Sexism in the workplace is more complicated, subtle, and tenacious than many people realize. Although overt sexual harassment is still a real problem, many women grapple with more indirect forms of discrimination on a daily basis. They are expected, for example, to tolerate sexist jokes and comments, pet names like “sweetheart,” and comments about their appearances, for fear of being seen as humorless or uncooperative. Sheryl Sandberg has written about how female workers are also tasked with a disproportionate share of “office housework,” domestic and administrative tasks like planning and taking notes at meetings, mentoring other workers, and bringing food to office celebrations. These subtle forms of sexism may be less obvious than others, but they are far from harmless: In fact, a study released in August found that low-intensity sexism is just as detrimental to women in the workplace as overt harassment and discrimination.
Dealing with sexism — of both the obvious and subtle varieties — is a very tricky thing. Most companies have sexual harassment policies in place to address instances of very obvious sexism, but it’s harder to know how to cope with subtle, everyday slights and gendered expectations. In a better world, you could call out sexism at work boldly and publicly, and the people being sexist would immediately realize their mistakes, apologize, and try to be better in the future. (Obviously, in a perfect world, sexism simply wouldn’t be an issue.) But that kind of bold approach simply won’t work for a lot of female employees, many of whom would face a backlash from coworkers and supervisors that could make their jobs considerably worse.
On the one hand, it’s irritating to have to think about how to deal with sexism without pissing people off (After all, if someone else is being inappropriate, why should you have to tiptoe around that person?). On the other, you want to stay employed. So what to do? There is no simple answer. If you’re dealing with an office sexist (or a generally sexist environment), it may take some trial and error to figure out how best to improve your workplace. Speak up about instances of sexism — whether they take the form of a coworker commenting inappropriately on your appearance to your boss always assigning women with coffee duty — but try to maintain a calm and measured approach. If you can stay cool in the face of someone else’s defensive anger, it’ll only highlight that person’s inappropriateness. Here’s are some things to try:
1. Turn the tables.
If someone says or does something that is sexist, ask that person if he or she would have done or said the same thing if you were a man. For example: “Would you have said that if I were a guy?” “Do you comment on your male coworkers’ clothes?” “Do you call the dudes in the office ‘sweetheart,’ too?” You can ask these questions in a nonthreatening way — even with a sense of humor — but your point that you’re being treated differently will stand.
2. Ask why you’re being targeted for certain tasks — without necessarily bringing up gender.
If you’re always being tasked with domestic duties around your office, like getting coffee, taking notes, and dealing with catering, take a moment to ask your supervisor “Why?” Instead of heading straight to an accusation of sexism, ask him or her for a simple explanation. Try saying something like, “I’ve noticed that I’ve been asked to get coffee for the last six meetings. I know I make great coffee, but is there some reason that my coworkers never get asked to do it?” Simply pointing out what’s going on may be enough to make your supervisor or colleague realize that he or she isn’t being equitable in distributing office tasks.
3. Have a sit-down talk with the person about it — in private.
Some people are more likely to be defensive and angry when called out in front of a group. If you feel that a colleague is being sexist or disrespectful, pull him or her aside to discuss the matter privately. Stay calm and keep it simple, i.e. “Your comments earlier about our female clients’ appearance made me uncomfortable. I know you were just joking around, but I think we should steer clear of those kinds of topics. I mean, you don’t talk about our male clients that way, do you?” You don’t need to force an argument — just make your position clear. And you may be surprised: The person you're talking to may appreciate the feedback; sometimes people do say things without thinking, really don't want to be offensive. A friendly reminder about what is and isn't OK may be all that's needed.
4. Don’t laugh at the joke.
If people in your office are making sexist jokes, sometimes simply not laughing will be enough to make your position clear. Make eye contact with the jokester and keep an impassive expression. That moment of discomfort may make him or her take a moment to really think about what’s being said.
5. When someone says something sexist, ask him or her to repeat it.
When someone makes a sexist comment, try responding by innocently asking him or her repeat it. Sometimes being forced to say the comment again — separate from the immediate context that led to it — will make the person realize just how inappropriate it was in the first place. Following up with silence and a raised eyebrow won't hurt either.
6. Ask for an explanation.
Again, having people pause for a moment and actually think through what they’re saying can sometimes be enough to make them realize that what they’re saying is totally not OK. When someone says or does something sexist, calmly and simply ask him or her to elaborate. You can ask, with a blank expression, “Why is that funny?” or “Wait, huh? Why would you assume I’m menstruating?”
7. Just say “Nope.”
When a colleague makes a sexist remark, sometimes the best thing to do is to keep your response short and direct. Just say, “That’s inappropriate” or “That’s not OK” and then move on.
8. Keep a log.
If you’re experiencing sexism, overt or subtle, it’s a good idea to keep a record of it. This could be especially helpful if you’re subject to forms of sexism that go unspoken. For example, if you’re constantly being tasked with domestic or secretarial duties that lie outside of your job description, it’ll help for you to be able to go to your supervisor or colleagues with concrete numbers: “You know, Carla and I have been asked to do the food ordering for the last ten lunch meetings. I’ve noticed that none of my male coworkers have been asked to do that.”
Keeping a record of episodes of sexism — and of any discussions or confrontations you’ve had about these episodes with colleagues or supervisors — is also a good idea in the event that the situation escalates and you do need to go to HR or even consult an attorney.
8. Go to a supervisor.
If sexism in your workplace is interfering with your ability to get work done, then it may be a good idea to bring the matter to the attention of your boss. I know that doing so can be a very fraught thing (and what if it’s your supervisor who’s being sexist?), so only take that step if you feel that you’ll be taken seriously. If you do raise the matter to a higher-up, try to be matter-of-fact and explain simply and factually what’s going on. (Here’s where your records might come in handy). It could also help to have some solutions in mind. If coffee-duty is consistently falling on female employees, for example, suggest starting a rotation among all the staff.