Partnership & Accountability blog series

Partnership & Accountability blog series

Accountability to the women´s and to social justice movements is crucial for building collaborative and equitable partnerships. Accountability requires the development of a receptive capacity in men and others who have been placed in positions of power and privilege, so that they can listen to the perspectives and needs of oppressed groups in order to become authentic allies. Accountability and partnership building also require us to engage in respectful dialogues, and a willingness to constantly address issues and concerns raised by our partners.

We hope that this blog series contributes to these ongoing conversations and serves as another platform to share useful information.

Blog posts are written by member and partners of MenEngage, for whom we provide a platform for dialogue. The opinions expressed in the posts do not necessarily represent those of the MenEngage Alliance.

To learn more about MenEngage & Accountability go to

Thursday, January 28, 2016

My gender-based privilege workshop

By Terry Howard

WARNING: What follows isn't for the feint-of-heart. It may be hazardous to your health because it may uncork a range of possible reactions – shock, empathy, anger and denial (plus a few choice four-letter words).

Terry Howard
But by the time you finish this, I will have been whisked off under heavy guard to one of my safe houses under a writer's protection program. So don't come gunning for my head, okay?

With that opening salvo, I pry open another diversity "undiscussable": privilege. Unearned privilege, that is.

But before we take the leap, understand that the negative connotation of the word privilege makes it difficult to talk about. Believe me folks, I know, having been stonewalled with silence and stiff-armed with denials the few times I was brave, or naïve, enough to attempt open a dialogue on the topic. I quickly learned that broaching privilege is akin to telling someone that their newborn baby isn't cute; they don't want to hear it.

Need further evidence of the desire to avoid the word privilege? Well, I got some friendly advice from a fellow that we replace the word with the more palatable "systemic advantage." Otherwise, he warns, you won't be listened to. The word is that powerful, that discomfiting, that disabling.

But despite some testiness over the word, privilege does deserve a place in any sincere talk of an inclusive environment. So whatever the risk, I'll poke at a topic that's high up on the list of unmentionables for those who have bought into the myth of meritocracy, or that just can't, or refuse to, see their privilege. The focus here will be on male privilege, or systemic male advantage, if the former is too off-putting for some readers.

Now the question I grappled with is how best to get my readers to come to grips with the reality of privilege, particularly those who have it but can't see it. Research backed up by reams of empirical data was one approach. Having Wellesley College’s renowned expert in privilege, Peggy McIntosh, come to speak on the topic briefly crossed my mind.

Then suddenly, the thought occurred to me that, hey, maybe I could just do a "workshop" on privilege in this space (and from the security of my safe house).

So here goes.

Imagine yourself in a large room of 30 people from different backgrounds (ethnic, economic, age, job function, etc.). Imagine further that the group is evenly split, women and men, and that you're all standing up against a wall in the room facing outward. I'm the facilitator and I'm standing on the other side of the room directly across from you.

As I read each of the following statements, take one step toward me each time you can answer "yes" to the statement:

·    I can be confident that others won't think I got a job or promotion because of my gender.
·    I can be assertive without fear of being called the "b-word."
·    I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage, or questioned if I don't.
·    The decision to hire me will never be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to start a family anytime soon.

Okay, now turn around and face those left behind. Who's there? What could be going through their minds right now? Now remain where you are and either step forward or stay put based on your response to the following statements:

·    I can be somewhat sure that if I ask to see the "person in charge," it will be a person of my gender; the higher up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.
·    The odds of my being sexually harassed are so low as to be negligible.
·    My ability to make decisions and my capabilities in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.
·    If I'm unattractive, the disadvantages are relatively easy to ignore.

Stop. Don't stalk out. Take a deep breath. Here, take an extra strength Excedrin. You'll get through this, I promise. Let's continue.

Take a step forward if you can honestly say 'yes' to the following:
·    I am not taught to fear walking alone after dark in public places.
·    I can speak in a large group without putting my gender on trial.
·    There are value-neutral clothing choices available to me; it is possible for me to choose clothing that does not send any particular message to the world.
·    It is unlikely that I will be beaten up by a spouse or lover.

Naughty, naughty. Put that chair down, Biffy. It's not nice to throw stuff at the facilitator.

Turn and see who is left standing at the wall. Any surprises? Now for a final round:

·    If I have children and pursue a career, chances are no one will think that I'm selfish for not staying at home.
·    If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure that that won't be seen as a mark against my entire gender's capabilities.
·    In public places with large crowds, there are seldom long lines of people trying to get into my gender's restroom.

Okay, take your seats and a deep breath while you process what just happened. Now, close your eyes and imagine that one of those consistently left standing at the wall is someone dear to you; perhaps your daughter, wife or partner. Hey, hey, hey, don't throw that cell phone at me. Would someone call Security?

Can unearned privilege be undone?

First, realize that almost everyone has experienced privilege and subordination – we all know what it feels like to be an outsider. So the hope is that sheer empathy can be a strong enough motivator; that members of the privileged can somehow develop the capacity to see themselves from the perspective of those less privileged and either share their privilege or, at a minimum, work to ensure that others are not disadvantaged by their lack of privilege.

Second, understand that protecting privilege is strong because we're taught not to recognize it, says Wellesley's Peggy McIntosh. Systemic advantage – recognized or not – is just not something that people will willingly give up without compelling enough reasons or incentive to do so.

Now it's also important to understand that not all privileged group members have a shared interest in benefiting from their privilege. Thus it's possible for courageous members to challenge the privileges their group takes for granted by refusing to reproduce their privilege and calling into question the privilege-based attitudes, comments and behaviors of fellow group members.

So what else could possibly motivate us to confront the reality of male privilege?

In part, the answer begins with the hard question of adverse business impact – engagement, commitment, productivity – on the part of those women "left standing at the wall." How do you keep them from leaving the wall and heading to the nearest exit, taking with them some much-needed skills and talents? And what's the message, the chilling message, to those promising women who aspire one day to "be like" those who left?

Uh oh, I must run now. A disguise and an undisclosed safe house await me.
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, story-teller and global trainer. He is currently a senior associate with DiversityWealth( a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, the American Diversity Report and New York-based Catalyst’s “Men Advocating Real Change.” He can be reached at To read more from Terry Howard, go to

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