The ally skills teacher behind Dear Ally Skills Teacher is busy teaching all this week, so no column this week. Here are a few resources from the Ally Skills Workshop that you might find useful:
Identifying your power and privilege: An exercise to help you figure out what societal advantages you have, so that you can recognize situations in which they give you more power and influence to fight unfairness. I prefer this exercise to the Privilege Walk for many reasons, but the most important is that it doesn’t force marginalized people who are passing as part of the privileged group to make a difficult decision about whether to claim that privilege or to out themselves as a member of marginalized group.
Ally action discussion prompts: When you are trying to come up with a useful ally action, these questions can help you work through the implications of each option and choose a better solution.
Goal-setting exercise: This worksheet helps you set specific goals for acting as an ally, start the process of doing research and getting feedback on your plans, and create accountability for yourself.
If you like these, you can download all the materials for the Ally Skills Workshop here. If you’d like to learn more about the Ally Skills Workshop, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I work at a large university in Florida, where I’ve been the Administrative Assistant in our building for more than a decade. I’m white, female, cis, and queer.
We currently have a “men’s” bathroom and a “women’s” bathroom. I’ve been wanting to make our building’s bathrooms all-gender for a while because we have 4 times as many women as men who work in the building. It’s not a public building, so it’s generally only University staff and our visitors who use the bathrooms, about 25 people a day.
However, before I made the request, a new co-worker joined who hasn’t told me their gender explicitly but uses “they/them/theirs” as their pronouns. Now I don’t want to make the request, because I don’t want to risk drawing unwanted attention to them. Most of the people in my building are very quiet and introverted, including my new co-worker (I am one of the few extroverts).
—Stalled on Bathrooms
I like this question because I see this pattern a lot: someone wants to take action to fight oppression, spends some time thinking through the consequences, and realizes that taking action might risk retaliation against marginalized people. Then they get stuck because they don’t have a framework for figuring out how to compare the risk of retaliation against the risk of letting the current (bad) situation continue. Many people end up in your situation: paralyzed by the fear of future guilt. Let’s talk about what you can do to break the deadlock!
Do the research
Start by educating yourself on the basics if you haven’t already. The Wikipedia page on unisex public toilets is a reasonable starting place and includes most of the difficult issues, such as the many problems with urinals or requirements of outdated building codes. Here’s a resource on inclusive restrooms and signage from the trans inclusion project at the University of Maryland. Here is a system for changing who can use a multi-stall bathroom based on the preferences of the person currently in the bathroom. Ask around to find out if other bathrooms in your university have been converted to all-gender and how they accomplished that. A few more ways to make gendered bathrooms more inclusive without converting them to all-gender:
Post a sign telling people to respect other people’s choice of bathroom.
Post a sign with directions to the nearest all-gender bathroom.
Stock menstrual supplies in all bathrooms, including men’s bathrooms.
Accept that you’ll make some mistakes
When I teach ally skills, I repeat the same advice over and over again: “If you make a mistake, apologize, correct yourself, and move on.” This is because many people are so afraid of making a mistake that they never take action to support a marginalized group they aren’t part of.
Here’s the reality: you’re going to make a mistake—lots of mistakes. You’re going to continue making mistakes for the rest of your life, no matter what you do or don’t do. You can’t avoid making mistakes, but what you can do is try hard to learn from your mistakes and make fewer and different mistakes going forward. Once you’ve accepted the inevitability of making mistakes, it becomes easier to weigh the risk of making a mistake against the harm of doing nothing.
Think about the harm of doing nothing
The next step is to spend some time thinking about what will happen if you do nothing. Who will be harmed? Who will suffer? When you are acting from a position of privilege and power to help a marginalized group you aren’t part of, the answer is usually “Not you.” The burden and harm of doing nothing are therefore more theoretical and distant.
In this case, what could happen if you don’t advocate for all-gender bathrooms? Someone might challenge one of your coworkers or a visitor about which bathroom they choose. Even if that doesn’t happen, some people will have to plan for the possibility, which takes valuable time and energy. Your workplace will continue reinforcing the gender binary. Women will continue having 1/5th of the bathroom facilities as men (which does affect you personally). People interviewing for jobs at your workplace will see the bathroom arrangement and come to certain conclusions about your workplace culture.
None of these situations are emergencies and you’ve been living with them so far—two reasons why it’s often difficult to see the risk in sticking with the status quo. But thinking about them and counting them explicitly as the cost of doing nothing helps you make a decision about whether to act.
Get more input from others
I could be wrong, but I get the impression that the majority of this debate is happening solely in your head. You’ve reached out to Dear Ally for advice, which is a great first step! Next, talk with your coworkers, both to get advice and to gauge their support.
Start with someone who shares a lot of your values, is generally kind and supportive, and whom you can trust to keep this discussion private. Include your own feelings about advocating for the all-gender bathrooms and about asking for advice. When I’m feeling conflicted about asking for help, I have learned to just tell (trustworthy, kind) people exactly what I’m feeling and trust them to respond appropriately. “Hey coworker, I’ve been struggling with this problem in my head for a while and I’d really appreciate a chance to talk about this confidentially with someone else. I’d like to ask for all-gender bathrooms, but I’m afraid I might accidentally trigger retaliation against our non gender-conforming coworkers. Can you help me think this through?”
I recommend avoiding directly asking coworkers that might be the subject of retaliation until you’ve done the basic research and worked out some avenues of approach, unless the coworker in question is already an outspoken advocate for themselves.
At this point, you have enough information to decide what, if any, change you might advocate for. The next two tips are about how to advocate for that change while reducing the chance of retaliation against marginalized people.
