The other week I went to a meeting in another organisation with a female colleague. We had arranged to chat with two other men, and over the course of the meeting, I was becoming more and more aware that the largest flow of the conversation seemed to be directed at me, even to the point all the eye contact seemed to be happening between the three men. I’d like to think that they were being hypnotized by the glacial depths of my steely stare, but unfortunately I think it’s more likely we were perpetuating the male privilege of having conversations primarily amongst ourselves while the presence and involvement of the woman ended up being distinctly secondary.
This isn’t just a gender thing… privilege can manifest itself in lots of ways, including class, race, age, ability and so on. When I was discussing it with another colleague she told me that she had dealt with similar situations in the context of age and race, where she as an older White woman in a (often) multiracial situation with younger people of colour, would be getting the questions and eye contact from another White person in the meeting.
Despite being aware of it happening in the meeting itself, I had a bit of an internal tizzy as to what to do and did nothing, so came out the meeting feeling icky for having taken part in a situation of manifesting male privilege without having done anything about. So I brainstormed some ideas with colleagues about what people can do in these situations to try and disrupt it. I found it super-useful, and thought that other people might too.
This is an incomplete list that doesn’t pretend to have a magic wand to dispel the centuries of socialization in sexist, racist etc values that we have developed in society. It’s just a little jumping off point for trying to acknowledge and act on these patterns of behaviour rather than perpetuate them.
And no matter how you may try to subtly address this, maybe the only option is to call it out. Unfortunately, you need to be prepared for the possibility of dealing with some very defensive, bruised egos in doing so – and trying to deal with that is a whole other subject.
Things you can do prior to the meeting
Discuss beforehand to have a strategy.
- Think about seating beforehand – are any of the seats more ‘dominant’ in terms of proximity to the hosts, height etc?
- Try to fully share knowledge of individuals prior to the meeting if one person is new to the relationship, so that everyone going to the meeting is well-informed about the history of relationships. This is particularly important in spreading the contact with an individual away from just one person in the organization they already know, to several people.
- You can think about sending only women to the meeting if you suspect that the hosts might be on the patriarchal side.
Thing you can do during the meeting
- Make sure everyone is fully introduced with their special expertise made explicit.
- Say “XXX knows more about this than me,” and turn to the other person. That can be risky if the person being ignored doesn’t know more, or isn’t that confident about the subject.
- Say “XXX is the key person making decisions on this” – communicating the person’s power over future plans, rather than their expertise. That way, even if XXX isn’t an expert, the people you’re meeting realise they need to persuade/connect with XXX.
- Leave the room – ideally combined with one of the above. Ideally to do a task like washing up/sorting food. But if there isn’t an option for that, you can go to the toilet and check twitter. (Try to remember not to tweet anything!) Try to leave long enough for the conversation to build a different dynamic.
- Lower your eyes for a long while, making notes or whatever. They have no choice but to look at the other person.
- Make a big gap and signal so that the other person answers first and disrupts the assumed hierarchy. Do that often til they get the point.
If you are hosting the meeting, you could ensure that the ‘perceived lead male’ (or whatever in the particular context) does something that doesn’t confirm gender expectations, like making tea for everyone, while a woman is leading the discussion.
I’d love to hear any other good suggestions if people want to leave them as comments.