#16: How do I correct sexist language without scaring my report?

A mural showing a cartoon woman's face with pink hair with an exaggerated expression of fear

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I’m a white man in a leadership position at a tech company. My team is unusually diverse and we talk about diversity fairly often.

A few months back one of the men on my team used the phrase ‘girls’ when describing young women (in their early twenties) who work as professional engineers. I interrupted him and said “you mean ‘women’?”—at which he chuckled and admitted that that’s what he meant. This happened in a one-on-one meeting where the authority structure was unavoidable: I was his manager and he was my report.

He told me recently that that interaction scared him and that he no longer trusts me as much. He’s scared of saying something wrong and being shamed. What can I do to build trust while taking issues of gender seriously?

—Mindful Manager

This letter sat in my inbox for a while because it made me SO MAD when I first read it. I hope it made you mad when it happened to you!

Your report may be doing this for several different reasons which range from annoying to infuriating. But it’s my job to explain what might be going on and what an ally action might look like in each of these situations. I apologize in advance for using stronger language than I usually do!

Potential reasons

Here are the top reasons why your report might be complaining to you about being scared:

  1. He has an anxiety issue which he hasn’t addressed (annoying).
  2. He values protecting himself from criticism more than he values equity and respect for women (maddening).
  3. He is using the “Reverse Victim and Offender” part of DARVO and co-opting the position of victim (infuriating!).

I’m discounting the possibility that you’re a volatile micromanaging boss who frequently unfairly criticizes your reports for several reasons: your report trusts you enough to say he is scared, your report is saying that this specific incident is what made him afraid, and your actual response was brief, light-hearted, and contained nothing that could be interpreted as a threat.

Stop searching for excuses for badly behaved men

Before we go into more detail, I want to echo Captain Awkward’s plea to stop searching quite so thoroughly for unlikely explanations which reduce or remove moral responsibility whenever a man (especially a white man) behaves like a jerk. In most cases, a man acting like a jerk is suffering from entitlement and a lack of consequences due to his privilege, not an obscure psychological problem or disorder.

Anxiety issue

A cute small fox looks worried
CC BY-SA mliu92 https://flic.kr/p/9Zo3eS

Let’s deal with the most unlikely but positive option first: your report has a specific, career-limiting anxiety problem that has a disproportionate negative impact on his women co-workers. I’m assuming your report doesn’t, in general, have extreme sensitivity to small, everyday corrections, or you would have mentioned that. Under this theory, he’s only sensitive to corrections when the implication is that he’s sexist. If this is an actual anxiety issue, this will seem like a strange aberration in the overall pattern of his behavior as a thoughtful, considerate person. If, however, this behavior fits into an overall pattern of rudeness or jerkiness or lack of consideration for others, then this is unlikely to be the explanation.

If this is the case, then your report needs to take responsibility for working with a mental health professional to overcome this specific anxiety trigger. He and you need to view this as his problem and one that he needs to put a lot of time and effort into fixing, as soon as possible. Reasonable workplace accommodations look like helping him get in contact with the company’s EAP (Employee Assistance Program) through which he can find a mental health professional, designing a plan for continuing to work while making progress on this problem, and giving him feedback on his progress. Reasonable accommodations do not look like what he is asking for, which is for his boss and co-workers to never correct his sexist language and allow his co-workers to absorb the burden of sexism. After all, what if his co-workers have anxiety triggered by sexist language? Given the prevalence of trauma related to sexism, this is far more likely to be true than not.

Self-image more important than gender equity

A mirror on a wall flanked by lights
CC BY Chris Hawes https://flic.kr/p/2ahDXa4

The second option is more likely: he views protecting his self-image as more important than avoiding demeaning or belittling women as a class. Give the choice of, “I used sexist language unintentionally and while it hurts to have my boss correct me, I’m glad I’m learning to sound less sexist,” and “I’m not the problem, my overly critical boss is the problem and I will confront him over that,” he chooses the second explanation and course of action. As a side note, the fact that he told you he was scared of being shamed tells me that he views you as an empathetic and kind person who would likely be swayed by an appeal to your own self-image as a thoughtful and considerate manager.

