Recently, I shared an article on Facebook detailing how two coworkers – one male and one female – had very different experiences dealing with clients, and they proved sexism was involved by swapping email signatures for two weeks. That resulted in a torturous week for him and an incredibly productive week for her. Read the article for the rest of that story; the rest of this post isn’t really about that article.
When I shared the link, my dear friend Laura spoke up, first commenting on my post and then later composing her own post about this story (and others like it).
Here’s what she said:
Hey, you know what would be cool? If everyone just BELIEVED WOMEN WHEN THEY SAID THEY ARE TREATED UNFAIRLY AND IN A SEXIST MANNER instead of only noticing their complaints when it *gasp* happens to a man!
I guarantee she had mentioned it before and he (and the other boss) just dismissed it.
Just believe women when we talk about our experiences, for the love of god, and stop acting like there’s some sort of giant revelation when a man realizes we’re actually, really serious.
She has an excellent point, and I support her entirely. I want to encourage everyone to err on the side of believing people’s stories, especially when it’s about the lived experience of being different from you (I’ll talk about men believing women for this post, but the theme can also apply to race, sexuality, gender identity, and a host of others).
In order to contribute to this goal, I want to share some thoughts on why it might be that men often struggle to believe women when they learn things like this, why I’ve failed to do so in the past. Let me be absolutely clear, before I begin, none of the following is meant as an excuse or justification for mistreating or marginalizing anyone. I’m not trying to get myself off the hook or excuse any lapses in judgment. But I think looking at why we struggle to empathize with one another is an important step in bridging the gap.
Let me lay out my entirely unearned credentials: I’m a straight, white, cisgender Protestant American male. Quite by accident, I won privilege bingo; the only possible claim I have on being marginalized is that I’m left-handed, which means I had a rough time with scissors in elementary school.
So in context of this discussion, that means I struggle to relate my own experience to the majority of stories I hear about women being mistreated, marginalized, or harmed in a sexist incident. Sure, I’ve had my share of people insulting or mistreating me, but never because I’m male. So when I hear of this kind of treatment, I’ve learned that I can’t rely on instinct or experience to respond.
I’ve also started to understand one reason it’s hard for many men to believe women when they hear accounts like this. No reason justifies or excuses it, and this needs to be confronted and overcome, but understanding it helped me start doing that in my own life. It has little to do with facts and much to do with perspective.
Have you ever heard someone say they’ve never watched your favorite movie and reacted in shock? “You’re kidding, right? Everyone’s seen Star Wars!”
Have you ever seen someone freak out when they hear of another culture’s delicacies? “Wait, people actually eat that?”
Those are examples of culture shock, and the kind of disbelief men express when women share their stories behaves similarly. In short, we doubt stories more when they conflict with our expectations of how people treat one another. We react with disbelief because we don’t expect what we hear – not because we mistrust the person telling us, but because we aren’t prepared for the story to be true. And, being privileged in the ways that we are, men are more likely to doubt stories of sexist abuse and mistreatment precisely because we’re less likely to be victims of that very abuse.
I suspect (and hope) that the majority of these cases are accidental, automatic responses. New information doesn’t fit into our picture of the world until we make room for it; the more a piece of information conflicts with our preconceptions, more effort it takes to make room for it, so we’re more likely to resist it. For men who have never experienced sexism firsthand, being mistreated because of one’s sex can honestly feel like a huge paradigm shift.
Now, at this point, we could say “See, there’s a reason for the doubt, it’s justified!” and use that as an excuse to remain comfortably oblivious.
Or, perhaps worse, we could say, “See, men and women both deal with challenges when it comes to this sort of thing,” and use that as an excuse to feel like we’re helping without actually helping.
But neither of those responses are actually worth anything. Yes, there is a reason for the doubt, but upon realizing it, we now have an obstacle to overcome, not a cushion to settle in. Yes, men have challenges to face when it comes to embracing and establishing true, lasting equality, but no sane person should claim that being oblivious to harm is just as bad as being a victim of that harm.
What To Do
So here’s some practical advice.
First, a statement I made earlier: err on the side of believing. When someone tells you about something they’re personally experiencing, grant them the grace and trust to treat it seriously, even if it sounds strange to you – maybe even especially then. Give them a chance to tell you more and include you before drawing any conclusions. Importantly, I’m not saying that you need to believe everything everyone says, always. People do lie and exaggerate, for lots of different reasons. That will come out if it’s the case; but frankly I’d rather believe someone and try to help them, only to be deceived, than deny help to someone who really needed it.
“Help me understand” – The best advice I’ve heard on bridging a gap like this involves inviting people to share. If a woman tells you she’s being treated unfairly and in a sexist way, and it’s shocking, your instinct may be to disbelieve because it’s unlike anything you’ve experienced. Tell her so, and ask her to help you understand better. It’s not her job to help you understand, but at the same time, letting someone know that you’re willing to help but not sure you have the tools is a much better starting point than saying “I don’t believe you.”
When in doubt, be vulnerable. Acknowledge that your perspective is incomplete. I’ll start: Friends, I’m writing this post with very good intentions, but I recognize that I am still a novice in this area. I don’t want to sound like an expert telling you what to do, and if anything I’ve said here sounds wrong to you, please let me know, so that I can be a better support to all my friends and neighbors.
At the end of the day, we only know what it’s like to be us. Life consists of constant exposure to the unfamiliar. The best person any of us can be embraces that strangeness and says “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I want to, so that I can use every scrap of knowledge to make the world a better place for everyone.”
What do you think? Can we do that?