Avoid singling out marginalized people
Avoid singling out one group of marginalized people by figuring out how to implement a change in a way that will benefit many different groups of people. For example, if you’ve decided to ask for all-gender bathrooms, think of ways to do it that make bathroom access fairer and more equitable for everyone. In this case, you have about five times the number of people using the women’s bathroom as the men’s, so making both gendered bathrooms all-gender instead would reduce sexism. If only one of your bathrooms has a baby-changing facility, that change would support people who are caring for infants. If both bathrooms have accessible stalls, then allowing people to use both will increase the likelihood of an accessible stall being available for use by disabled people (especially with one of the bathrooms being heavily used). If one of the bathrooms is located much farther away or on a different floor, all-gender bathrooms would reduce time used traveling to the bathroom. Note that cis men and women can also directly benefit from all-gender bathrooms—I know at least one cis woman who is regularly challenged when she uses the women’s bathroom, and a result, tries to avoid using gendered public bathrooms.
Speak from your values for yourself
When advocating for change, base your arguments on your values and speak for yourself. You value fairness and equal access to bathrooms. You would be bothered if people were challenged about their bathroom choice. You are tired of waiting to use the bathroom when there are plenty of empty stalls available in the bathroom next door. You want people to feel welcome when they visit your building. Avoid advocating for change by speaking about what marginalized people feel or want unless they have explicitly asked you to speak for them.
Ally skill: Be aware of the harm of doing nothing
When trying to decide whether to act as an ally, take into account the harm of doing nothing. Often, the harm caused by accepting the status quo doesn’t directly affect the people with more privilege, so it can be easy for people with more privilege to downplay or ignore that harm. When many people act like there is no urgency to stop the harm, it makes it even more difficult for the people experiencing that harm. Take the time to do some research and think about the cost of leaving things as they are right now, as well as ask for advice. That will help you make better decisions about how and when to act as an ally.
I’m a white man in a position of cultural and professional privilege at an engineering-focused tech company.
Some of the other white men here have privately admitted to me that they no longer participate in conversations of race and gender. They’re scared of the shame they’ll face if they say something ‘wrong’ so they keep their opinions to themselves and avoid the discussions entirely.
I’m worried about what they’re saying to each other in private channels and how they might subconsciously (or consciously) undermine the work that other people are doing to make this a more welcoming place.
What can I do to help them participate in a positive way? Or at least not have a negative effect on the people who are working so hard on these conversations?
This is a form of the most common question I get when I teach an Ally Skills Workshop: How can I convince other people to want to act as allies? The short version is: you can’t, but I will share with you the various ways I’ve seen it happen.
First, I want to say something a little surprising: I don’t think your quiet coworkers are having a significant negative effect on the people who are having those conversations. If people don’t feel confident about being able to participate in public discussions about race and gender without saying something harmful, just not participating in those discussions is a good first response. (This is similar to a previous question about how to change the minds of men who don’t want to mentor women because of #MeToo: in most cases, you don’t want those men to mentor women!) I hear your concern that they are engaging in much more harmful conversations when you aren’t around to hear them, and I’ll address that in the rest of that post.
Given that caveat, when does it make sense to put in effort to convince people that it’s worth the time, effort, and risk to learn about these topics and start participating in these discussions?
Why people start acting as allies
In my experience, people who end up fighting oppression that doesn’t affect them directly have the following qualities and experiences:
They believe that fairness and equality are things they should strive for.
They are exposed to evidence of a system of oppression affecting others and eventually come to believe it exists.
They discover some personal motivation to fight this particular system of oppression and begin to act.
The first two qualities are generally not things you can teach an adult. By the time you are working with someone at a company, they have probably already decided whether they value fairness and equality or not, and whether they personally should make an effort to support them. And once someone has decided to stop learning new information, it’s hard to convince them to start learning again.
Given a person that cares about justice and is open to learning, you can help with the last two steps by exposing them to evidence of a system of oppression affecting others and helping them find a personal motivation to fight that oppression. This is the heart of the conversion from bystander to someone who wants to fight oppression. I have seen this change of heart happen in a few different ways:
They learn that someone they are very close to (spouse, child, parent) has experienced the oppression.
They learn that several people they are moderately close to (friend, coworker, fellow student) have experienced the oppression.
They read many studies or news stories about many people they don’t know at all who experience the oppression.
As you can see, the more they care for the person experiencing oppression, the less evidence they need to come to believe that the system of oppression exists. Hearing a story of oppression from one close friend is often more effective than reading a scientific study showing that thousands of strangers are experiencing the same oppression.
What you can do
Your job is to:
Identify people who care about fairness and are able to learn.
Make it easier for them to learn about the system of oppression in ways that give them a personal motivation to fight it.
Since hearing about oppression from people close to them is so effective, one important thing you can do as a coworker is make it safer for coworkers experiencing that oppression to share that with other coworkers. You can do this by showing that you believe and support their stories when they tell them, expressing empathy and respect for them to other coworkers, and taking on the job of providing supporting information for their claims. You can also share news stories about oppression on your social media, or in Slack channels at work, or during lunch conversations. When coworkers share false information about a system of oppression, you can speak up and share the truth about that system of oppression.
For the people who don’t care about fairness or can’t learn information, the best you can do is encourage them to continue not participating in conversations about race and gender because their participation will not make things better. If you can’t change people’s minds, you can often still change their behavior, and in this case they are already doing the best thing possible given their mind set.
Ally skill: Do your research and practice in advance
Being ready with quick summaries of relevant information and links to more resources about a system of oppression is extremely helpful. This requires some research and practice in advance. You can keep links to useful web pages in your browser bookmarks or a file on your desktop or wherever is convenient for quickly copying and sharing with your coworkers. Consider investing 30 minutes in finding some good references, and then practicing saying your explanation out loud a couple of minutes a day for a week or two. If you are more likely to be doing this in writing, you can take 30 minutes to write one or two versions of the explanation, and then copy and paste that into whatever conversation you are having. Many marginalized people have been doing this kind of work for years, and appreciate someone else taking on this often (but not always) thankless work.
There’s no column this week due to the (U.S.) holiday. Instead, here is a cute fennec fox with giant ears to remind you that an important ally skill is listening to marginalized people.
To tide you over till next week, here is another useful ally skills resource: the Better Allies weekly newsletter, which gives you 5 ally actions each Friday in your email inbox.
