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Solving Sexism in the Workplace After #MeToo


We've had the tool box for dismantling oppression for years. 


Whether its getting people to use condoms, or getting people to stop making harassing jokes in the workplace, it all comes down to one thing: behavior change. 

We can’t tell people what to think and what to feel. We can’t make sexist jerks stop being sexist. Not only do we not have the time, but it’s also, in most cases, a Sisyphean task. However, we can change behavior regardless of what people believe.

Thats the whole thing about the behavioral sciences, the same sciences used in commercial marketing, we can get people to do things that are in their best interest without having to mount the impossible task of getting their full buy in. It’s fine to be ambivalent about something, as long as you do what’s right. It doesn’t matter if you feel you’re not a sexist, what matters is that you behave in ways that aren’t sexist. Lots of people who don’t think they’re sexist do insanely sexist things without a second thought. 

I started out working in non-profit twenty plus years ago where I learned a great deal about the various social determinants that inform public health problems. Poverty influences rates of HIV, mental health has a direct correlation to drug addiction, sexism results in lack of understanding of the reproductive system, which informs unintended pregnancy, etc.

To understand negative outcomes, we must first understand the things that produce them. Part of addressing public health issues is addressing systemic social issues that inform them. Without this key knowledge, it’s difficult to make real change. Something that many people in the field of social change still struggle to learn is that it’s one thing to tell someone what they should do, it’s quite another to show them why and let them make healthier decisions for themselves.

I learned about oppression theory when I started doing public health work in the mid-90s, a time when the discussion of sexism and racism was embraced without eye rolls, as opposed to now when people like to think, or at least say, that these inequalities no longer exist. As such, I don’t like using the word “oppression” because it feels dated, and like people dismiss the discussion like they’re hearing a liberal college kid’s senior thesis.

But there are very few terms that describe what the term oppression means. Subjugation, brutality, and persecution don’t exactly inspire eagerness to examine their relationship to those terms. But when people understand that there is a connection between how people are treated all their lives and the way life turns out for them, they become empathetic. That is the simple truth. People — most people — are good, and want to do good. We all feel on some level that we want a better world, and we all feel we have been treated unfairly in one way or another. And we’re right — we all have some relationship to oppression whether it’s based in class, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. Hell, even Irish, heterosexual men have internalized some degree of the stigma that continues to characterize their culture. It’s not about weighing which oppression is worse, but rather making people better able to relate to others. When we work with people in compassionate ways to tap into that sensibility, we are more likely to make change.

I was once doing a workshop for adolescents on LGBTQ inclusion and the issues they face. One of the young women that worked for the organization and helped oversee the program was a self-described “queer” woman and had some strong opinions on how the workshop should be done. “I don’t want to give anyone a cookie,” she said.

I didn’t understand.

She went on to explain to me that she didn’t want any of the (seemingly) heterosexual teens to feel rewarded for coming to any sort of understanding about the LGBTQ community she felt was trifling. She said that they don’t deserve it, and that a little bit of time in a workshop isn’t enough to warrant their feeling self-assured.

I truly couldn’t have imagined something I disagreed with more.

People have to feel rewarded for their accomplishments, no matter how small. This is where behavioral science comes into our work. According to the Social Learning Theory, when people get reinforcement for their efforts and their successes, they are more likely to repeat the behaviors that got them that reinforcement. Withholding reward because you feel someone hasn’t done enough to earn it isn’t helpful. As a gay man I understand this impulse. I have endured years of ignominy at the hand of “straight” people, but it’s not my job to get revenge, it’s to make change.

It’s not about us; it’s about them.

People have to feel they are making progress or else they will abandon all efforts to try. When their self-confidence is bolstered through such a process, they can imagine what additional sorts of adjustments they can make that contribute to a better world, country, or workplace. Throwing a bunch of SAT words at them and asking them to feel like an asshole for the rest of their lives doesn’t tend to do that.

In the face of so much inequality people must make themselves believe that there’s something about them that necessitates their privilege. I have a friend who grew up unimaginably rich. He remembers as a child driving down a city street and seeing homeless people. For years he just believed that poor people were just too cheap to dip into their savings accounts! But he had to believe that. It’s too threatening to feel otherwise when there’s nothing you feel you can do about it.

People like to believe that the world, the country, or the workplace is a level playing field, and that the belief that we live in a color and gender blind meritocracy is valid. This fantasy exists because of guilt. People don’t want to believe that their advancements and privileges are the results of an unfair system, and would rather believe what they are told — that they have worked hard for and earned what they have. It’s not that these people haven’t worked hard, but it is the opportunity to work hard that they do not realize they have been afforded disproportionality.

Opportunity is everything in this world, and some are given more opportunities than others because of cultural and historical biases. Men are given more opportunities than women. White people are given more opportunities than black people. Those things are still true. But this is a difficult thing to get someone to understand, let alone take responsibility for, without conveying some compassion for them. And the terms we use have to reflect this.  

It makes it challenging to work with people to understand the things that inform things like sexual harassment without the right ways to describe these underpinnings. It also just feels glib to say that the issue we are hearing so much about lately with the #MeToo movement is the result of sexism, and that doesn’t offer anyone any practical or actionable ways to do anything about sexual harassment other than to defend against the sense that one is sexist. “Sexism” is akin to the term “oppression” in that it feels theoretical and intellectual.

So we use a different approach.

Instead of saying “oppression” we say “mistreatment.” Instead of saying “sexism” we say, “The way women are treated.” I won’t argue that it isn’t odd that one can understand that women are treated poorly while suggesting sexism is over, but that’s where we are. Women certainly understand their own struggle, and can therefore relate to the struggles of others, be they black people, or gays, or anyone else who struggles. So that’s what matters.

“Feminism” was appropriated by certain folks and made it pejorative. Despite Beyoncé’s declaration that she is one, the term still holds a lot of stigma. Using it only serves to alienate people who don’t understand the history or significance of the term, and our job isn’t to teach people etymology, it’s to help them understand what’s going on in their world, their country, and their workplaces.

I was at a conference recently where I saw trans men correcting trans women aggressively and meanly. “I’ve corrected you twice now!” There was an entire session about how the term “and others” used after the “LGBTQ” designation is offensive and doesn’t do enough to honor other sexual minorities. I think this discourse is both fascinating and worthwhile, but when it comes to helping people make change, we have to meet them where they are. We have to do that for people who are using drugs or not wearing condoms, and we also have to do it for people who don’t know that their behavior is actually sexual harassment.



inFLUX is a change management consultancy that helps organizations implement strategies for preventing sexual harassment. We work with companies in flux, and provide an influx of cooperation, understanding, and knowledge needed for change.



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Kenny Neal Shults