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How to Handle Sexist Comments at Work

Topics: Career Advice

At this point, the discussion around sexism in the workplace is starting to sound more like a broken record than a conversation. It’s right in line with other fun challenges like racial bias, ageism and sexual discrimination, but despite being highly dissected in articles, conferences, leadership forums and policy, it somehow manages to persist in offices across the country. In fact, a whopping 81 percent of women polled — and more than 50 percent of men — report experiencing instances of sexism at work.

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As someone who’s not yet 30, I’m surprised that I’ve already encountered so many instances of blatant office sexism. In fact, I can’t think of a single professional environment where I haven’t been discriminated against, talked down to, or treated unfairly because of my gender. Sometimes it comes from coworkers. Other times, it trickles from the top down. On too many occasions to count, I’ve had to sit back and listen to a company leader say things to female coworkers in front of colleagues that they’d never say to another man. At best, it’s uncomfortable. At worst, it’s demeaning, painful and dangerous.

Luckily, there are a few things we can do to acknowledge office sexism. The next time someone slides you a sexually discriminatory comment or assignment, fire back with one of these retorts. They’re not perfect — and by no means are they comprehensive — but in today’s professional landscape, they’re a good place to start.

If you can, acknowledge the comment.

When it comes to shutting down sexist comments, one of your most powerful tools is to call attention to it. As The Muse suggests, consider saying something like, “I’m not following your joke. Why is that funny?” Something like, “That’s inappropriate (and offensive),” can also be helpful in getting straight to the point. If the person making the comment holds a position of power over you, you might just stop, make eye contact with him or her, make eye contact with the other individuals who heard the comment, and say something that communicates that you heard and noted the comment. Don’t worry if it feels awkward — calling out discrimination is one of the only ways to put an end to it. And don’t underestimate the simple power of a drawn out, “Hmm.”

Keep communication digital.

There’s nothing worse than managing a relationship with a sexist, demeaning client. If it doesn’t look like the client has any plans to change their tone, try to keep your communication digital if possible. It’s harder to sneak in subtle jabs over email, so this should help keep things direct and professional. If you’re on a call with the client or having a face-to-face meeting, you might consider asking a coworker to sit in with you to note any inappropriate behavior.

Set expectations.

If you’re stepping into a long meeting or workshop with a client or coworker who’s consistently distracted, on their phone, talking over you, or having side conversations, consider creating a few “norms” for the meeting before getting started. Things like a “hold the floor” approach where the person speaking has the floor without interruption until they’re finished, a “no-phone zone” rule to keep phones and computers put away, and a “nothing’s off the table” or “everyone speaks once” (where all attendees get a chance to weigh in before ideas are shot down) mindset can keep things from veering into a gender-slanted zone of disrespect.

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Pull the offender aside.

This will take some guts, but with some direct communication, you should (hopefully) be able to handle any issues of sexism quickly and directly. And odds are, it won’t be as scary as you think. According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, although men confronted about blatant sexism often responded by trying to laugh off or rationalize their behavior, they rarely responded to hostility or aggression. When bringing sexism to a coworker’s attention, try framing it in a fairly neutral way, saying something like, “I’m not sure you realize you’re doing it, but it makes me uncomfortable when you say XYZ.” This should soften any perceived character or ego blow on the part of the offender, and help you two get to a place of mutual understanding faster. And if it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to be direct in highlighting why it’s inappropriate.

Request a re-org.

If the behavior continues and is keeping you from working effectively, consider requesting a re-org. See if the offending employee can be moved to another team, or if someone else can pick up the sexist client. It’s not ideal, and you’ll need to weigh the cost and benefits from your own perspective, but if the switch can be handled with little to no professional disruption on your end, it might be worth it.

If none of these things work, and there’s a pattern of behavior that’s impacting your productivity or making you feel unsafe, it may be time to make a complaint to HR.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you ever had to handle sexist comments at work? We want to hear from you. Tell us your story in the comments or talk to us on Twitter.

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Megan Shepherd
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