And if you have a question about acting as an ally, we would like to hear it! You can send your question in via the Dear Ally Skills Teacher question form. While we have plenty of questions queued up now, an advice columnist would always prefer to have more questions to choose from, so don’t be shy about sending in yours.
I’m a white cisgender woman and am chairing a search committee for an academic position. Would it be appropriate for me to ask finalists their pronouns (and let them know mine) when arranging their on-campus interview? I want to use their correct pronouns, but I don’t want them to feel like their gender identity is an issue.
—Puzzled by Pronouns
This is a common theme in questions about ally skills: “I’d like to follow the latest best practices for inclusivity, but I’m worried that because they are new and not yet standard, I’ll do it in a way that makes marginalized people feel singled out or puts them in an uncomfortable spotlight.” I’m glad you are thinking ahead and trying to imagine what it is like to be the marginalized person!
In this situation, I usually recommend building a system where everyone gets asked the same questions or offered the same resources, regardless of their privileges, in a way that it is obvious this is the standard procedure for everyone, and if possible in a way that benefits other groups. One example of doing this is the “curb-cut effect,” where adding ramps to sidewalk curbs for wheelchair users at all intersections gives everyone the same accommodation in a way that doesn’t single out wheelchair users. Curb cuts also benefit many other groups: people pushing strollers, people using wheeled shopping carts to carry groceries, people using walkers, people for whom stairs are painful, etc.
You can create a solution that is inclusive of people whose gender pronouns are not easily guessed by others by creating a system that clearly asks for pronouns from everyone, including people whose gender pronouns are usually correctly guessed by the people around them. In your specific situation, candidates for an academic position have to fill out at least one form, so you can add a “What are your gender pronouns?” question to one of the standard forms that every candidate has to fill out. (If you are reducing hiring bias by hiding the names and biographical details of candidates during the first part of the process, don’t ask for this information until after that phase is over.) In the rest of this post, we’ll talk about a few other ways to do this in the more general case.
Lead by example and share your pronouns first
In the general case, a good first step is to make a practice of telling other people your gender pronouns when you introduce yourself, as you mention in your question. In addition, you can systematize telling people your own gender pronouns in a number of ways: including them in your email signature, on your web site, on your business cards, on your office door name plate, on name tags, etc. Once you’ve shared your own gender pronouns, the other person can share their own gender pronouns without feeling singled out, because at least one other person has done so.
Directly ask for pronouns while sharing that you ask everyone
You can also directly ask for someone’s gender pronouns while making it clear you’re making it a habit to ask everyone: “I’m trying to develop a habit of always telling people my gender pronouns and asking for their gender pronouns when we first meet. My gender pronouns are [YOUR PRONOUNS]. What are yours?” Of course, if they don’t want to share them with you, don’t insist that they do. In general, for people whose pronouns you don’t know, use singular “they” until you do know their pronouns. And if you mess up and use the wrong gender pronouns, just apologize, correct yourself, and move on. Telling people your pronouns and asking for theirs may feel uncomfortable and weird at first, but after you do it a hundred times, it will feel normal and routine.
More resources about gender pronouns
If you’d like to go deeper, there are some excellent resources written by people who regularly experience other people guessing their gender pronouns incorrectly. “Good Practices: Names and pronouns” is part of the TransTerps project at University of Maryland, which includes many other resources for being more inclusive of trans people. (“Terps” is a reference to the terrapin, a local turtle and the nickname for the university’s students.) For more on why sharing your gender pronouns is helpful even when other people are likely to guess them correctly, read “Dear (Cis) People Who Put Your Pronouns On Your ‘Hello My Name Is’ Name Tag” from Sinclair Sexsmith, a nonbinary person.
Ally skill: Avoid singling out marginalized people by creating systems that help everyone
When you want to be more inclusive, but are worried that you might unintentionally single out marginalized people, take a step back and ask how you can create a system that applies to everyone regardless of privilege. A good starting question is, “What additional benefits could come from applying an inclusive practice in a broader way?”
For example, many employers want to know if pregnant employees will want to travel less during and after their pregnancy. Asking if there would be a benefit from asking everyone about their travel preferences more often results in the recognition that everyone changes their travel preferences over time in unpredictable ways. Now the question becomes “How do we make it easy for our employees to tell us when their travel preferences have changed, and make it easier for everyone to travel less if they want to?” This question does not single out pregnant people and does not reinforce harmful stereotypes about pregnant people becoming less valuable employees. It also increases inclusion of employees who prefer to travel less for other reasons (disability, difficulty getting visas, bereavement, family care taking, immigration status, pet care, just not liking travel, etc.) and improves happiness and retention of all employees.
I am a white man who is a low-rung-on-the-ladder employee at a small technology company that is a vendor for several moderately sized banking companies. When on conference calls our clients, I often hear their clients making oppressive comments. My boss (and owner of the company) is a woman of color who says she has not experienced discrimination while working, so I’m not relying on her for advice or backup. Do you have any advice for when one is exposed to oppressive speech during conference calls between employees at our client?
—Silence on the Other End of the Line
This is a really tough situation! It shows that having privilege isn’t enough when the balance of power is not in your favor. You lack power in two ways: one, you are low in the hierarchy at your company, and two, your clients are much larger and more powerful than the company you work for. You don’t say so explicitly, but I’m guessing that your clients could switch to another vendor without too much trouble. You also don’t expect any support from your boss/company owner.
You’re not completely out of options, though. What I’m going to recommend is polite incomprehension: whenever someone says something oppressive, pretend that you don’t understand. This can look like:
Not understanding the actual words
Not getting the joke
Not filling in the implication for them
Acting like they had a slip of the tongue and meant something else
Here are some examples of phrases you can use:
“Sorry, my sound dropped out for a second there, but the gist of what you are saying is [repeat without the oppressive comment], right?”
“I’m a little confused, but what I think you are saying is [topic minus the oppressive comment].”
“I’m afraid I don’t get the joke. Moving on…”
“I think I’ve lost the thread of the conversation. What about [topic]?”
