Common sexist scenarios
- You are subjected to irrelevant and insenstive questions. If you’re of childbearing age, you may be asked if you are planning on having children (and passed over for a job if you say yes). You may also be asked about childcare arrangements if you have children. It’s unusual for male employees to be asked this question, but women are often probed about their family life. I even know some women who have been asked if they are pregnant when they’re not!
- You’re expected to perform tasks your male colleagues don’t. Perhaps you’re always expected to take the minutes or make drinks for meetings. Or maybe you’re the one who has to organise birthday cards and work socials while the men get on with the ‘real work’.
- You’re treated differently. Maybe your male boss treats your male colleagues like equals but treats you like his personal PA. Or your female boss feels threatened by other women and gives you a hard time. Perhaps you’ve been in client meetings where you are sidelined and ignored while your male colleagues are assumed to be your superiors.
- You’re spoken to in a patronising way. Perhaps you’ve been called a ‘good girl’ or ‘sweetheart’, or told ‘you’re not like other women’. Worse still, your emotional state might have been called into question in connection to your menstrual cycle or because you have ‘baby brain’. If you’re passive, your colleagues may see you as weak, and if you’re outspoken they may see you as brash and over-opinionated. Clients may even have asked you if a man was available to help them because they think women are less capable.
- Your ideas are overlooked. You make a suggestion, which is ignored or derided, but when your male colleague makes the same suggestion five minutes later his idea is welcomed and even applauded.
- You’ve been propositioned or assaulted at work. Some women have been harrassed by male employees – including their managers – and pressured to comply. This can be really awkward and embarrassing. In extreme cases, women are physically assaulted but are unable to prove it because it’s their word against the perpertrator’s. Some have even been fired for refusing sexual contact.
Tips for handling sexism at work
- Turn the tables. If you feel you are being patronised because of your gender, ask the person if he or she would have said the same thing to a man. For example, “Do you comment on the way Bob is dressed at work?” or “Would you call James ‘darling’?”
- Question your role. If you’re being asked to carry out tasks your male colleagues aren’t, ask your supervisor why you are being treated differently. For example, “I’ve made the coffee for the last three meetings, isn’t it someone else’s turn?”
- Talk to the offender. It might be that there is one individual in particular who is making life difficult. If so, try to speak to them in private (or with a chaperone if they have made sexual advances). Explain why you feel upset/angry/aggrieved. For example, ‘You talked over me in that meeting and made a negative comment about the female clients afterwards.’ They may apologise and instantly change their behaviour. If not, you may need to take further action.
- Don’t laugh at sexist jokes. Refusing to laugh at sexist (or any other offensive) jokes can really make a point and could even prompt a change in behaviour, at least while you’re around. You could even ask the ‘joke’ teller to repeat what they have said as a way of calling out their behaviour. Ask why they think it’s funny or tell them it’s not appropriate.
- Keep a diary of events. If you’re being harrassed or patronised on a regular basis, keep a log of offending incidents. Include dates, times, names of people present and what was said or done. The time may come where you need to speak to a manager or HR about it. If you want to lodge an official complaint, these notes will help to show a pattern of sexism in your workplace.
- Seek legal advice. If you think you are being discriminated against or your job is under threat due to sexual harrassment, you may need to talk to a solicitor. Your manager may not take your allegations seriously, but a legal professional will.
The worst part about sexism is that it’s often subtle and deeply ingrained, and any attempt to combat it can lead to further incidents of sexism (“Oh, it must be that time of the month again…”). Whether you are male or female, it’s your responsibility to stand up to discrimination in the workplace. If you can’t do it alone, seek help and advice.