This suggests that your report has limited empathy for others (at least for women) and limited self-insight. They are asking you to extend them a level of empathy and consideration that they are unwilling to extend to their women coworkers, who have to put up with far worse than having their sexist language mildly corrected.

We are currently seeing this pattern play out on a monthly basis when powerful American writers, comedians, and pundits complain about being held to this confusing new standard of “speaking respectfully about those less powerful than themselves,” which they often describe as “political correctness” or “cancel culture.” For some reason New York Times columnists are especially prone to this behavior; Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, and David Brooks have written impassioned defenses of the right to be a jerk without suffering any consequences for it.

This is one of those situations where I recommend taking the request for empathy and turning it around on the requestor. “I know it’s embarrassing and unpleasant when people point out that the language you’re used to using is reinforcing sexism. But can you imagine how much more difficult it is to be the person on the receiving end of sexist language? It must really be terrible to hear coworkers refer to you by the same words they use for children, every day. Can you imagine how hard that is, how demeaning? Wow, I don’t know if I could handle being called ‘boy’ even once a day, even though I’m a white man and I know no one is questioning my competence because of my race or gender.” Of course, this may not work, in which case you may need to go to the second technique, “Your hurt feelings aren’t as important as upholding our company culture, which is welcoming and supportive of women.”

Reverse victim and offender

In my opinion, the most likely option is that your report is cynically and deliberately trying to manipulate you by co-opting the position of victim: the victim of your cruel and unwarranted reminder not to call his women co-workers literal children!!! He knows that you strive hard to be fair and considerate, especially to marginalized people, so he is trying to establish himself as the underdog and the person most deserving of empathy. He hopes that you believe that only a man who was truly downtrodden and powerless would admit to his boss that he was scared! He’s willing to take the ego hit of admitting to behavior incompatible with his vision of masculinity if it allows him to continue getting away with misogyny without consequences.

Often, people working to fight systemic oppression don’t know how to respond when someone powerful or privileged co-opts the language of oppression and uses it to create cognitive dissonance in their brains. “But I don’t want to… scare anyone. I always say to believe victims, and this person is telling me they are… a victim… so I have to… believe them. I would never body-shame anyone, so can I justify… vocabulary-shaming someone?” (Note wherever your internal monologue pauses—that’s a place where a less verbal part of brain is screaming that what you are saying makes no sense!)

The key to getting out of this mental trap is to put the incident in the context of systemic oppression and power structures. In this case, the systemic oppression is misogyny, and the person making the claim has male privilege. Their claim is that, as a person possessing male privilege, being mildly corrected in private by their manager for language that reinforces systemic misogyny is an outrageous and out-of-proportion punishment, which awards them the position of victim. When framed this way, hopefully this claim looks ridiculous on its face.

The power dynamic here is more equivocal; while you are his manager, he also clearly views you as a compassionate and considerate manager who is reluctant to use his power and who can be easily manipulated and controlled by him. My guess is that he views you as a weak and foolish manager and is not truly afraid of you at all.

For more information on how to detect and deal with people attempting to reverse victim and offender, read the sections on “DARVO” and “Judging competing claims of marginalization” in “How to Respond to Code of Conduct Reports,” a free book written by Mary Gardiner and me.

Ally skill: Include the context of privilege and power when making decisions

When making decisions, be sure to include the full context of any relevant systems of privilege and power. Acting as an ally doesn’t mean treating all people the same way all the time; it means fighting against systems of oppression and the abuse of power, which means treating people differently based on their relative power and privilege. Positions that seem “equal” if you only look at what is happening in the moment are often in reality extremely unequal once you include factors like sexism, racism, a teacher-student relationship, or a significant difference in age between the people involved. Be especially aware of people who try to intentionally manipulate you by co-opting the language and position of a marginalized group (“You’re shaming me,” “I’m the victim,” “I’m socially anxious,” etc.) when they are not actually a part of that marginalized group.

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