The other day I had an interesting talk with a man who said he wants to support women and gender equality, but didn't know how to be a feminist.
Extract of "Man Prayer" for One Billion Rising (see the video below)
First of all, what does it mean to be a feminist? For me, it means to help women and men empower themselves outside the mainstream stereotypes that cage them into tight roles, and reach a balance that will make the world a much better place to live in.
There is often a misconception about feminists being man-haters or bra-burners, but the truth is that the shunning of the word "feminist" is part of the huge cultural freeze aimed at maintaining the status quo, that is, aimed at keeping the power imbalances as they are. And if you look at the data, women who make up 50% of the population hardly ever reach 10-13% of leadership roles in parliaments, institutions and companies, which means that most decisions made for everyone are predominantly made by men.
The stigma over the word "feminist" is the reason for which, unfortunately, many women (and even moreso men) still find it difficult to use this precious word and honour past achievements that make it possible for many of us (though not yet in many parts of the world) to choose a partner (and leave them), dress as we like, have a right to education and work, and much much more. Luckily, many have noticed that more empowered women make a more empowered society that also empowers men in many new ways, including flexibility in the workplace. So why is gender equality so important? One reason is that diverse voices at the table make better decisions. And that is also true also for race and for all those who are scarsely present at the table. And oh do we need more voices!
Here is why Sheryl Sandberg, COO of facebook and author of "Lean In", proudly calls herself a feminist: "I embrace the word 'feminism' now because what feminism is, is a belief that the world should be equal, that men and women should have equal opportunity. If you understand that definition, it's incumbent upon all of us to be feminists -- men and women". Her book should be taught in schools, as it explains very clearly why many women, even the ones with higher education and more personal freedom than others, often hold themselves back, and explains how they can change this, and how we can all help change this together.
The truth is that in order for change to happen, we need men to participate, to stand by their mothers, sisters, by the women they love, to stand by all women. I respect the men who have jumped this fence and realised we can shape this necessary change together, the men who dare call themselves "feminist" because they truly value women at the same level of men and want to achieve equality for all. Those who are willing to take a step back in order for us all to take a step forward.
So, in response to that question, here are a few tips for our men, our fathers and brothers, our lovers, our friends, on how to be a feminist. In fact, this is also for all those women out there who are exploring their feminine/feminist side.
1. Use inclusive language. This works especially in languages where you have female and male declinations, such as latin languages, where often all that is related to women is aligned to a masculine declination of the word. However, even though the nature of the English language is more neutral, there is no such thing as "neutral" when we are referring to gender. So if you can avoid saying "you guys" to a group of women (some ideas: guys and gals, ladies and gentlemen, or simply you lovely people), and make an effort to address women's profession or any other word in their female form (actress vs actor, poetess vs poet), so that you are actively acknowledging and appreciating their gender. Equality doesn't mean that we are all the same, it means that we can acknowledge, value and include diversity. Remember, language shapes thought! Small everyday changes in language are big changes in thought. And they do come through when you talk to people.
2. Treat girls the same way you treat boys, starting from childhood. Ever wondered why toys are so stereotyped? Take a walk around toy shops and you will see lots of pink dolls for girls - reminding them of how happy they will be once they get married to Mr. Right, and fun lego and engineering games for boys. Guess what, we don’t have to follow this trend! We can encourage both girls and boys to experiment playfulness without stereotyping toys and games. This will allow both to follow their inclinations and discover their unique talents doing what they enjoy and being who they are, rather than who others (adults) expect them to be. Fathers and mothers don’t need to be extra-protective of girls, they will know how to handle themselves as much as the boys. Everyone needs to fall and get up, everyone should be able to access a wide variety of experiences in order to find their path.
3. Compliment women and girls for their skills and talents. Too often we hear people saying to women and girls how beautiful they are, following the general trend that a woman is to be appreciated especially for her looks. However, is this something you would do when addressing a man or boy? Ask yourself every time. Men are much more appreciated and encouraged for their abilities, for their leadership and for their ambitions. Well, we can appreciate women and girls too for their abilities, leadership and ambitions. Let’s look at the beauty within people, women and men, the beauty of their souls. When you compliment a woman or a man on that, it will be much more truthful and meaningful, and it will create a deeper connection with them.
4. Encourage women to step up. Support them and rejoice for their success. Encourage them to take initiative. To raise their hand. To ask for more. To feel deserving. To sit at the table where decisions are made. To share their point of view with confidence. To lead without shame or guilt. To be proud of their achievements. To explore STEM studies and professions, for a change. To see themselves outside female stereotypes. To follow their passions and their dreams. To learn to value their needs rather than to please others.
