by research. How could we not self-scrutinize?
How can men join the conversation and help to minimize signs of sexism at work and at home?
Well for starters flip to chapter five and read the PSA — a Penile Service Announcement — with 16 super simple things that men can do every day in their workplaces, from giving women credit for their ideas to chiming in to interrupt an interrupter, to making sure — if they are in a hiring role — that for every white man they are interviewing for a job they are interviewing a representative number of women and people of color. These things don’t have to be tedious or daunting. Sometimes they are almost laughably simple. But you have to be vigilant about them. Everyone assumes this book is for women. But it’s for men too — so they can recognize their own behavior and be some of our strongest allies.
Your Feminist Fight Club is an all-female group of women who are collaborative — not competitive. But unfortunately, that’s not always the case and many women are competitive at work. What did your research uncover about why women often undercut each other at work?
There’s a lot to unpack here. For starters, research shows that often times when women have an issue at work we view it as mean girls behavior — when the same behavior between men is simply viewed as “doing business.” So I think noticing how we interpret women undercutting each other is important. But for me it’s easy to see why women might feel the need to compete against one another — and I’m not excluding myself from this. If there is this pie of leadership roles at work, and women only have a sliver of that pie then, of course, we’re going to feel we must compete with each other more harshly in order to get those slots. But you know what would solve that problem? Equaling the playing field. Ensuring that the pie was equal. Competition would still exist, sure, but women wouldn’t feel the need to compete against one another specifically. So, what do you do about this today? Well for starters, you can try to catch yourself if you’re feeling competitive with another woman, and try to reach out to her and work together instead. It’s not always going to be that simple, but I have been amazed how just pausing for a moment to check my own behavior in those contexts can go incredibly far. Which is, of course, one of the tenets of the fight club: We fight patriarchy not each other.
What are three action-oriented takeaways you want people to get after reading Feminist Fight Club?
1. Treat other women as allies, not enemies: Membership in the Feminist Fight Club means that you have taken an oath to help other women. And that doesn’t just mean talking the talk—it means forwarding the résumé. Hire women. Promote women. Mentor women. Do not book a man for a panel, or a keynote, a meeting, a phone call or any other kind of professional anything until you’ve booked an equal number of women. If you’re hiring for an open position and the candidates are only men, insist on seeing an equal number of qualified women. The only way that we truly break down the tendency for women to compete against one another is to get more of them in power.
2. Find yourself a Boast Bitch: She’s like your female hype man. Research shows that women can be penalized when they brag on behalf of themselves at work — and yet, of course, we know that self-promotion is crucial to our modern work environment, where we need to make sure our achievements are seen. So how to solve this problem? Find yourself a boast b*tch. When you do something awesome, she makes sure everybody who needs to know knows, and you do the same for her. She looks great for being a supportive colleague, and you get credit for your work without having to worry about coming off as boastful or humble-braggy.
3. Form a Feminist Fight Club: Maybe you already have one. This can literally be five women — or men too; anyone who believes in, and is willing to fight for, equality can be in the club — meet at a coffee shop once a month. Talk about what you’re facing at work. Ask each other how you can support one another. Drink wine. Your Feminist Fight Club can be structured however you want it to be — but the point is that you’re gathering, you’re meeting and you’re talking openly and honestly about the issues. Here, I’ll give you your first assignment: Read the book. Discuss it at your first fight club meeting. Feminist cocktail suggestions and a playlist are in chapter six.
What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?
To trust my gut. I spent so long trying to fit in, worrying what other people thought of me, being hesitant to speak my mind or say what I really believed because I wasn’t sure it was right, or smart or good enough. And you know what? Almost all of the things I was afraid to say, I still believe them. So try to listen to your inner voice, try not to succumb to self-doubt — but when you do (because let’s face it: we all do, and that’s okay) know that you are not alone. Every other woman (and probably most guys too) are also facing these doubts.
What does the outcome of the presidential election mean for feminists? How can feminists move forward and create change?
I think it’s a really harsh wake up call — and I for one was caught by surprise. But it goes to show that there is more work to be done urgently and that this is only the beginning of that battle. To me, the fact that the electorate in this country would choose a man who has broken every rule, who has a dozen accusations of sexual assault and has been caught on tape joking about “grabbing women by the pussy” over a highly qualified but flawed female candidate tells us a lot about the state of gender dynamics in this country. I think they’re likely to get worse before they get better, but I also think that women and young people are galvanized in a way that perhaps they haven’t been before.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
We are more powerful together. That all that stuff we’ve heard about women competing against one another — we don’t have to buy into it. We can support each other, we can form fight clubs, we can have each other’s backs and we can create an army. And that army is going to call out so much of the insidious ways that sexism creeps into our daily lives, whether it’s being interrupted when we speak or told we need to “smile”! At the last presidential debate, Trump called Hillary a “nasty woman.” And to that, I say, nasty women unite!