“I didn’t quite catch that, but what I understood was [topic] and here’s my thoughts…”
[Slightly too long of a silence after someone makes an oppressive comment and then asks you to speak] “… So, back to what we were talking about…”
How conversational road bumps work
What you’re doing is training people not to make oppressive comments by creating a tiny little annoying road bump in the conversation whenever they do it. You’re making it look accidental and not under your control, so clearly everyone around you needs to adapt to your inability to understand racist jokes, sexual innuendo, or what-not if they don’t want to have Captain Oblivious constantly interrupting their jokey good times. You’re making it awkward! You’re breaking up the conversational flow! You’re a killjoy!
This is hard because most of us spend a lifetime learning how to make conversation, to laugh politely even when the joke isn’t funny, to fill in awkward silences and cover up other people’s gaffes. Deliberately introducing even a slight hitch into the conversational flow feels scary and frightening, especially when you’re in a position of relatively low power. Your privilege will give you an advantage here: it’s harder to accuse a white man of being “humorless” or “uptight” or “oversensitive” for not laughing along with racist or sexist jokes. You may have other privileges that make it easier to push back on other kinds of oppressive speech.
The Beachball of Awkward
Many people feel bad about making other people uncomfortable in this situation by not laughing along or glossing over the oppressive speech. I like to use the “Beachball of Awkward” analogy, inspired by Captain Awkward’s advice for dealing with rude people by making it awkward for the rude person. When someone makes an inappropriate comment that makes you feel uncomfortable, they are tossing the Beachball of Awkward into the conversation and expecting someone else to catch it and deal with the awkward. Instead, if you follow Captain Awkward’s advice to make it awkward for them, you are catching the Beachball of Awkward and then tossing it back at the person who threw it at you.
In this situation, you can’t quite toss the Beachball of Awkward right back to the person who threw it by calling out the inappropriateness of their comment directly. But you can duck and let the beachball hit the ground and roll away, and then act like you’re just bad at sports. The point is, you didn’t send the Beachball of Awkward into the conversation in the first place—they did. You’re just refusing to smooth over the awkwardness they created.
Ally skill: Get comfortable with making it more uncomfortable
Being willing to tolerate feelings of discomfort or awkwardness is an important ally skill that will also come in handy when advocating for yourself. For example, being able to tolerate a few seconds of uncomfortable silence can make you thousands of dollars when you are negotiating compensation at a new job. One way to practice doing uncomfortable things like letting silence go on a little too long or not laughing at jokes is to find a willing friend or colleague to role-play with you. Put together a script of innocuous or meaningless jokes or comments to practice with; you don’t have to say actual oppressive statements to practice this skill. If you know you have a situation coming up where you’ll need to do uncomfortable things, give yourself an opportunity to practice with a friend and you’ll find the actual situation much easier.
I am a white foreigner living in the U.S., so aside from my accent my privilege is most alike the rest of the white, middle-class, college educated community. However, I have an ignorance about racism here that I am not sure how to rectify. I have a much better understanding of what to look for in my country when being an ally but there are U.S. specific things I’d never heard of as being problematic or would have even considered researching, for example, there are some food related stereotypes that I would never have realised were a problem if I weren’t living here and heard people’s disbelief regarding certain commercials/comments etc. These differences provide a layer of context to marginalized people’s life experiences that I just don’t have.
Any tips on being a good ally when you are not super familiar with the history of oppression in the country you live and are not sure where the gaps in your knowledge are?
—New Around Here
I can empathize with this question a lot! While I was born and raised in the U.S., I grew up both white and fairly isolated from mainstream U.S. culture. Correcting my ignorance about U.S. racism has taken a lot of work, starting with recognizing that I was ignorant in the first place. You have a big advantage here: you are already aware of the gaps in your knowledge and don’t have the illusion that you already understand U.S. racism. Many people raised in the U.S. never get as far as where you are right now!
To be a better ally, there’s no way around filling in the gaps in your knowledge. This post will help you find satisfying, sustainable, and intuitive ways to learn more about U.S. racism. But first we’ll talk about what you can do even when you don’t know a lot about a system of oppression.
What you can do independent of knowledge
Even if you are unfamiliar with the details of a system of oppression, here are some things you can do that help fight that system of oppression:
Believe people who say they are experiencing it
Offer them verbal and emotional support
Offer them specific, practical, material support
Donate to or volunteer with organizations fighting it, as recommended by experts
Thank and reward people who help you learn about it
You don’t already need to know what the local racist stereotypes about food are to support someone when they complain about those racist stereotypes. Simply giving the benefit of the doubt to people experiencing oppression and making a good faith effort to be supportive of them when they talk about oppression is more than most people with relevant privilege do.
Address any emotional barriers to learning
Now we will talk about how to fill in the gaps in your knowledge, starting with another personal story. When I worked as a software engineer, I rarely had all the skills or knowledge I needed to do my job. Learning new tools or techniques on my own was something I had to do almost daily. But when it came to learning about oppression, I found that my fear and anxiety about being a “good person” was short-circuiting my brain and making me forget how to learn things. For example, when I did encounter new information about racism, I would be so worried about whether I had acted in a racist manner that I wouldn’t focus on remembering the actual information, or exploring it further.
A big breakthrough for me in my journey to act as an ally was to learn ally skills the same way I learned new skills in my software engineer career. For example, if I needed to learn a new programming language, I would find a book about it, follow a tutorial, read other people’s programs, and find a website where I could ask questions about it. It turned out I could do similar things to learn about racism. Once I was able to step back, take the focus off myself, and put my fear of being a “bad person” in perspective, I was able to think calmly and use my existing learning techniques to learn about oppression.
Other emotional barriers to learning are common, such as fear of learning that you harmed people in the past, or fear of not being able to maintain an important relationship with someone in your life who supports this form of oppression. Whatever it is, naming it and spending some time thinking about it can help reduce the fear and allow your natural problem-solving abilities to get to work.
