Becoming A Constructive Bystander

Very few men and women I work with are intentional sexists...

Today’s guest-post was written by Dana Theus, a women’s leadership advocate who has written about leadership and gender issues for the National JournalBlogherThe Glass Hammer and Success in the City, among other publications. In addition to founding a consulting and coaching business, Theus created InPower Women, an organization seeking to rewrite the narrative on women and power.
I have been monitoring the conversations here on MARC with interest and enjoying the view of “women’s issues” from a completely different—and unfeminine—perspective. Recently, Amitabh Kumar’s thoughtful post about men speaking up against violence against women caught my attention.
I sit on the board of DASH, a domestic violence transitional housing program, and within the last few years I’ve helped them review, revise and expand their strategic plan. In revising their strategic scope, we quickly surfaced the reality that men are not always the perpetrators of domestic violence, nor are women always the victims, especially in homosexual relationships. We also struggled to factor in the so-called “bystander” problem and how we can help women and men who are not directly involved in domestic violence intervene and become involved appropriately. While we settled on education as a function the organization could perform, I was reminded of just how difficult it is to know how to be constructive bystander when I read Amitabh’s article.
I have been lucky to be able to help women heal from domestic violence after the fact. I’m not aware of any situation where I was a bystander to it while it was going on—though I’m sure I must have been.
I’m more aware of how I am a bystander to subtle sexism, even when I try not to be. I’m also aware that very few men and women I work with are intentional sexists, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t accidentally sexist sometimes. Recently I was invited to participate in a conference planning exercise. When we brainstormed speakers, I continuously brought up the need to invite female speakers in this niche industry, and yet no individuals came to my mind (or anyone else’s). When I left the meeting, I should have done some research and proposed a few, but I got busy and it never happened. The four hour, 16 speaker event only included one woman, who was drowned out by the two fairly noisy men on her panel. I was a useless bystander in helping women gain exposure in this event.
In my own work with InPower Women I am working to help encourage women to step up into their own ability to be powerful. I like to celebrate the courage of the women who do this and the men who take opportunities to help them. But I am a bit flummoxed on the best strategies to address the bystander problem. Here are some of the suggestions I’m giving myself after my most recent bystander experience.
- Count heads & educate – if there aren’t at least 30% of either gender involved, explain to everyone the benefits of diverse thinking and perspectives that comes from such a breakdown.
- Know names – have some names at hand of women who should be included in a particular discussion, group or position; get your own short list of women/people to promote.
- Be sneaky – while sometimes it’s good to educate others about why including a mix of women and men is healthy, sometimes it’s not necessary; just proceed as though promoting women is the natural thing to do—because it is.
The last point came to me after reflection. The point of battling sexism in my mind is to model non-sexist behavior as if it’s “normal” and because “it works.” The outcome has to be effective or it just gives women and equality a bad name if we’re not careful. If it’s a situation where you risk discrediting the woman, yourself or the situation by making it “about equality instead of quality,” don’t bother.
And in some ways, the most important time to demonstrate the effectiveness of equality may come after the fact, when the inclusion of women has worked, because then it’s a perfect time to circle back and give voice to the fact that picking a woman/women was the right choice. Note how “Sheila was a great hire,” ask your colleagues if “they know any other great women like Sheila to add to the team,” or ask the HR department if they can “find any more Sheila’s to mentor and nurture into senior management.” These kinds of acknowledgements help drive home the fact that a successful leader can look like a woman as easily as a man.
What other ideas do you have for ways to battle subtle sexism and bystanding? I’m all ears!
Posted by Mike Otterman on Aug 6, 2012 1:21 PM America/New_York

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Dana, thanks very much for your insights and thoughts. I'm not directly respoding to your question but as I read this and gave it some thought here is an action that will occur. Within Nationwide Insurance we have quite a few very active and very successful ARG's (Associate Research Groups) such as a GLBT, military, asian, hispanic etc. Each group has its own elected officials etc but then they each have an executive sponsor. Most of these executive sponsors are either executive VP's or presidents. The ARG that I work with is called AWARE, African American Women Active and Ready to Exceed. As you may know, I am neither black nor a women so I was outright nervious when asked to be the sponsor of this group but that is a whole other story. I've tried to ba an active and supportive partner with this group and provide guidance and open and honest perspectives with the members. This gives them plenty of exposure to me and I to them, but here is the learning from your comments...I need find ways to get the AWARE leadership in front of other senior leaders. It isn't just about me workting with them but its about my ability to increase exposure to this group to me peers to show them how great this group is and how they can be better leveraged as a resource. So that's going to happen and while it is not exactly on topic the action is directly related to your comments. Thanks for giving me the idea and motivation for doing this.
  • Posted Thu 09 Aug 2012 05:17 PM EDT
Mark: Thank you for doing what you do, in the way that you do it. I'm interested in hearing how working with the women of AWARE has increased your own and their awareness about race and gender lenses. If this seems like to delicate a question to answer in a public forum, I understand. I am very fortunate to have been part of CORE groups during my career. These diverse groups were aimed at increasing members' awareness of "others" and the filters through which we perceived and understood, or misunderstood, them. Eye opening, indeed.
  • Posted Tue 14 Aug 2012 07:02 AM EDT


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