During one of Career Contessa’s #CCMentorMonday posts on Instagram, we got this completely legitimate, complex, and essential question: “How do I deal with sexism in the workplace?” It was one of those questions that makes you go, “Ooh,” but then we immediately realized we didn’t have an answer. We’ve all endured those terribly long sexual harassment training courses, and it’s old news that sexual harassment is wholly unacceptable, but sexism in the workplace is unfortunately more of a gray zone. And gray zones are hard. So we’ll break it down for you below by defining workplace sexism and giving you tips on how to combat it.
What is workplace sexism?
This is the main reason we’ve subconsciously avoided the topic so far. To face a problem, you have to know what the problem is, and defining workplace sexism is pretty difficult. We’ll start by splitting the term in two:
- Overt Sexism – This is the more serious form of sexism. It’s the sexism that makes headlines – the scandals in Congress, the Tinder lawsuit that led to a feminist dating app, the much protested Hollywood gender pay gap, etc. We know unwanted sexual advances or harassment cause harm to our wellbeing and sense of place in the office, which is why overt behavior is commonly assumed to be the most damaging type of sexism.
- Casual Sexism – This could also be called latent sexism. It’s so ingrained in company culture that it often passes by unnoticed. You may not even realize it’s happening to you, but just experience a subtle feeling of alienation or even imposter syndrome. Think: “harmless” sexist jokes, “mansplaining,” or even those times when your boss treats your male colleagues marginally differently than you.
Tip #1: Don’t settle for double standards
That is to say, if your male boss calls all your male coworkers by their last names but calls you by your first (or God forbid, “sweetheart”), ask why. It can feel scary, but often double standards are so ingrained in people’s minds that they don’t realize they’re enabling them. Asking why brings perspective into the situation, forcing the person to consider their actions publicly. By calling him or her out in a clear, but non-abrasive way, you bring light to the issue and force them to assess their own behavior. This also means that if you are in a position of seniority, you should confront sexist behavior even if it’s not targeted at you. Speak up for women just as you would want them to speak up for you.
Tip #2: Find allies in the workplace
If there are other women in the office, speak to them about their own experiences. How are they feeling? Even if your experiences are different, it helps to discuss things with coworkers, especially if they’ve had more experience in the industry or have been working at the company longer. Speaking to other women also means you’ll have someone more objective to consider your problems. It’s easy to feel like you’re being overly sensitive when you’re one woman facing a fraternity-style workplace.
Tip #3: Go to HR, that’s what they are there for
HR doesn’t need to be a last resort. In fact, they are there for advice, so consult them. It also doesn’t hurt to bring these issues up in meetings with your boss, especially during a performance review if it’s a long-term, overarching issue in the work environment. It helps to present a possible solution when you bring up a touchy problem. If you feel like women aren’t getting adequate representation in your office, suggest organizing a women’s panel that meets monthly or that your company implements a training or mentorship program for women to combat the inequality and improve office culture.
Tip #4: If it’s overt sexism, you must speak up
Let’s be clear: sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable. It’s one thing for your coworkers to not invite you to lunch, but if you’re being sexually harassed or feel uncomfortable at work, head straight to HR. Being the one to speak up will cause some friction, especially if your office has a “good old boys” mentality, but we still think it’s worth it. If you are concerned about retaliation, there are ways to preserve your anonymity, like a private conversation with HR or submitting an anonymous report. However, we don’t recommend this approach unless it’s your only choice. Part of the issue with workplace sexism is that it often isn’t confronted.
Tip #5: How to deal with a sexist boss
Making space for women may require a major cultural shift, especially in male dominated workplaces. If your cubicle was just a boys’ club up until the last few years, your boss’ sexism may not be intentional at all. But that doesn’t mean it should stand, and that’s where the “asking why” bit comes in. Call attention to the behavior and see what your boss’ response is. Then, if necessary, explain why you feel like it could be perceived as inappropriate. Chances are, he or she will recant.
If your boss still doesn’t understand your issue, explain that it makes you, specifically, uncomfortable in the office environment and that you’d like it to stop. If the problem still continues after you’ve voiced your concerns, that’s when the line crosses from casual sexism to overt sexism – because your boss knows you’re uncomfortable and continues the behavior anyway. That’s when you talk to HR or another supervisor.
Tip #6: How to deal with a sexist client
We’ve covered how to deal with sexism if it’s internal, but what about if the offender is a contractor or client? We’d say it depends on the context.
- One-time client – If it leaves a bad taste in your mouth but you feel it isn’t worth the confrontation, finish the project and don’t work with them again. If you feel compelled to speak up, ask them to repeat what they said. It forces them to pause and consider their thoughts. If that doesn’t work, move on to asking why they said what they said.
- Repeat client – You’ve probably heard the adage that working with a client is like being in a relationship. An overtly sexist client deserves to be dumped just like a bad boyfriend, regardless of shared finances.
- Company client – If you’ve been assigned to a project and aren’t sure about the politics of confrontation, consult your boss. He or she can decide how to proceed, and if you’re truly uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to ask for a reassignment.