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Dating While Feminist: Finding and Cultivating Allies

Dating While Feminist: Finding and Cultivating Allies

DISCLAIMER: This post is a bit different from my other posts, but I’m going to go with it. I know, as part of Ellevate my biggest focus is giving tips on leveraging your network to reach your goals, and to share the limited, yet hard-earned, knowledge I’ve compiled from this community of amazing women. But as part of our #TakeBackFeminism campaign I’ve been doing a lot of thinking of the many reasons why I’m a feminist and why I think it’s important that we embrace the label and fight for equality, and I realized that I have never really shared (except for a short mention in our Ellevate Podcast) an experiment I’ve been doing in my personal life: dating while feminist.

In the first episode of Chelsea Does... Chelsea Handler sits with a group of small children to ask them questions about marriage. A little girl says, “Sometimes you don’t get married if you have too much work to do.” Oh boy, is she right. And when the work you have to do is to close the gender achievement gap, well.... you’ll probably die single. I joke, but…

I am single. And I’m a feminist. And I’m at that time in my life when my friends are all married or getting there, and many of them are starting families and “have other things to worry about.” Many of them don’t consider themselves feminists, many don’t think gender inequality still exists. I’m the outsider. I work for a mission-driven company, I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember, and I’ve recently decided that I would be very outspoken about it (but that’s a topic for another time).

[Related: Feminism in 2017: A Wake Up Call]

I’m fortunate to be doing what I’m doing: Working to further a mission I care about and doing work that makes me proud. And I’ve learned a lot about myself through my work at Ellevate. I’ve learned what I care about, I learned what I’m good at, and I’ve learned eye-opening information of why talking about things matters. Why talking about inequality can lead to equality, why talking about careers can lead to success, why talking about money can lead to more money, and why talking about things you care about, particularly to those you can influence, can get them to care about it, too.

Recently I decided to try online dating. Yes, I know, I’m late to the party. I went on a few dates. I had a hard time weeding through the profiles and sorting through the matches and messages. I even started a conversation or two. It was fun, but exhausting. And of course, it was always awkward when I inevitably got the question: “What do you do for work?” See, I’m proud of working at Ellevate. I love it. But as I know all too well from my friends and family (some of who still believe I am “an event planner”) explaining what I do quickly, via text, and to someone who doesn’t care or know anything about you just yet, is not easy. After a few answers of, “I work for a professional women’s network focused on closing the gender achievement gap,” which were received with the usual “Ah, ok, cool,” I decided to take a different approach. Whenever someone asked me what I did I’d respond with a simple:

“I’m a professional feminist.”

And yes, that caught their attention.

[Related: It's Women's History Month, and We're Taking Back Feminism]

I’m not saying the response was good. By all means, it really wasn’t. But the short phrase, “I’m a professional feminist” opened my eyes to a whole new world of potential allies for equality... all through online dating.

Here’s what I’ve learned from dating while feminist:

Ignorance is bliss, until it’s not. 

Not everyone cares what you believe in. Stating it so obviously can lead to… absolutely nothing… and that’s fine. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get to embrace it and own it. What I’ve found is that those men who don’t have a strong reaction to my “professional feminist” statement are usually the ones who are just oblivious to the problem, not because they are misogynistic or mean or bad... they’re just not aware. For these guys, we can become eye-opening forces. These are the guys who will say, “What? I didn’t know that! That’s not possible!” when you tell them that there are more men named John leading big companies than women, or more men named John, Robert, James and William than women on ALL American corporate boards of directors (and if their name is one of these, it gets them even more.) These are the heads we need to start turning if we want to find new allies. After a statement like that their interest is usually piqued because it makes the issue more real to them and they can relate.

Some people are very hung up on gender roles. 

One of the men I was messaging with got very much obsessed with the idea of me being a feminist. It seemed to intrigue him, yet bug him. Not surprisingly, he was a middle-aged white man holding a senior-level job. He told me he appreciated traditional gender roles, he was looking for a woman who would “cook and clean and cater to him” and the idea of stay at home dads was just weird. Yeah, no, we were never going to be a match, but I thought of it as the perfect opportunity to engage in a conversation with someone who I fundamentally disagreed with about an issue that he just accepted and never bothered to think about.

I talked to him about how gender roles prevent girls from being scientists and boys from knowing that they can be vulnerable. It prevents children from envisioning all the possibilities that lay before them, because you can’t be what you can’t see. It’s up to us to show them that they can be whoever and whatever they want. Period. Turns out, the man in question had two kids. Yeah, when you start thinking of it this way it can make a difference.

It’s up to us to show kids they can be whoever, whatever they want.
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The truth is, gender roles are deeply ingrained in society. They color many of the decisions we make throughout our lives and many of the unconscious behaviors we exhibit. For example, according to the Harvard Kennedy School, when a woman expresses anger in the workplace -- a behavior that society does not expect from her -- her status and perceived competence will decrease. A man who exhibits anger, on the other hand, will be seen as more powerful leader. And that’s just one example. Social ideas of gender matter, and if we want to create change in society we must start by rejecting these norms. Having this conversation might not have changed this man’s opinion, but at least I got him to engage in a debate.

Some people will find it intriguing… but only because they want to change your mind. 

Hold your ground, but be open to a discussion. Be armed with the facts and try to make your point. Remember, knowledge is power, and engaging in healthy debates can help you clarify your message and help the other party broaden their perspective.

Remember that some people are just jerks, and you should never feed the trolls.

Someone once messaged me to say we should go out so I could take care of him like my female ancestors would take care of their men. No, I’m not even kidding, and now that I’m thinking about it that message was not just sexist but racist. I decided I didn’t have time to respond to him. It was not worth it. I’ve learned to choose my battles. A lot of people will just try to push your buttons to get your attention and you should know that your time and energy is much more valuable than that.

[Related: Lecturing Men About Diversity Doesn't Work. This Does.]

There is a silver lining: I’ve met some men who are great feminists. 

They’d get excited about my job and wanted to ask me questions, find out my take on books, or send me articles that they’d thought I’d find interesting and wanted to discuss. There are a lot of men who want to engage in the conversation. They want to learn more about feminism, and most of all, want to know what they can do as allies to make a change in society.

It’s up to you — to us — to speak to our allies about it. To share why it matters, to share the data and the facts. To talk about the different problems we need to solve. In my case, my expertise is feminism in business, so that’s what I can speak to, but there are so many different issues within the feminist agenda that we need to voice our concern for: reproductive rights, women in politics, women in leadership, women in STEM… take your pick and learn about it. 

It’s up to you — to us — to speak to our allies about feminism.
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Be ready to talk about what’s happening in your world. Find those cool guys who want to be involved, who understand that there is a problem, and who know that they can use their male privilege (yes, that’s a thing) to make a difference, and point them in the right direction.

Ready to round up our allies? Join us in New York on April 20th for a panel event on including men in the conversation.


Maricella Herrera Avila is the Director of Global Membership at Ellevate. She joined the former 85 Broads team back in 2012, shortly after earning her MBA at Columbia Business School. In her role, Maricella oversees the delivery of current member benefits while paving the road for future opportunities within the organization.

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