#MeToo. More times than I can remember at this point. Across a bunch of different jobs, in different industries, and in different social situations. With people I thought I could trust. With people I was supposed to rely on. With people I had to report to.
Unfortunately, sexual harassment and assault -- more broadly, sexual violence -- is so pervasive in our culture that we often overlook it. It’s easier to ignore than it is to challenge or address. What language do we use to call it out? How do we protect ourselves in doing so? Telling someone that their behaviour isn’t acceptable and won’t be tolerated isn’t easy. But when movements like this start, and people are able to understand the magnitude of the problem, we get a little bit closer to being able to address it.
Here are a few ways you can call people out on their shit when you see it. And remember, different tactics are going to work for different people.
Don’t laugh at sexist jokes. Even better, give the person who made the tasteless “joke” a blank stare. It might be awkward in the moment, but it may challenge them to think about what they said.
Say that again? This might seem counter-intuitive, but asking somebody to repeat something sexist can help them to realize that what they said was inappropriate.
Challenge people for interrupting one another. While simple, it sends a very strong message about the importance of respecting those around you. Something as simple as “Hold on, Chloe wasn’t finished her thought.” works perfectly!
Credit women for their work. All too often, women’s contributions are overlooked or ignored. Even worse, they’re often restated by, and misattributed to, a man. When that happens, make sure the woman who originally proposed the idea, thought, or concept gets credit. Try “That’s what Kimberly suggested earlier -- I think it’s great.” or “Yeah, Jasmine just made that point and I couldn’t agree more.”
Propose a training or workshop. If it’s a situation that’s coming up at work, try talking to HR about holding a workshop on gender equality, power dynamics, and/or discrimination. Bringing this kind of education into the workplace can be a helpful tool in shifting the culture.
Call it out. Arguably the most challenging thing to do is call out sexist behaviour when you see it. Double standards (e.g. a woman being called “aggressive” or “bitchy”, when a man would be called “assertive” or “a leader”) are a great example of this and a pretty easy area to build up your skills. For more complex situations, your approach might be different. Here are two that have worked well for me:
At work: If you’re dealing with a microaggression at work, you can start by trying to understand and acknowledge where the person is coming from. While challenging, this step can be crucial in making sure the person you want to address doesn’t become defensive. Next, explain how their actions made you feel and how that impacted you. Finish up by proposing a new behaviour or practice moving forward. For example, “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about that meeting. I appreciate how much knowledge you’ve got in this area and love to hear about your experiences. That said, I feel a little thrown off when you jump in while I’m presenting. It’s hard for me to deliver my message as clearly. Moving forward, could you save your comments till the end of each section? That way everyone can learn from what you’ve got to say, but I can also deliver my content clearly.”
In a social situation: Depending on who was involved and how comfortable you are with the people, you may be able to call the person our directly. Be careful about doing this in front of a big group of people, because while embarrassing the person may be rewarding in the moment, chances are it won’t change their behaviour. If you’re not sure what to say, start by asking questions, like “Why did you say that?” or “Why did you do that?”.
Remember that you are not alone. You might feel intimidated, powerless, maybe even scared. Challenging sexual harassment can make us fear that we’ll lose ours friends or jobs (the latter of which is illegal and could most definitely warrant legal action!). Know that you’re not alone. While this is an unfortunate truth, it’s also empowering to know that there are people and resources you can turn to for support. First and foremost, take care of yourself. Make sure you’re safe and get the support you need. There is no one correct course of action when it comes to harassment, assault, or abuse of any kind, but what has shown itself to be true time and time again is that there is strength in numbers, and there is strength in speaking your truth and standing for what is right.
All that said, if you are facing this (or any) kind of sexual violence, it's okay if you don't want to speak out or if you can't speak out. Here's a great article about how to cope when sexual assault takes over your newsfeed.
*While this post is primarily about supporting women, it's important to remember that people of all gender identities are victims of sexual violence, to recognize their experiences, and to give them space to share and heal.