In the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, it’s clear that we all need to be better about speaking up when we see discrimination in action. In the professional sphere, that means we also have to reevaluate rules of etiquette that would normally encourage us to hold our tongues, lest we risk seeming rude, antagonistic, or disruptive.
Being “professional” shouldn’t mean that workers are required to accept an unjust status quo. For those wondering how to approach such conversations, last night’s Golden Globes offered several strong examples of intervention in action.
One of the evening’s best moments came as Natalie Portman presented the award for best director, alongside Ron Howard. After a perfunctory introduction by Howard, Portman leaned into the microphone: “And here are the all-male nominees.”
Portman’s tone and expression demonstrate that she’s not making the observation lightly; she’s straight-faced as she delivers the jab, her voice matter-of-fact. Howard, clearly surprised, chuckles slightly but nods in acknowledgment—there’s no denying she’s got a point. And the instant cheers (mostly female) from the audience show that a lot of women are grateful Portman has seized the moment to highlight Hollywood’s deep-seated problem with representation.
Of the 100 top-grossing films in 2017, just eight were directed by women, according to a recent analysis by the University of Southern California. The dearth of female directors has major trickle-down effects for gender equality throughout the industry, as the education and advocacy group Women in Hollywood notes: Compared to male directors, women directors tend to employ greater percentages of women as writers, cinematographers, editors, and composers. Meanwhile, the women who do direct films are perpetually under-recognized. Greta Gerwig, who directed one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year, Lady Bird, did not receive a best director nomination, yet her film took home the Golden Globe award for best musical or comedy.
Barbra Streisand also stood up for women directors at the awards ceremony. As she walked to the podium to announce the award for best picture in the drama category, the announcer noted that she was the only women to have ever received a Golden Globe for best director. Streisand didn’t miss the opportunity to advocate for women:
“Backstage I heard they said I was the only woman to get the best director award, and you know, that was 1984: That was 34 years ago,” she said. “Folks, time’s up! We need more women directors and more women to be nominated for best director. There are so many films out there that are so good directed by women.”
Later, Streisand elaborated on her point on Twitter, mentioning two women directors who she thought had deserved nominations this year: Dee Rees, who directed the movie Mudbound, about race relations in the Jim Crow-era South, and Patty Jenkins, who directed the box-office hit Wonder Woman.
Both Portman and Streisand offer powerful examples of how we can all call out sexism at work when we see it, rather than letting it slide. In Portman’s case, simply adding the factual descriptor “all-male” to an otherwise standard introduction put a spotlight on a gender imbalance that, in previous years, most awards-show presenters would have been hesitant to address. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum approvingly called the moment “gutsy & rude.” We could use a whole lot more of this kind of rudeness—which is only impolite in an outdated sense.
Too often, even well-intentioned workplaces relegate conversations about sexism or racism to an all-hands meeting or a designated point on a meeting’s agenda. The idea is to reserve space specifically to talk about these important issues. But in the process, managers can wind up reinforcing the idea that it is only okay to talk about injustice when the company says so; otherwise, it’s simply off-topic.
Similarly, because workplace standards of etiquette often encourage employees—particularly women—to be deferential and cautious, our ideas about what is “impolite” to bring up in the workplace can mean staying silent about real problems as they unfold.
But sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination are pervasive, even among people and workplaces that pride themselves on being progressive. If we’re serious about changing that, both companies and employees need to change our ingrained ideas about when, and how, it’s acceptable to talk about those issues. That might mean observing, in the middle of a meeting, that only women have volunteered to take on extra shifts for the holiday season, or noting that a list of prospective job candidates is disproportionately white.
As Lindy West writes in her column “Real Men Might Get Made Fun Of,” speaking up in this way comes with risks. “Getting yelled at and made fun of is where many of us live all the time,” she writes. “Speaking up costs us friends, jobs, credibility and invisible opportunities we’ll never even know enough about to regret.” That’s why it’s incumbent upon people who are most likely to be protected from negative repercussions—like white straight men, or high-level managers, or Hollywood celebrities—to get the ball rolling, and make it easier for the rest of us to make people in power uncomfortable.