Choose learning techniques that work for you
Now let’s talk about specific learning techniques. Here are some of the ways people learn about a system of oppression:
Read a textbook about it
Subscribe to a blog about it
Search for people on Twitter who are experts and follow them
Read books about it (especially by the Twitter experts)
Find other people learning it and talk with them (online or in person)
Listen to and believe people’s personal stories about it
Go to a conference about it
Read research papers about it
Read news articles about it
Subscribe to newsletters by experts
Read fiction about it
Listen to podcasts about it
Attempt to explain it to other people
Watch documentaries about it
Watch (carefully vetted) YouTube videos about it
Watch TV series in which it is a major theme
Attend lectures by experts in it
Take a class, workshop, or training about it
Go to museums, monuments, or parks about it
Volunteer for an organization related to it
Take notes while listening to someone talk about it
Listen to music about it
Attend plays about it
Read comic books about it
Each person learns differently; you probably nodded your head at some of these techniques and made a face at others. I suggest reviewing what you do to learn about things that you’re excited about learning, and using those same techniques to learn about systems of oppression. If you hate reading books, don’t read books. If you love watching videos, watch videos.
Twitter as a learning tool
My personal experience is that my most practical, visceral, memorable knowledge of oppression comes from following people who experience that oppression on Twitter. My guess as to why this is such an effective learning strategy is:
Stories about people are easier to remember than generalized facts
Short, bite-sized pieces of information are easier to learn
Frequent repetition of similar information reinforces memory
We are more motivated by stories about individuals than large groups of people
Twitter alone is not sufficient to get a full understanding of a system of oppression, but it also has the delightful feature of teaching you about other resources to learn from: books, movies, news articles, podcasts, music, etc. It’s ironic that Twitter leadership has made operational decisions that enable oppression at scale when Twitter is also one of the most effective anti-oppression teaching tools we’ve ever had.
Specific advice for learning about racism in the U.S.
Coming down to practical advice you can use right now, here are a few recommendations on where to start learning about racism in the U.S.. This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list covering all forms of racism in the U.S., but a selection of topics in several different learning formats. Racism and religious hatred are often linked, so I included some resources on religious hate. Try a few of these resources, find something you enjoy, and look for similar things.
Find and visit museums, monuments, and memorials near you
When you see a good tweet about race, follow the author
In general, I recommend learning from resources created by people experiencing that oppression, rather than people outside the group. On average, these resources will be more accurate and useful, and you will also be giving credit and support to marginalized people. (While Wikipedia can in theory be edited by anyone, in practice many pages about topics related to systems of oppression are limited in who can edit them, and sometimes stewarded by people experiencing that oppression.)
Ally skill: Approach learning ally skills like other skills
Learning ally skills can often feel overwhelming and impossibly difficult. Feelings like guilt, fear, and shame can turn off our brain’s ability to learn and take practical action. Naming your feelings usually reduces their intensity and allows your problem-solving abilities to come back online. A good habit to develop is to recognize when you are struggling to learn ally skills and ask yourself, “If I approach learning this ally skill the same way that I’ve successfully learned other things, how would I do it?”
Men in senior roles, like me, have a responsibility to mentor junior women, to ensure women have a fair chance to succeed. But men have recently gotten frightened by #MeToo and are pulling back from this responsibility. I’ve had direct conversations with men about this, and I’m convinced I have to treat their fear as a serious issue. How do we reassure men that it’s safe to mentor junior women?
—Bothered by Backlash
This is a good question! A fairly common response to asking for fair and just treatment for women in the workplace is for some men to say, “Hey, I’m not used to having to worry about whether I’m harming women, and it’s too much to ask me to start now.” Your question is, how do I get these men to change their minds? The short version is, “You usually can’t,” and the long version is the rest of this post.
The reason women and non-binary people are more likely to be sexually harassed and assaulted is because systemic sexism means they usually have less power. Other groups more likely to be victims because of systemic oppression include queer people, children and younger people, disabled people, people of color, poor people, imprisoned people, and many other marginalized groups. I’ll talk about the specific situation in this question (men refusing to mentor women) in the rest of this post, but much of what I say applies in other situations as well.
Sexual harassers still have most of the power
Before talking about male fear, let’s center the fact that most women have much higher, more realistic fear about working with men, and have no choice about working closely with men if they want to advance in their careers. The framing of “I’m afraid to work with women because of #MeToo” suggests that the victims of sexual harassment now possess the power once held by the perpetrators of sexual harassment. This is not even remotely true!
Instead, #MeToo represents a moderate increase in the number of serial sexual harassers who face relatively mild consequences for their behavior, rather than a transfer of the power they had to likely victims. #MeToo is a slight reduction in how many times a powerful executive can sexually assault their colleagues before losing their current job, or a slight decrease in their multi-million dollar exit package. Many people accused of sexual harassment return to well-compensated positions of power shortly thereafter. Despite popular belief, criminal charges and prison time are still vanishingly rare for this population, even for people who have been accused of dozens of rapes.
Some sexual predators are still too powerful to be held accountable in even the most minimal way; for example, the current president of the United States is a self-confessed serial sexual predator and is unlikely to face any consequences for this during his lifetime. If #MeToo transferred the power over other people’s careers and lives from assaulters to potential victims, we would see enormous turnover in the halls of power. Instead, #MeToo means a slight increase in the likelihood that serial predators will face some consequences for their own actions. In other words, as long as the men talking to you are not serial sexual harassers, they have little to fear from the rise of #MeToo.
Why do men say they are afraid to mentor women?
Now that we’ve set the context, let’s talk about why men say they are afraid to mentor women. Here are the major reasons I’ve encountered:
They are afraid of being perceived as harassing a woman when they were not.
They are afraid of a woman deliberately lying about their behavior.
They don’t want to mentor women and now they have an excuse.
They know they harass women and are afraid of suffering consequences.
Let’s talk about what each of these reasons means, and what your options are in each case.
Fear of being wrongly perceived as harassing
The fear of being misinterpreted as harassing a woman is the most realistic reason on this list. It’s reasonably common to mishear or misinterpret someone’s words as a sexual advance or comment when none was intended, especially when your women coworkers have likely developed hypervigilance from being the target of daily pervasive sexual harassment.
