In the weeks since the explosions of ‘Me Too’, I’ve taken time to reflect on my own recollections. Though I’m fortunate to have not experienced sexual harassment in my professional life, I have experienced abuse in personal relationships—and have written about that elsewhere. In my professional life what I have witnessed are ways men acknowledge the achievements and expressions of men much more readily than those of women, and thus advance other men, perpetuating patriarchy. Sometimes it is subtle and often, I have to believe, unintentional. But men who care about justice and want to see gender imbalances righted, can learn to better recognize the subtleties if women describe them.
What I’ve seen frequently are the subtle ways men regularly give each other boosts (and professional women give men boosts). And after boost upon boost upon boost, many men ride waves of success without thinking to reach out and share their leverage with women, the way they so effortlessly share their leverage with men—in easy, passing mentions of male friends here and there, collaborations, accolades. Over time, this subtle men-boosting-men phenomenon affects women’s chances of success.
I was recently in a professional discussion that centered on opportunities for women in religious leadership and theology. A man in the discussion felt compelled to point out the ways women can be “their own worst enemies” (which is surely true at times), and so shared an anecdote. This is a man who receives voluminous professional accolades, publishing opportunities, general doting by those around him—especially from other men. According to his anecdote, he had once written a book about a woman in leadership. When it was released, he sent it out to a handful of female colleagues asking them to help him promote it. And low and behold, only a couple did anything to assist. He had “only a 10% success rate,” he noted with a note of regret and unmistakable judgment on his female colleagues. To him, this was a lamentable example of the ways women fail to help each other and are “their own worst enemies.” Because the women didn’t rise to the occasion and help market his book for him. The tone-deafness of the anecdote in the context of that particular conversation went unacknowledged in the flow of things; I expect the other women didn’t know what to say. Neither did I. Afterward I tried to imagine the anecdote reversed: A women writes a biography about a man, and because it’s about a man, sends it to a number of her male colleagues asking them to help her spread the word. And they don’t. End of story.
Being in the field of theology—a decidedly male-dominated field, I have come to expect this kind of slant. The field of theology is behind, and will perhaps take years to catch up, despite the inspiring work being done by theologians like Catherine Keller, Kelly Brown Douglas, Sally McFague, and Christena Cleveland, and many others. In fact the academic and religious contexts of theology can be stifling for women—stoking in me all the more awe at the creativity and courage of these and other women who operate within institutional contexts. I don’t think I could have thrived as they have—temperament and other factors being what they are. As it turned out, my independence of mind, my journey of inquiry, benefited from being outside of an institution these eighteen years since completing a PhD in Theology. What it cost me professionally, it paid ten-fold in freedom—sparing me the discouragements that would likely hinder my intellectual exploration.
But perhaps because I’ve been “indie”—buffered somewhat from the gender dynamics common to institutions—I’m still taken aback when I see the way men’s radars frequently overlook women’s accomplishments and styles. Especially in venues striving to be progressive, the “overlooking” stands out to me. For example, I was recently listening to an interview series featuring over 30 theologically-oriented interviews. The tendenz of the series was progressive. Yet I had to reach interview number 17 before hearing a single woman’s voice. In the latter half of the interviews, women were more equally represented. But it took far too long for the imbalance in representation within the series to be noted and addressed. And despite the representation of women in the series, the inclusion of people of color was noticeably thin.
This is the kind of thing I want to notice, as I want us all to notice. Because if men are not intentional about including women, and if Anglos are not intentional about including people of color, changes in power dynamics will be slow. And access needs to be shared. All perspectives need to be heard.
I have spent the past ten years writing fiction—a solitary enterprise if ever there was one. Yet I have observed among men in the world of literature almost as much blindness to the need to “lend access” to women as I have seen in the world of theology. The couple of times I have drawn on a connection, asking a male in the field to read my as-yet-unpublished novel and offer a blurb, I have left the experience feeling embarrassed that I asked. The response: utter radio silence. Silence that left me feeling small and naïve and presumptuous for asking. These men are busy, I know. They are probably approached by hundreds of writers, and of course, owe me nothing. Therefore, I hesitate to even mention the radio silence. But I do want to speak to how it made me feel; which is to say, not good. If someone asked me to write a blurb, and I was too busy, I would acknowledge the question and say no. I would not ignore.
The fact is, men hold a great deal of the power in most industries, including publishing, and without the intentional sharing of access from males, women often lag behind. When the boosts are not forthcoming, and women fruitlessly knock on doors in hopes of someday getting one, it has an effect. Frankly, my world is vividly peopled with amazing women. My intimate friendships and connections are mostly with females—friendships that were certainly not cultivated with professional mobility in mind (I get a solid F in networking). The access that connections with connected men often opens has not been fostered in my life, and I realize that is on me, as I have a certain allergy to cultivating relationships with a view to ends.
The kind of “overlooking” I speak to is far, far more subtle than sexual harassment and other forms of blatant discrimination. I count myself lucky to have no stories to tell of sexual harassment, at least as legally defined. More privileged than lucky. But women are disadvantaged in the professional world in ways much more subtle than sexual harassment; as people of color are disadvantaged in ways much more subtle than blatant racial discrimination. The Me Too Movement has fortunately shed light on subtler issues such as pay disparity; it is apropos for the movement to look broadly at all of the wide-ranging issues that advantage males. Within this broader scope of issues, I can certainly say “me too.”