Heidi Stevens: A fight club that’s perfectly OK to talk about

Who says feminists are humorless whiners?

A bunch of people, actually, if my inbox is any guide.

There’s no time for that nonsense, though, when you’re fighting the good fight.

“Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual (For a Sexist Workplace)” is a hilarious new guide to pushing back against stereotypes and micro-aggressions at the office. Written by New York Times columnist Jessica Bennett, it offers hacks and facts for steeling yourself for battle as you forge ahead in search of a paycheck.

“It’s watching a man instinctively turn to a woman to take notes in a meeting, or being mistaken for the admin when you’re actually the one in charge,” she writes. “It’s being talked over in a group setting over and over again, or having your idea attributed to someone else. … It’s having to be nice (because women are nice!) but not too nice (don’t wanna be a pushover); maternal (a natural caretaker!), but not actually a mother (lest you be viewed as ‘uncommitted’ to the job). It’s having to be confident so that you can command respect but not too confident (because we don’t like cocky women). It’s having to work twice as hard to prove you’re once as good, or three, four, five times as hard if you happen to be female and of color.”

Bennett is in a real-life Feminist Fight Club in New York, and the book is her gift to those of us who can’t make the meetings. She takes the best of what she and her fellow professionals have gleaned over the years and presents it to us for adoption.

All action, no whining. Plenty of humor.

If there’s a workplace in your life, I highly recommend giving the entire thing a read. (That goes for men and women.) To whet your appetite, here are five tips and tricks I picked up.

Stop manterrupting. Research shows men speak more than women in professional meetings, Bennett writes, and women are twice as likely as men to be interrupted when they speak. If you witness this — especially if you are a man — speak up.

“You can be a Manterrupter Interrupter, interjecting manterruptions on behalf of your female colleagues,” Bennett writes. “It’s as easy as, ‘Hey, can you let her finish?”

If you’re the one being interrupted, Bennett has a couple of tips: “Just keep talking. Keep your pauses short. Maintain your momentum. No matter if he waves his hands, raises his voice or squirms in his chair, you do you.” Or, push back. “Bob, I wasn’t done finishing that point. Give me one more sec.”

Call out “crazy.” Refuse to tar female colleagues with that catchall label we attach to women perceived as emotional, ambitious, tireless and so on. And don’t play along when others do it.

“Next time a colleague insinuates that a woman is ‘crazy,’ play dumb,” Bennett writes. “Say, ‘I’m not sure I understand. Can you explain?’ and put the burden on them to stumble through the explanation.”

If someone accuses you of acting crazy (or hormonal or emotional)? “Try explaining the reason for that emotion,” Bennett writes. “Literally: ‘I’m emotional because you (messed) up this project.’ It makes the emotion about the work, not you.”

Say no. “For a long time, I said yes to everything: assignments I didn’t want, coffees with people I had no intention of working with, asks to ‘pick my brain’ or ‘grab my quick feedback’ even though my ideas and feedback are actually how I make a living,” Bennett writes.

No more. Don’t be afraid to ask, “What’s in it for me?” she suggests, and don’t give your work away for free. “Does the person asking you want feedback? Make them send you a proposal. Advice? Have them lay out exactly what they want evaluated. A recommendation? Ask for a bulleted list you can draw from.” One startup founder told Bennett she considers anything more than 10 minutes to be “consulting” — i.e., a paid gig.

(Personal side note: I don’t think this advice applies to mentoring people within your workplace or cultivating a friendly, collegial environment with your co-workers. If a female colleague wants to grab coffee and talk about all the manterrupting, go for it. And leave the stopwatch at your desk.)

Ignore appearance shamers. Women are judged at work for looking too young, too old, too thin, too heavy, too pretty, not pretty enough. Enough.

“Justin Trudeau is ‘pretty,’ does anyone think that makes him a worse politician? Some might say Mark Zuckerberg is not — and he’s worth $35 billion,” Bennett writes. “Do you think either of these men has to answer questions about his competence because of the way he looks? … If somebody thinks you don’t look like a (fill in the blank), ignore them and just keep talking. Eventually they’ll have to hear the words coming out of your mouth rather than judging you by your appearance.”

Quit apologizing. Research shows people who apologize frequently are perceived as weaker, less confident and more blameworthy, Bennett writes.

Think twice before you say, “Sorry,” especially if you have nothing to apologize for. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you mean.” “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m looking for so-and-so.” “I’m sorry, I think you might be in my seat.” All work just as well without the “I’m sorry.”

Then there’s “I’m sorry for all the back and forth” (nothing wrong with back and forth), and “I’m sorry for the delay” (you’re allowed to be busy). You’re a fierce feminist, fighting your way to a paycheck and workplace glory.

No shame in that game.

Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email her at hstevens@chicagotribune.com