Casual Feminism at Work: To Act Like a Man or Not?

Casual Feminist, casual feminism, feminism at work, act like a man

My friends often compare notes and discuss challenges at work. It happens that we often advise one another to “act like a man,” which can mean – and often does – just not taking the bait and letting the petty be so. “Act like a man” is not, however, a euphemism for “be an asshole.”


If you find yourself in a situation where you must talk to a woman, especially at the office, don’t panic. Women are often just like people, and may be treated accordingly.

During the first term of the second Bush administration, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I worked in a newsroom in D.C., we took a pretty cavalier attitude as to what constituted appropriate office behavior. And once in a while, when provoked, one woman or another would announce loudly: “Hey, watch your language. I’m a delicate fucking flower.” This never got old. I still do it once in a while because, and you should know this about me, I am a hoot.

I do not do this in my current place of employ, however, because over the years I have developed a taste for such extravagances as fiscal solvency and unexpired foodstuffs.

I confess that it took me an embarrassingly long time to learn that insisting on wearing Grateful Dead T-shirts and torn jeans to work wasn’t doing me any favors, professional-advancement-wise. Why should what I wear have anything to do with it if I’m doing good work, I’d say. Workplaces will catch on. And that, of course, was not and is not true. We all wear costumes and use the coded language of our environment. It’s how you signify belonging, your place in the hierarchy. Both your intention and your attention to what’s going on around you. That fluency is as much a skill as Excel.

My friends often compare notes and discuss challenges at work. It happens that we often advise one another to “act like a man.” Of course, it’s an oversimplification. But when one of us gets wound around the axle over something someone said, a perceived slight or clumsy power grab, when we want to go all scorched earth in the next team meeting, we take a step back.

“Act like a man” can mean – and often does – just not taking the bait and letting the petty be so. Practically, it means not letting fly that angry email and simply waiting a couple of beats (in fact, never type angry). I’ve been surprised at how often things take care of themselves and how powerful just a little bit of silence can be.

Maybe a more apt workplace metaphor would be “act like a superhero,” but that just sounds exhausting and spandex is not a good look for me.

It’s probably a sexist node in my own brain that lets me play to this effective businessman stereotype. Sure, I’ll take the hit for that. But any meme in a storm, am I right? If it works I’ll model the hell out of that shit.

“Act like a man” is not a euphemism for “be an asshole.” It means address problems directly and handle sensitive issues with discretion. Know when not to act. Treat people honorably without coddling. Really listen. Pay back the trust people put in you when they deliver candor (it’s not easy), and don’t get thrown by criticism. There will always be tender feelings at work, but they don’t have to be yours. In terms of  the workplace, everyone should really just behave like an idealized human. So maybe a more apt metaphor would be “act like a superhero,” but that just sounds exhausting and spandex is not a good look for me.

While we’re here, “act like a man” doesn’t mean worrying one iota about what someone thinks of your voice. Did you know that there has been a lot of online discussion lately about how young women talk? Also that people seem to have distressingly strong opinions about upspeak? And vocal fry? And to hell with all of that. Seriously.

On the other hand, I was the one in the Grateful Dead shirts who didn’t understand why the powers that be weren’t making with the promotions. And I did, if we’re really being honest, wear Dalmatian ears at a department-wide videoconference… this morning. So maybe I’m not the best resource here. And, as a friend put it, the time to laugh gaily in the face of those pressure points is when women’s habits and voices are valued equally to men’s. Though, sigh, that might be a while.

Now, if someone could tell me how to get paid like a man, that would be tremendously helpful. In July, the Labor Department issued a report noting that women earned 81.9 cents to each dollar earned by a man in the second quarter of 2015. Delightfully, the gap has apparently widened when compared to the same period in 2014.

Candor is what I’ve always craved myself. Will somebody please level with me? Is there kale in my teeth? How could I have been a stronger candidate? What is the salary? Do you have a problem with the plan I just presented? Are you going to give me that promotion we discussed?

So, when talking to a woman, remember – she may be a delicate fucking flower. And so please be careful to treat her exactly as you would an actual person.

Thea Joselow is a digital media writer, editor and social media director based in Bethesda, Maryland. She has worked for such illustrious institutions as National Public Radio, Smithsonian Magazine, and at a strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C., but please don’t hold that against them. Thea likes to think she has a good sense of humor. All opinions, omissions and offenses are entirely her own. She can be found on Twitter at @tjoselow

Image via Wikimedia Commons/in the public domain

  • Amy Abbott

    This is something I’ve been aware of all my career in a field of primarily women where leadership has traditionally been male. I still don’t have it figured out and I’m in what is most likely the last decade of my career. For example how does one counsel the Gen xer who is highly competent but cries at work.

    • Thea Joselow

      Right? It’s like “Look, you’re so talented. And i want people to see that, not this.”

  • LaurieL

    Well said. So true, never type angry. I am starting my third decade in the high tech world and learned early on to roll with the punches and act “like a man.” I love being the only “girl” in a big technology discussion. I see the younger women in my field bounce right with the casual feminism. BTW, instead of Dalmation ears, sometimes my Poodle talks on our team meeting. 🙂

  • Hillart

    You’re a delicate fucking flower who’s talented as fuck all. Great read!

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