Once there was a saying that “behind every great man there is a great woman”, let’s take that anachronistic “behind” away, and let’s stand beside each other in equality. Relationships are so much more interesting that way. We need the female perspective on the world, because this is a world we share with women, and if their voice is not heard, something very valuable to everyone is missing.
5. Intervene assertively when you witness a sexist joke or remark. Often in groups there are forms of disrespect masked as jokes, where people laugh at women (as well as other groups) by portraying them in negative ways according to the current stereotypes, including foul language. If you do not speak up when this happens, especially in groups, you are an accomplice of a system that promotes unequal, disempowering and disrespectful relationships, where women are mocked and cannot feel safe. So if this happens, you can choose your own way to respond according to the situation, either with your sense of humour or by stating that this is not funny or not acceptable. It will be powerful to use your male voice to make this point. We need more people to speak up and less indifference. You can make a big change here.
6. Help other men to explore their feminine side, and appreciate it when expressed. We all have a feminine and masculine side, however men often learn in our culture that showing female traits is negative (because of the unfortunate stigma attached to them). This is a big loss for men, who could benefit so much - we all do - from expressing their emotions and learning to recognise and deal with them. Men don’t have to be caged in those stereotypes that want them to be always appearing strong, always taking the initiative, never emotional and so on. Women should not be trapped and the same applies to men. So the first way to do this is to lead by example. Step out of your gender stereotypes and be yourself, fearlessly. Then share this with other men. Organise men’s groups where you share your fears, your emotions and your questions. Help each other grow and be more authentic.
7. Quit the foul language, especially the curse words related to women. In fact, it is good to quit the foul language altogether. In most cultures, male-related insults are often meant and received in a playful way (though we can all do without that and start being nice to each other, can’t we), however female-related insults go on a much deeper level of disrespect and usually target women’s sexuality. For example, it should be unacceptable under all circumstances for both men and women to call women prostitutes, which is in itself a terrible situation many women are unfortunately really in. This is a term used in far too many situations which are unrelated to the actual global problem of prostitution (which by the way starts with clients and their demand), where women are constantly degraded to sexual or hyper-sexualised objects, with all the implications this has in how society views, portrays and treats women. Men, you can take responsibility and do your part to reduce this problem, by always addressing women (and everyone for that matter) in a respectful way.
8. Increase your power by sharing it. If you are in a leadership role, it will be useful to you and your organisation to have an equal balance of women and men, including in the decision making chambers, in order to have a more integrated perspective of things. It has been proven that more diverse companies are also more productive, and this is not a coincidence. Opening our minds, our perspectives, also means opening space for women to step up where they are not present, and where they are much needed. It is the chance to choose balance over imbalance, integration over domination, sharing over imposing, growing together over ruling alone, and seeing the bigger picture rather than just half of it. Share and share equally among women and men, and great things will happen.
9. Catch yourself in the act of stereotyping. Ask yourself, when you have a doubt, “is this the way I would act if it were a man?” If there is anything different, observe it and learn where your unconscious biases lie. This is very important. We all have unconscious biases, and so many are related to gender that we don't even realise. What happens is that we filter women and men with stereotyped lenses, like wearing different glasses according to gender. Many times these glasses make us judge women and men very differently before we even get a chance to know them or see their work. It is important to recognise this scheme when it happens, so we will be free to choose differently, choose for example to go deeper and get to know the person beyond the first impression. This is about self-development and being really honest with oneself. It is something both women and men can practice regarding gender (and not only gender), because we are all imbued with the same cultural biases. But we can work our way through this.
10. Express your love without owning your partner/s. Love is abundant and is there so much to be shared. Unfortunately, women are often regarded as objects of possession, and thus they end up considering themselves so too. They might feel like one day they will be owned by their husbands, or perhaps they feel like they are owned by their partners or parents. There is often a power imbalance, and those who have more power are those responsible for levelling the power towards equality, and empowering women to express their desires and needs, and to choose their own path. This is the way that leads to the reduction of violence, abuse, inequality. This is the way real love is expressed towards another human being. Think about your mother, sisters, female relatives and friends. Treat all women with the care and respect that you would want the women you love to receive. If you have had a bad experience, don’t let that change the respect you have for women and human beings. You can move out of a bad relationship peacefully and find other like-minded souls to connect to. We can all overcome challenges without becoming haters. Spread the love, not the war!
It all boils down to one thing after all: putting ourselves on the front line and leading by example. When many men will rise and support women in a positive way, empowering both women and themselves, there will be a big shift in this world!