But here’s the key: misunderstandings like this are rare and usually easy to fix. In all the real-world examples I am aware of where a man was misinterpreted as sexually harassing a woman, he continued to grow and advance in his career, unharmed by having some uncomfortable conversations. Some men even gain in compassion and understanding for women when they realize why their actions were misunderstood. Given the lack of supporting evidence for this fear, to me it looks more like a form of anxiety (in the everyday nonclinical sense of the word).
The question then becomes: is fear of working with women causing this person any distress or blocking them from achieving any goals? For example, is it preventing them from living up to their values of fairness and equality, or getting in the way of their career goals? If the answer is yes, then they have motivation to work on overcoming that anxiety.
In that case, you may be able to support them by sharing information, helping them develop empathy for victims of sexual harassment, and serving as a role model. You could say, “Yeah, I understand how scary it is, to feel that your career could be derailed at any moment by a coworker accusing you of harassment. Can you imagine what it’s like to be a woman in this industry, and to have a much higher chance of having your career derailed because you were actually harassed or assaulted? I know so many women this has happened to and zero men whose career was harmed by a misunderstanding. That’s why I go ahead and mentor women anyway, since it’s really unlikely anything bad will happen to me.”
If they don’t have any motivation to overcome their fear of working with women, then it is unlikely that you can change their mind. Unfortunately, in many workplaces, men can avoid working closely with women and continue to advance in their careers without any problem, whereas women usually don’t have a choice about working closely with men. IBM tries to correct this inequity by not only making mentoring an important part of performance reviews, but also requiring that employees mentor people who are different genders and from different cultures than themselves. Consider adopting a policy like IBM’s and you may find some of these men more ready to work on overcoming their fear.
Fear of a woman deliberately lying about harassment
It’s true, in rare cases people will lie about being sexually harassed or assaulted—but they do it for a specific and limited set of reasons. The motivations of people who make false accusations about sexual assault almost always derive from one or more of:
Desire for medical care, money, or other personal gain
Specific mental illnesses or personality disorders whose symptoms include telling fabricated stories
Escaping punishment (especially from parents or family members)
Most of these motivations don’t apply when senior men are mentoring junior women in a work context. Despite popular belief, sexual harassment lawsuits are difficult to win. Someone who frequently makes up elaborate fabrications is unlikely to be believed (or hired). Revenge is unlikely to work unless the accuser has more power than the accused. Escaping punishment is about the victim displacing responsibility for sexual contact onto a less powerful person. For example, Ida B. Wells pointed out that in the post-Civil War South, rape accusations were ignored or disbelieved except when a black man was accused of raping a white woman.
Worrying about women lying about harassment is a realistic concern when the woman in question is more powerful than the man and has one of these four motivations. Sometimes a junior woman is more powerful than a senior man: for example, she may be related to the CEO, or extremely rich, or a member of the dominant race when he is not. When men have a specific, credible reason to fear mentoring a particular woman, I support them in not mentoring that woman.
Otherwise, when a powerful man shares his worries about less powerful women deliberately lying about workplace harassment, he is reinforcing a key element of rape culture: the myth that women routinely lie about sexual harassment and assault. You can try giving him the information that disproves his belief, but if he does not change his mind, you should be focusing on protecting the people around him.
Excuse to not mentor women
In this case, someone does not want to mentor women for whatever grab bag of sexist reasons they choose, but feels that there is some shame attached to expressing that directly. Now they have an excuse: it’s not that they hate women, it’s that they are afraid of the power society is giving women to, occasionally, be believed about their experiences.
The best path to changing the mind of someone like this is through shame, used properly: he currently feels ashamed about the idea that other people might see him as sexist, and it’s possible that his desire to avoid shame can be the motivation for him to change. In this case, your job is to show him that hiding his sexist opinions behind another sexist opinion is still shameful. You should also be thinking about how to protect the people around him.
They harass women and are afraid of suffering consequences
If you find out that the reason a senior man does not want to mentor women is that he regularly harasses women, then you should not bother with changing his mind and go straight to figuring out how to protect people around him. In any case, your goal should not be encouraging him to work more closely with women.
A useful ally skill to develop is to dig deeper into people’s explanations for why they are reinforcing oppression. When it comes to unconscious bias, people will come up with plausible explanations for gender bias in their hiring preferences. One study author writes, “If a male applicant for the job of police chief has a formal education, a formal education is rated as important for the job. But if he lacks a formal education, its importance is downplayed. No such favoritism is exhibited toward female applicants for police chief.” In this study, each participant had a “unbiased” explanation for why they selected the male candidate, and many of them believed their own rationalizations, but the end result was that they never chose the woman candidate.
It’s important not to accept explanations for biased behavior at face value because they put the burden of proving bias exists back on the people who are the targets of bias. By exercising critical thinking about explanations for the appearance of bias, you are taking the burden off of marginalized people of discovering and naming the role of bias in the workplace.
I’m a cis white man and for years I’ve been attending a tech conference, also organized by cis white men. They’ve worked hard to create an event that’s welcoming and inclusive to members of marginalized groups. In the past, they’ve asked people who were traditionally underrepresented in tech to speak to the attendees asking them to be aware of their privilege. As an attendee and friend of some of the past speakers, I could see how hard and unrewarding this work was.
This year, they asked me to give the speech. I felt deeply conflicted. Unlike past speakers, I don’t have any credentials for this work. I would be taking up a great deal of space with this. Frankly, I was scared.
I spoke with an experienced activist friend and got tremendous help with my talk. When I gave it, it seemed to be appreciated. In fact, it was appreciated a lot: many people wrote and spoke publicly to compliment me. And then someone pointed out what should have been obvious to me. I was getting far more credit than the marginalized people who preceded me doing the same job.
Was I wrong to accept this speaking role? Should I have approached it differently? How can I combat the unfairness that I get credit, while the marginalized people who do better work are ignored or taken for granted?
