5 terrible mistakes I made with women and how you can avoid them

Happy International Women’s Day (I know, I’m a few days late). I previously wrote about why men should care about the ongoing challenges women still face in society. Here are five concrete ways men can support women (Step 1: Finish reading this article, duh!) based on mistakes I have made.

Didn’t shut up when I needed to

During International Women’s Day back in 2010, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Cambodia. My friend and fellow volunteer Nary asked me to help her teach a self-defense workshop to girls in her village. She wanted to demonstrate some basic strategies and techniques.

“Those are great ideas Nary! But have you thought about teaching your girls how to swing nunchucks too? That would be awesome.” Nary didn’t appreciate my suggestions; “it wasn’t helpful” she said. She felt like I was putting her down by not supporting her ideas. I became frustrated and defensive in turn. “Of course I support you! I took a two hour bus ride to come help you!”

Lesson learned: Nary didn’t ask for my opinion; she had the workshop all figured out. She just needed me to stand there quietly while she demonstrated how to judo chop someone’s face and cut blood flow to their brain—sans nunchucks. Sometimes we just need to be quiet and listen.

Didn’t speak up when I should have

Last year I was in the downtown bus tunnel with my friend Amanda. There was a guy standing about ten feet away who kept making offensive comments and catcalls. Although Amanda was clearly uncomfortable, she didn’t stand up for herself and instead tried to ignore him. I didn’t like the thought of my friend being harassed, but I remained silent too.

Lesson learned: The only time you should remain silent is at the movies (unless said movie is Twilight). Otherwise, we need to speak up on injustice whenever we encounter it.

Don’t call ‘em guys…or girls! (omg, I’m so confused)

I once wrote an email to a group of women that I work with. I began the email with a predictable “Hi guys” when I caught my mistake and thought, “Duh! None of them are men.” I took a moment to reflect on the near miss and started the email over: “Hi girls.” Self high-five for demonstrating gender competency.

Soon after I received a message from a colleague that read “It is not appropriate to call them girls in your email.” What’s the big deal? Girls/women, potayto/patahto, right? RIGHT? Oh crap, please be right. Wrong! Un-self-high-five.

I asked my colleague how to better address women in the future (hint: use their names or “team” for groups). I also sent a swift and sincere apology to the women in the email, gave myself a double-high-five for learning from my mistake and demonstrating personal growth, and called it a day while I was ahead.

Lesson learned: Just because some men act like boys, doesn’t mean women and girls are the same thing. Even with the best of intentions, we are prone to mistakes. That’s ok! Just apologize, ask for feedback and be receptive to learning.

Mixed up support with tokenism

While I was an undergrad, there was a position that my friend, a woman, and I both wanted. We both would have been perfect for the job, but I encouraged her to apply over me because I thought she would bring valuable perspective as a woman. She appreciated the gesture, but also thought it was tokenizing–to my surprise. She believed she had the merits and skills for the position, not because she was a woman, but because she was awesome.

Lesson learned: My friend didn’t need me to “gift” her a position. The position wasn’t mine to give away. We both needed to earn it. Women aren’t asking for special favors; they are asking for equal opportunity.

Didn’t question the status quo

It’s important that men acknowledge how we benefited from a social system that rewards us for simply being men. It isn’t because we necessarily worked harder. The US Census reports that 25% more women received college degrees than men in 2009; yet men still get paid more. We got used to being first in line, and when we started falling behind, we were able to leverage our power and privilege to jump ahead. But this is not a zero-sum game. Men and women aren’t locked in a perpetual battle for power.

Lesson learned: We need to focus on creating shared prosperity for everyone. I have been fortunate to work alongside capable women who feel empowered enough to speak up and kindly correct me when I mess up. But not all women (or minorities) feel this way. Let’s change the status quo so that they do.

Congrats! You’ve made it to the end of this article. Now you’re fully equipped to venture out into the world as the golden butterfly of social justice. Go be awesome. I’d love to hear other people’s experiences. Any screw ups, lessons learned, or general thoughts you’d like to share?

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