The danger of talking like a feminist without taking any action

#MeToo is about more than overt misogyny.
#MeToo is about more than overt misogyny.
Image: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
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The #MeToo movement has often criticized powerful men for being hypocrites. Aziz Ansari, Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, and many others put on feminist fronts that did not match their private behavior. But such hypocrisy is more widespread: We are all capable of it.

The vast majority of us are not Harvey Weinsteins, of course. We’re not diabolically aware of our own hypocrisy, just very bad at recognizing it. We talk the feminist talk, but our actions often don’t match our words. The husband who sincerely says he supports his wife’s career but lets her spend twice as much time on housework; the boss who touts the importance of diversity, but doesn’t listen to his female employees: it’s easy to find examples of such everyday hypocrisy.

One potential cause of this hypocrisy: if you’re ostentatiously feminist—you post on social media about the pay gap, for example—you may feel like you’ve already “done your good for the day” and feel less pressure to walk the walk. Psychologists call this moral licensing. (The ice bucket challenge provides one example: if you do something showy but relatively ineffective, you can feel less pressure to make a more substantive difference.)

While it’s easy to recognize the harm caused by overt misogynists, these “pseudo-feminists,” whose actions don’t match their words, cause a lot of damage in their own way.

As a woman, you can often try to steer clear of overt misogynists (although, it’s worth noting, many women don’t even have this luxury):  Overt sexism at Uber is unlikely to hurt me professionally—I just won’t work at Uber. On the other hand, if I take a job at SuperFeministCompany, get inspired by my SuperFeministManager, try to earn his respect by working really hard on three projects, and only a year into it discover that he’s never going to recommend me for promotion and he’s ruining my self-esteem by treating me unfairly relative to my male colleagues—well, that’s caused me a lot of professional damage.

What does it mean to walk the walk?

In my experience, there isn’t a great correlation between talking the feminist talk and walking the walk, and the latter is much more important. Talking the talk is easy and gets you social credit; walking the walk is hard and will often get you social censure.

Walking the walk means wondering, “did I disregard her in that meeting in part because she was a woman?,” and realizing maybe I did, and wondering what I can do to make up for it. It means recognizing when your boss or your friends treat a woman badly, and trying to get them to stop doing it even if they’ll dislike you; it means waiting to share your question or brilliant idea during a meeting to make sure you’re letting women be heard; it means coming home when you’re on a project deadline so you can help make dinner; it means moving to a new city with less promising career options so your wife can pursue her dream job; it means getting as deft at changing diapers as you are at debugging code; it means going out of your way to hire and retain talented women, even if you’re taking a risk because their backgrounds don’t quite match what you’ve seen before; it means turning down opportunities to speak or lead when women have done more work and have more expertise than you do. None of this is fun or automatic.

“That isn’t feminism,” one man told me, when I gave him this list. “That’s just treating people nicely.” I found his statement touching, because it echoes the position that feminists have been pushing for decades: “feminism is the radical notion that women are people” or “women’s rights are human rights”. But regardless of whether you call the things on this list “true feminism” or simply “being a kind human being”, they’re hard to do. Here’s a rule of thumb: I’ve been told, about both exercise and work, that if they always feel easy you should be pushing yourself harder. I’d suggest the same principle applies to true feminism: if it never requires effort, opposing your immediate self-interest, or realizing you screwed up, you should probably be trying harder.

Also, try tracking things quantitatively: what you learn may surprise you. A male friend told me that he tracked how much housework he did relative to his female housemates and was surprised to learn he only did two thirds as much. Ed Yong, a journalist (building on work by Adrienne LaFrance) recently tracked the fraction of people he interviewed who were women, found it was only 24%. “I knew that I cared about equality,” he wrote, “so I deluded myself into thinking that I wasn’t part of the problem. I assumed that my passive concern would be enough. Passive concern never is.” As physical systems tend towards entropy in the absence of effort, social systems tend towards inequality.

Humility as an antidote to hypocrisy

I’m hardly immune to hypocrisy. My diary from when I’m sixteen reads, “I think I’m the most trustworthy person I know … I have a moral code that I follow pretty much always.” Shortly after writing that, I betrayed several people I cared about.

Since then, I’ve been convinced that believing that you’re a great person is one of the quickest ways to become a bad person: to forget that all your decisions are made by a wet tangle of sparking string that evolved to be self-interested and is subject to well-documented and hugely destructive biases. Rather than wearing shirts that say “Of course I’m a feminist,” it might be better if we wore shirts that said, “Of course I’m a hopeless mess of implicit prejudices, but this upsets me and I’m working on it.” A little bit of humility might be a useful antidote to hypocrisy.

Emma Pierson is a Rhodes Scholar and computer science PhD student at Stanford University. 

This story is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more stories here.