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Choose to Challenge is the theme of International Women’s Day this year and I, for one could not be prouder.  As they say on their website, “A challenged world is a changed world…. From Challenge comes change.”  If there is one thing we have learned from 2020, it’s that change is needed.  Change is happening.  Change is a choice.

There is so much to unpack here.  Who do we need to challenge?  How do we challenge?  What do we challenge?  What counts as important?  These are questions that people moving for change have always struggled with.  Learning from those whose shoulders we stand upon for strength can give us some answers.

Who do we need to challenge?

This one is easier than you think.  We challenge everyone and we start with ourselves.  Introspection towards our own bias helps us understand why it exists in others.  Do you at some level feel that all women should want to be parents?  Are there different rules for men and women in relationships?  Really dive deep and see if your language might betray your unconscious bias.  This is not an exercise in blame and shame, just reflection.  It should be done regularly in inquisitive self-analysis.  When we understand ourselves, we understand others.

Choosing to challenge others may feel awkward at first if you are someone who does not usually do this.  There is a certain awkwardness that may come with it.  Just remember, who owns that?  Is it the one who behaved poorly or the one who pointed it out.  So, yes is the answer to the burning question people always ask here.  It is ok to respectfully challenge older relatives who are intellectually able to understand  It is ok to challenge management at work.  It is ok to challenge friends, neighbors and children.  It is ok to challenge anyone who either willfully or through their own ignorance is holding up bias and inequality.

You can choose to not allow disparaging remarks.  You can choose to be the conversation changer.  Whether at home, online or in the great wide world, you lead by example and challenge when what you see makes you take that breath and think.  Anyone, regardless of age, rank or relation can be challenged in the name of making the world a better place.

How do we challenge?

We have been trained as a society to not challenge as it is impolite.  The truth is, staying silent is a choice that holds up discrimination.  How polite is that?  With this in mind, there are ways that we can challenge that shut down a conversation and ways that open one up.  Both ways have their place.

Ideally, people should strive to open up the conversation.  This is where real change and learning happens.  Move into a conversation with a curiosity.  Ask for explanations.  People often use parrot phrases they are used to hearing without diving deep into them and understanding what they mean.  Here’s an example.  A family are watching TV.  A young woman walks across into frame wearing a short dress.  One of the family members says, “She’s really asking for it dressed like that.”  Here is where we can be grateful for DVR and pause the TV for a discussion.  With a curious, non-judgmental tone, ask for clarification and elaboration.  What is she asking for?  It couldn’t be sex as that requires verbal consent.  It couldn’t be an attack as that implies the victim is to blame for the actions of a perpetrator.  If she is asking for something, what would that be?  Here a conversation can be opened.  You can share facts about how what a woman wears does not alter her risk of being sexually assaulted.  You can talk about body confidence.  You can talk about how this phrase has been used to keep women “in their place” for centuries.  It gives space for someone to say, “I’ve never really thought about that before.” There is less need to become defensive.  You can even talk about how you have used phrases in the past that you would never use now after really thinking about what they mean. There are times when it is best to shut down the conversation.  This could be for personal safety, to protect the vulnerable or to make a point.  Here is real life example of shutting things down in a way that was effective and powerful.   A woman was promoted onto an executive track position.  Her colleague entered the break room and heard someone call this woman a “diversity hire” and say, “Every time I see a woman get pushed up like that I just think that’s one less man able to provide for his family.”  The colleague then chose to enter the conversation and say, “Oh, don’t worry.  She has a family she is supporting.  Kids are still getting fed on the company dime.”  This was 2015.  The conversation was shut down.  Whether or not the colleague changed his mind we will never know.  However, the rhetoric of the break room became safer for everyone.

What do we challenge?

Whenever I speak on how to challenge, I get asked this question: “But, what counts as important enough to challenge?”  This is a personal choice.  It’s easy to see overtly discriminatory language and actions.  No one will say its ok for a boss to slap his assistant on the backside.  It’s the microaggressions, the snide comments that we let go even though we know they are wrong.  Which of those do we pull up?

You can start by not taking part in excusing discrimination.  “Locker room talk” is only that because people have been trained to do it and that it’s acceptable.  Locker rooms can be bias free without being silent.  From there, move onto the microaggressions.  Phrases like “She gets hysterical.” in place of a man being “passionate and driven” should be challenged.  Language and actions that imply someone is lesser should always be challenged.

In the UK, banter is a huge part of the culture.  I respect that.  The content of the banter is where we need to check ourselves.  Kicking like a girl should not be an insult.  Gender, race, sexual diversity and ability should not be a part of it.  If this feels limiting, I encourage people to read more to diversify their language and ability to be funny.  Banter also requires consent on both parts.  Check to be sure the other person is giving consent and not just afraid to challenge.

Advocacy and allyship for yourself and others are a life you live, a language you speak, and a value you embody every day.  Challenging clearly states your boundaries for what is acceptable to be in this world.  Being silent is being complicit.  Saying nothing says that you are willing to live with that discrimination.  So, you can choose to challenge or to be silent.    Just remember, you are making a choice either way.

Gwen Jones – Educating Matters