Wide Awake: That’s Enough
Speaking up when it matters, finally
By Marianne Aleardi

Last May, I wrote this column about a few experiences I had with sexism, like when a man reached across me to shake hands with Joe because he thought, naturally, that Joe owned the magazine. But really, I was writing about how shocked and dismayed I was by my lack of response. I didn’t speak up at any of those times. But it’s a year later. 

A few months ago, I was in a meeting with five men when they began talking about women who we all had done work with. I’ve known these men for a long time, and I know they’re good guys, but they were using words that were out of line, like “helpers” and “bargain” to talk about professional women. The conversation kept going on and on, and the words kept flying.  

And I was sitting there. My insides felt like they were going to jump out of my body. And then it happened.  

“That’s enough,” I said.  

I actually did it. I spoke up. I pointed out the words they were using and said it wasn’t ok to talk about professional women that way. They were immediately apologetic, and quickly said they weren’t being sexist. They stressed that they weren’t sexist.  

I know they believed that. And before that meeting, I believed it too. But I explained unconscious bias to them, and how their experiences in business – which are so different from mine or any other woman’s – influence the decisions they make. I asked them to just think about that before they do business with a woman again. Think about what they’re about to say and see if maybe they’re being influenced by experiences that are unique to men only.  

They listened. At least I think they did. I do have good relationships with each of them, so I would think the chances are good they might consider what I was saying. But there is an even better chance that was the first time they ever had a woman say something like that to them, so I don’t know if it sunk in. It’s possible I just planted the first seed, or actually, maybe I just kicked up the dirt a little bit.  

But that’s ok. It’s a start.  

At the first men’s panel of our Women’s Empowerment Series in 2016, one of the panelists – Vince Maione, CEO of Atlantic City Electric – told the audience he believed the only way sexism at work would lessen was if women would speak up each time it happened. I challenged him on that, because I knew how difficult it was, as a woman, to speak up. I described different scenarios to him to demonstrate the difficulty, but he kept pushing back. He understood the difficulty, but he truly believed that was the only way to stop the discrimination. Now I think he may be right, and it took me almost two years to see that for myself.   

When I started to talk to the men in that meeting, it was clear what I was saying to them were ideas they had never heard before. In fact, one of them mentioned that a woman he had been working with was making less than he thought she should, but she had told him that she was ok with her salary.  

“But that’s because women de-value themselves,” I said. “So it’s up to you as a man to step up and tell her she’s valuable and should be making more.” 

It was something he had never considered. And I can’t stress this enough: that doesn’t make him a bad guy. It just makes him – and a lot of other men – uninformed or unenlightened or whatever you want to call it.  

That meeting completely proved what Vince said at the men’s panel.  

It’s also what we’re seeing on a national scale right now: Women speaking up even though it’s difficult and personal and risky, and men (and women) are listening, responding and, hopefully, changing. Maybe those women inspired me, so here in South Jersey, in one small meeting room, I could finally speak up to show a few men what’s been happening and the role they may have played. It isn’t a fight. It isn’t a tearing down or scolding. It’s just a conversation in the hopes of opening some minds.

May 2018
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