—Not That Special
Thank you for writing in about one of the central paradoxes of anti-oppression work! My usual advice is that if an activity is rewarded, you should make sure marginalized people have the opportunity to do that activity if they want to, and if an activity is taken for granted or viewed with hostility, privileged people should do it. But what happens when the reward follows around the privileged people? What if when you shift the exact same activity to marginalized people, they get punished?
The unpleasant truth is that some necessary, important anti-oppression work will be punished when it comes from more marginalized people, and praised when it comes from more privileged people. Under these circumstances, I would check in with the marginalized people who have been doing the job in the past to see what they would prefer. My personal experience is that I would much rather have someone with more privilege do the work and get the praise than either of the alternatives (do the work myself and get punished, or have no one do the work).
If you do decide to do the work, what can you do to make things more fair? Quite a lot, actually. Mostly, you need to repeatedly and firmly redirect praise and support where it belongs, towards marginalized people who made your work possible. Here’s how to do that:
Identify in advance when you are likely to receive unfair praise for anti-oppression work. This can be hard to predict because we usually expect to get the same reaction that we see other people get for the same work, which isn’t true in this situation. Instead, spend some time consciously thinking about the likely reaction to your work. (It’s okay to prepare for unfair praise and then not receive it—consider it practice for when it happens unexpectedly.) You are more likely to get unfair praise for anti-oppression work if most of the following are true:
You have relevant power and/or privilege
You are seen as trustworthy and likable when acting as a leader
You are advocating for a marginalized group you aren’t part of
Your audience views itself as not biased against that marginalized group
You aren’t seriously threatening the dominant group’s privileges
If you add in personal acknowledgement of privilege, expression of humility, or sharing of vulnerability, the odds of unfair praise increase.
Proactively give credit to marginalized people. When you are planning your speech or blog post or presentation, begin and end with giving credit to and thanking the marginalized people who educated you, prepared the way, or did similar work in the past. For example, if you mention the term “intersectionality,” you can add, “which was coined and popularized by the legal scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw.” If you’re not sure who to credit, ask other marginalized people who they would credit. If there is any chance that naming them could cause harm, check with each person individually to see if you can credit them by name or if they would prefer to be anonymous.
Act like what you are doing is normal for people with your privilege. When people praise you for ally work, respond with “Honestly, I believe [everyone with relevant privilege] should do this, and it feels uncomfortable when people act otherwise.” This encourages other folks with similar privilege to do similar things, instead of reinforcing the idea that only exceptional people can act as allies.
Tell people to praise marginalized people instead of praising you. List who they should be praising, by name if possible (again, ask for consent before naming individuals if there is a chance they could be harmed by the attention). You may have to repeat your request multiple times before people will listen. Some examples:
“Thanks, [person X] has been working on this for far longer, and I just do what they recommend. They are a real leader in this area.”
“Thanks, but the people who did the hard work are [person X] and [person Y] and they would love to get an email from you thanking them for that. Can I send you their contact info?”
“I appreciate the thought, but [Organization X] did all the hard work and I am just riding on their coattails. I follow them on Twitter and find it super useful.”
Redirect praise into material support for marginalized people. Ask people to pay money to marginalized people for their services, to hire and promote them, to donate to their organizations, volunteer for their projects, or give whatever other form of material support would be useful to them. For example, “I appreciate the kind words, but I couldn’t have done it without [Organization X]. If you liked what I did, would you consider donating to them today? I took the liberty of printing out their donation page URL so I could hand it out.” If you’re not sure what kind of support would be helpful, ask the people or organizations concerned.
Take on more difficult ally work. Earlier we noted that you’re more likely to get unfair praise for work that does not significantly threaten the privileges of the dominant group. One way to prevent unfair praise is to advocate for changes that do significantly threaten the privileges of the dominant group. For example, in the U.S., people advocating for the federal government to make monetary reparations to the descendants of enslaved people get much less praise than people organizing talks for Black History Month.
If it seems like a lot of work to avoid unfair praise, that’s because it is! If you have a lot of privilege, you are receiving unfair praise and credit all of the time. This is happening everywhere in your life: at work, in your family, with your friends, in your hobbies. “You’re such a good father!” after you take care of your kids alone for one afternoon, “You’re so coordinated!” when you are just the tallest person on the basketball court, “You’re so professional!” when you are a moderately well-groomed white person.
Unfair praise becomes visible to you when you can directly compare the reaction to the work you do with the reaction when a marginalized person does similar (or more difficult) work. It becomes visible to you when you are consciously trying to act as an ally and decenter yourself and be aware of how little you know, and suddenly everyone around you wants to put you up on a pedestal and bury you in bouquets and proclaim you King of the Allies. Once you notice it, it feels weird, because it is!
As long as the systems of oppression that benefit you are in place, you will continue to receive unfair praise and credit compared to marginalized people. Your job is to become aware of this and redirect that praise and credit to the people who deserve it. You can also increase the difficulty of the anti-oppression work you are doing until you receive a combination of praise and criticism that feels sustainable to you.
Let me end by offering one more round of appreciation: thank you for doing this, and thank you to all the people who made your work possible. Together, you’re making the world a better place.
In next week’s column: What do I tell men who are afraid to mentor women?
Welcome to Dear Ally Skills Teacher! For my first few columns, I will be answering questions I frequently get in Ally Skills Workshops, summarized by me in letter form. Future columns will be answers to questions sent in by readers, which you can send by filling out this form.
Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),
I am a man of European descent in a line manager position at my Berlin-based company, which has about 100 people. Now that I have access to the compensation data for my coworkers, I’m noticing a LOT of inequality. Some of my coworkers are making about 60% as much other people who are doing the same work, and there’s a clear pattern of women and non-binary people making less than men and people of European descent making more than people who aren’t. I can directly advocate for increases for the people who report to me, but is there a way I can change the overall compensation system at my company to be more fair?
—Frustrated by the System
I’m thrilled that you both want to help the people who directly report to you and also fix the overall system at your company. You are more likely to be able to help the people who report directly to you, but it’s worth thinking about how you can help other people at your company. This post will focus mainly on making systemic changes across your company.
