It is uplifting to see so movements like #TimesUp, #StandTaller, and #MeToo gaining traction in the fight to end gender bias, discrimination, and sexual harassment in the workplace and beyond. But as long as the discrimination and harassment continue, there is room for more initiatives and more ideas.
That is why I want to share a tactic I’ve developed during my career in a high-powered environment in Asia, a region that generally lags sorely behind the West in terms of gender equality. This tactic involves stating one simple, five-word phrase that reminds men of their role as our partners in the battle against discrimination and invites them to shift from being passive observers — or enablers — to becoming an active part of the change we seek in the world.
That phrase is: “Do I have your support?”
Though conceptually simple, these five words can have an extremely powerful effect.
Asking, “Do I have your support?” gives voice to a reality that is all too easy to ignore: Women cannot eliminate sexism on their own. We need men to help us dismantle it.
Raising this question also engages men explicitly and directly. When we ask, “Do I have your support?”, men must consider what this means. In hearing this question, many men will be forced to confront its implications for the very first time. This is an eye-opening experience for them. If their answer is “yes” — as we would fully hope and expect — they might then realize they need to revise their behavior so that their actions match their words.
As a woman living and working primarily in Vietnam, I have encountered countless situations where I’ve needed to use this phrase — and even more where I wished I had used it. Even though 73 percent of women in Vietnam are engaged in the workforce according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), male dominance remains well entrenched in Vietnamese society today.
Time and again I have been in situations that taught me things like: Don’t offer tea or coffee to other people in a meeting unless you have reached a senior enough position for this to be viewed as a gesture of goodwill rather than a given. Or: Don’t offer to take notes in a meeting, for it is always women who are asked to take notes. Instead, say “No,” and add, “In my experience, it is always women who are asked to take notes, and until we start refusing, it will stay that way. Do I have your support?”
Unfortunately, the words “Do I have your support?” can be less effective for directly confronting situations of harassment and inappropriate behavior. In these situations, I find the best we can do is develop other protective mechanisms that are more band-aids than solutions — that is, until the day these situations completely disappear. My own response when men behave inappropriately is to ignore what they are saying and focus on the official business agenda.
When possible, I try to make sure I bring someone else with me to a meeting. This makes it much harder for any men present to make even mildly suggestive comments. If that is not possible, then I often do one-on-ones with men I do not know well in a public venue. I always try my best not to give men an opening to go down an uncomfortable path. I also try to get to know their wives when possible.
However, “Do I have your support?” can be a very powerful tool for enlisting men who are not perpetrators but who are aware of harassment to speak up, speak out, or rise to your defense in situations such as:
- When difficult negotiations are given to your male colleagues because people assume men are tougher negotiators.
- A male colleague keeps complimenting you on your looks and you would like him to stop.
- You need to make it clear that you must leave the office by 5:30 several times a week to make it to your children’s daycare on time — and that this does not impact your productivity.
The good news, as I have discovered, is that more and more men are eager to help dismantle sexism.
My own father — who also happens to be my boss — is a glowing example. Even though he hails from a time when conversations about sexism, #MeToo, #StandTaller, and #TimesUp were nonexistent, he has never discriminated between men and women. He just wants the right person for the job. He likes to use the analogy about a block of wood: It does not matter what kind of wood it is, because it can be carved according to need.
My father has also been extremely supportive of my own decisions to focus on my career rather than on family life, which is quite rare in Vietnamese culture, and to help women play substantive roles at Tan Hiep Phat group, the beverage company of which I am deputy CEO. When men support their wives, their daughters, and their female employees and colleagues on their paths to success, they ultimately find that it benefits everybody.
My greatest hope is that if enough of us stand up and ask “Do I have your support?”, this will soon become the norm everywhere.