When it comes to women’s rights, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez talks the talk. Consider his speech at the 2018 Women’s March in Washington, where he said that “[w]hen a woman has to choose between her family and her job, that hurts all of us. When a single mom has to choose between paying for child care and paying for rent, that hurts all of us. When a woman’s career suffers because she’s forced out of the workforce because of sexual harassment, that hurts all of us. And that, my friends, is why we must all fight to fix it.”
Perez walks the walk, too. As special counsel to US senator Ted Kennedy, Perez was instrumental in crafting laws that protect women and the LGBT community from hate crimes. For four years under the Obama administration, Perez served first as the assistant US attorney general for civil rights, then as secretary of the Labor Department, where he worked to improve conditions for workers. In both roles, he sought to make life better for women.
In an interview with Quartz, Perez explains why US policy should reflect intersectional feminism, why all men’s masculinity becomes toxic at some point, and how he talks to his son about privilege.
1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?
As a civil rights lawyer, I’ve spent my entire professional life combating inequality and discrimination. I’ve fought for legislation to protect women from domestic violence and worked aggressively to enforce laws protecting women’s access to reproductive health services. And the work I did at both the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor was intersectional. When I was labor secretary, we extended minimum wage and overtime protections to millions of home-care workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women, and many of whom are women of color. We also brought the rules against sex discrimination into the 21st century. During the Obama administration, we often said that when women succeed, America succeeds, which sadly isn’t a sentiment shared by the current administration. So the short answer to your question is that I’ve thought about these issues for a long time, and I continue to learn every day.
The Me Too movement has been so critical to shedding light on the widespread nature of harassment that has been tolerated across every industry for far too long. This is systemic and generational, and the stories that have come out are just the tip of iceberg. One of the things I’ve reflected on is that this occurs at every level in every industry. The women who work on factory floors or in restaurants aren’t celebrities, so they don’t have the same resources or platform to fight back. We need to change our culture so that everyone feels safe and respected in the workplace. And that’s the responsibility of men like myself.
2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?
I do identify as a feminist. I would define my feminism simply as my commitment to fighting for a world where women have the same opportunities and are treated with the same respect as their male counterparts—in the workplace and in every area of our society. That means reproductive rights; equal pay; equal representation in every industry at every level; access to quality, affordable health care without being discriminated against or having your premiums hiked up because of your gender; access to paid family and sick leave and affordable child care; and the ability to go to a job in a harassment-free workplace and to learn in a harassment-free classroom. I want to ensure that my two daughters have the same access to opportunity as my son and that there is a level playing field for everyone.
3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?
The short answer: help elect Democratic women.The short answer: help elect Democratic women. 356 Democratic women filed to run for the House in 2018. We’re seeing an unprecedented wave of female candidates at every level of politics. My job as DNC chair is to elect Democrats up and down the ballot, across the country. And the Democratic Party is fighting for gender equality every day, especially as Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress continue their all-out assault on women’s rights.
Throughout my career, I’ve been fighting for gender equality. I’m proud that during my time at both the Department of Justice and the Department of Labor, I fought to ensure that women had access to opportunities that were all too frequently closed off to them, like police and fire department jobs.
4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?
The biggest threat to men is this pervasive belief that the success of others comes at our own expense. Efforts to achieve gender equality are not some sort of an attack on men. The irony for men is that they balk at such efforts to their own detriment. When we talk about “women’s issues,” we’re really talking about finding solutions that make our society better as a whole. Gender pay inequality hurts families and our economy. Lack of access to family leave, reproductive health care, child care— that doesn’t just hurt women, it hurts working families everywhere, including the men who belong to them.
5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?
It shouldn’t be taboo to discuss how privilege can affect your beliefs and behavior.I talk about it with my male peers, my male staff, and of course, my son. I think it’s important not only to get the right message across, but also to make those discussions the norm. It shouldn’t be taboo to discuss how privilege can affect your beliefs and behavior, and how self-awareness helps everyone recognize and call out sexism—even, and perhaps especially, if it’s your own.
6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?
I think every man, no matter how strongly he claims to be a feminist, has moments where his masculinity becomes toxic. That’s one of the side effects of living in a society beset by systemic sexism and gender inequality. And that’s why it’s important to be aware of one’s bias. I try to do that not only by asking myself and others tough questions but by listening to the women in my life.
7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?
Well, I hope they already know that I’m working with them to lead the most diverse and inclusive DNC in history, and that I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds. That’s why we’ve made historic investments in female candidates up and down the ballot, across the country. So, I hope they know that the DNC is not simply an ally but an active partner in empowering women to organize, vote, and run for office everywhere.
8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?
Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it’s always necessary. If you see a friend, co-worker, or family member contributing to sexism at home or in the workplace, you should confront them about it. It’s on all of us to demand better.
9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?
I’m not sure there’s one specific instance I could point to, but anyone who thinks they’ve never made a mistake that could have in some way contributed to bias is kidding themselves. None of us are perfect. For example, I’ve learned from experience how important it is to make sure that women are represented at every level of an organization, especially in senior leadership—there is always room to do better.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
My advice would be this: There is not one right way to be a man. Masculinity is not about physical strength, it’s about strength of character. It’s about how you treat others.