First, a disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and this column is not legal advice. Depending on the location, laws about compensation vary wildly. It’s up to you to be aware of the laws in your jurisdiction and consult legal advice when necessary.
Make fair initial compensation offers
The first thing to recognize is that future compensation is highly dependent on current compensation. In other words, compensating someone fairly when they are hired is an effective way to reduce compensation inequality.
What is your company’s system for deciding on initial compensation offers? At many companies, job offers leave a lot of room for personal decisions by the hiring manager, which opens up opportunities for bias to operate. If you have influence in this area, you can argue for the standard corporate-friendly interventions:
Create standardized job types and associated salary ranges
For more details on how and why to implement many of the standard corporate-friendly changes, see the Bias Interrupters website.
Riskier ways to make fair initial compensation offers
If you are willing to take on more personal risk to your own career and compensation, you have a few more options for improving initial compensation offers. The risk for most of these options comes from the fact that many companies try hard to only allow management to see information about worker compensation. This helps companies depress workers’ wages because in a negotiation, the party with more information usually gets a better deal. Here are some risky actions you might consider to improve the fairness of initial compensation offers:
Refuse to make below-market offers to candidates even if you think they will accept them
Help organize unions to negotiate for better compensation and working conditions
You should consider seeking legal advice from a lawyer who is not representing your company before taking these actions. I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. Depending on the legal jurisdiction you are in, corporations may have succeeded in passing anti-worker laws which make these actions illegal. Even if your lawyer assures you that taking these actions is legal—and even if retaliating against employees for taking them is illegal—you may still be taken to court and/or retaliated against. One of the reasons I don’t talk about employment law much is that companies routinely violate employment law and get away with it. Short version: Don’t rely on the law to protect your job.
Erica Baker’s experience sharing compensation information is a good example of how this kind of action can play out, and how privilege can affect it. She and several coworkers created a spreadsheet for Google employees to share their compensation with each other. While it is technically illegal to retaliate against employees for sharing compensation information in the U.S., she was denied peer bonuses and criticized by her management chain for her role in creating the spreadsheet. She then learned that a white male coworker who helped create the spreadsheet was receiving his peer bonuses while Baker, a Black woman, was not.
The next section will include safer ways to advocate for compensation transparency in a systemic manner. Keep in mind that these safer systemic changes are made possible by individual acts of resistance like that of Baker and her coworkers.
Improve performance reviews
Once a worker is hired, the next opportunity to improve their compensation is during performance reviews. The first question is, does your company have a standard system for reviewing worker compensation at fixed, predictable intervals? If not, privileged people are more likely to ask for and get raises and promotions. Most of the interventions for improving initial compensation (standardized job types and ranges, career ladders, anti-bias training, anti-bias statements, etc.) will also apply here.
A more radical intervention is to advocate for compensation transparency—sharing the compensation for everyone in your company. The business world is full of arguments against compensation transparency that pretend that the issue is how workers will react—it will create jealousy and discontent among workers, workers don’t want others to know how much they make, workers won’t work as hard, etc.—but whenever it is actually implemented, it usually works just fine.
For example, the salaries of everyone who works for the U.S. government are public knowledge (although the names of some employees are withheld for national security reasons). Buffer is a tech company that publishes both the salaries and equity distribution of all its employees. Compensation transparency doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing; for example, Glitch (formerly Fog Creek Software) is a tech company that surveyed its employees about what level of compensation transparency they wanted. Based on the results, they decided to share salary ranges of all its workers in an internal spreadsheet, as well as formally support employees voluntarily sharing their exact compensation. SumAll is a data analytics company that shares exact employee salaries internally but doesn’t make them available to the general public.
For the specific case of a 100 person Berlin-based company like yours, Germany passed a law in 2018 requiring companies with more than 200 employees to allow employees to find out the median pay of their peers, split up by gender. You could make the argument that you’re just implementing pay transparency a little ahead of schedule.
Those are the standard methods for fairly compensating workers, but often a company has a built-up level of unfairness that is hard to fix in the normal review cycle. In that case, you can advocate for a compensation audit: an across-the-board review that compares the jobs people are doing to their compensation, and quantifies any patterns in differences based on race, gender, age, etc. Compensation is then adjusted for a large number of people at once. Salesforce now does yearly compensation audits, spending several million a year to raise salaries. If you’re planning to increase compensation transparency, it would be wise to do a compensation audit first.
None of these approaches will entirely fix compensation inequity: for example, it’s fairly common for marginalized people to be doing higher-level work than their official position describes. In that case, they may be paid the same as more privileged people holding the same position, but still be undercompensated for the work they perform (as Buffer discovered). Fixing this level of misperception requires that the people assigning these positions learn to compensate for their bias, and that takes more than one or two anti-oppression trainings. And systemic oppression at a societal level will limit the opportunities of marginalized people long before they apply for a job at your company. What you can do is improve fairness and equity for people once they apply for a job working at your company.
How to advocate for change
You probably shouldn’t show up at your next meeting with all of these changes in one big proposal. Instead, start sharing the articles linked to in this post with other influential people at your company, chat with your coworkers about these ideas at lunch, and invite experts to speak about these topics at your company (and pay them). People often believe that no other organizations have taken these steps and survived, so sharing real-world examples of organizations that have improved compensation fairness is helpful.
Argue for these changes based on your values. You value fairness, so you want to know your coworkers are fairly compensated; you value justice, so you want a workplace culture that actively fights oppression; you value transparency, so you want your workplace to be more open about compensation practices. Don’t argue for or speak on behalf of marginalized folks directly; avoid statements like “We need to do this because women at our company are unhappy,” which easily lends itself to a variety of stereotypes of marginalized people being “ungrateful” or “lazy” or “a hard worker but not a leader.” Instead, say things like, “I believe in fair compensation regardless of gender, and I want my company to live up to that standard.” Speak for yourself, gather support, act strategically, be patient and persistent, and you will have the best chance of progress.
Have you been in a similar situation? Share what worked (or didn’t work) for you in the comments!
Next column: It seems like I get more praise for doing the same anti-oppression work as more marginalized people. What’s up with that?