Ladies, This One’s For You: How to Deal with Sexism in the Workplace

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Sexism (n.): prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.
Remember when you were little, and your teacher would ask the class, “What two strong boys can go get me some chairs?” All the while, you’re sitting there saying to yourself, “But I could do that, too!” It’s not that you can’t lift those chairs, it’s because of the inherit train of thought that men are stronger than women. Of course, in some instances that is true, but in other cases? Not so much. This early form of sexism unfortunately follows women throughout the rest of their lives. A man proposes an important piece of legislation and is seen as passionate, vocal and determined. But what if a woman proposes the same important piece of legislation? She’s crazy, emotional and aggressive.
So, what do you do to battle a sexist workplace?
1. Stay Calm
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I know what you’re thinking. “Why should I stay calm while I’m being harassed by a colleague because of my gender?”  I’m not going to lie; it’s hard. But question them about their comments while staying cool: they’ll be so dumbfounded by your level-headedness they won’t know what to say. “I’d like to think that we could do it graciously, gracefully, without hostility because our behavior is socially constructed. I mean, I try to remember all the time when I get angry at people for their socially inappropriate behavior that they weren’t hatched that way, right? Somehow, they learned that this behavior is right, and can we try to rectify it without making enemies of each other,” said Professor Deborah Weissman, a distinguished Law Professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. You may see your sexist coworker as an enemy already, but they may not see the same for you. We do not want to make an official enemy of someone already causing problems— whether they know it or not.
But if you’re not one for confrontation, take the issue up with human resources. They will be happy to mediate any discussion you want to have with your coworker. They will keep an eye on the situation, and should problems continue to occur, they will take matters into their own hands-on addressing the correct people to get a more permanent solution.
2. Pull an AOC
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Your colleague said some choice words that sound like serious stereotypes about your gender (“What, are you on your period?”). You didn’t like them. What can you do? Address it. Channel your inner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Let your offender know, as well as your other colleagues, that this behavior is not befitting of a professional. But what if it continues? If this becomes an ongoing issue, bring it up to the rest of your colleagues. A perfect time would be during an open forum or an open discussion during a meeting. Remain cool and collected, and even if they don’t apologize for what they did, everyone else in the room knows about the consistent problem and that you clearly established boundaries.
3. Form a Team
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If you’re in a setting surrounded by multiple people in the office who make sexist comments, find yourself a group of people who you know can back you up. Even if it is just one person, that makes a difference in the grand scheme of things. That way, you can protect each other from unwelcomed gendered stereotypes. “I’ve definitely been in rooms where someone says something really sexist and walked out, and one of the people in the meeting is like, ‘Hey, I’m sorry that happened, that was really awful.’ And so then you know that person [is] kind of like a potential ally… It doesn’t just have to be women, it can also be men, or non-binary folks,” said Professor Stefanie Johnson, an Associate Professor of Organizational Leadership and Information Analytics at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Say your boss asks about a situation with your harasser in the same room and they play off what they did or call you a liar. You can say, “Well, they saw it too.” But what if they work in numbers too? Stick with your unit and continue to professionally combat the harassment. Eventually, someone will slip up.
4. “Excuse me, I’m speaking.”
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Kamala Harris said this phrase perfectly when current Vice President Mike Pence interrupted her during her time to speak at the Vice-Presidential Debate. And you can use it too. You’re discussing something during a meeting, and a colleague abruptly starts talking over you? The natural reaction may be to stop and listen, but remember: it is your time to talk. Don’t let them try and diminish your words, because what you have to say is important, even if a colleague doesn’t think so. You might discover an ingrained response to allow for a male to speak due to their timbre. “I’ve heard judges in the courtroom say to women attorneys, or sometimes women students who are practicing for the goal of law, ‘Speak up.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Everybody in this courtroom can hear her.’ …I sometimes ask myself, ‘Did you really not hear her, or are you expecting a male voice?’ There’s almost a social construction of how we hear,” said Professor Weissman. This construct does not give a male an excuse to talk over you—make Kamala proud.
5. Use the Same Language
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This may sound counterintuitive, but hear me out: ever hear of that old adage, “Don’t dish out what you can’t take”? Use it to your advantage. For example, if a colleague makes a snide comment about you acting too aggressively while discussing something you’re passionate about, remember that. The next time they become ardent about a topic, throw it back— “Wow, you sound aggressive” —in the same tone. It will throw them off-balance. If they continue to make remarks, make them back. They won’t be used to hearing that sort of intonation used on them or being treated like that. Should they come up to you about it, you can simply respond that you were treating them the same way they treated you.
6. Men Experience Sexism Too
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While it is more commonplace to hear that women deal with sexism, there is a percentage of men who experience the same discrimination in the workplace as well. “The workplace can be like a petri dish, like a science project. One spends many hours with diverse types of fellow associates and may even travel, creating another environment. My story starts in a closed office with my superior during my yearly review. My superior throughout the meeting had lucid physical body language, turning to inappropriate verbal language. Implied, proposed and eluded ‘action gets money’. I immediately felt uncomfortable and quickly shut it down by leaving. Eventually I had to resign to rectify the situation,” said St. John’s University Marketing Professor Richard Bigger. Sexism, in its irony, does not discriminate who it impacts; while men are generally the offenders, there are women who make sexist comments as well. “Sexism is a hard topic not just for women but sometimes for men too. It can be embarrassing and can diminish your status within the workplace. One must stay strong and resolved to the truth and what is right, [because] if we do not, we become nothing more than an animal that walks upright. Love yourself and your fellow man and strive for the very best, especially when one has been hurt,” said Professor Bigger. We all need to be on the lookout when sexism rears its ugly head.
7. This Isn’t New
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Unfortunately, today’s sexism is a historical pattern. Women, throughout the centuries have had to deal with the concept of sexism. Sexism in the workplace started when women began to go to work in large numbers starting with the Industrial Revolution, the mass immigration in the late 19th century, WWII and finally in the 1960s and 1970s where they would stay in the modern-day work force. Women had so few options in the early days of the transition from home to work. Men were almost always in the position of power, being either owner or supervisor, creating the unequal working environment. The opportunities and pay scale for women in the workforce would be affected for decades,” said Professor Bigger. That is why it is so important when a woman enters a typically male-dominated position like CEO, COO and CFO. “The truth of the matter is that our society is a patriarchy. There are more men in power, either in our government, in workplaces, etc. Society, therefore, benefits them. The more power they feel, the more likely they are to speak over someone, especially women. I believe the unequal distribution of power is what inclines men to speak over women and diminish them,” said Jen Tenuto, a senior at St. John’s University. Even today in the American government, having a female representative equals a huge deal. In 2020 so far, only 127 women serve in Congress, and 26 women serve in the Senate. For a country with a projected ratio of 97:100 men to women making up the population, this is an issue.
8. Educate them
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Sexism is wholly ingrained in our society, so much so that some women don’t even realize that they experience discrimination based on their gender. “Are you on your period?” represents a common sexist question to appear when a woman is in a bad mood—a lot of us write it off. But we shouldn’t. Call these people out on their conduct. “If we don’t make people aware of their behavior, they can’t change either. Some of this behavior is so ingrained in all of us, and we’re not going to change it if we remain silent,” said Professor Weissman.  This sort of commenting and questioning is not appropriate in a professional setting, but a lot of these questions even come in during interviews. When a potential employer asks you, “What does your husband do?” or “Are you planning on getting pregnant?” redirect them. Those sorts of questions have no place in an interview for a job—after all, shouldn’t they question you about credentials? Where you went to school? Don’t let these questions go.
9. It is Not Your Fault
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When someone is a victim of sexism, they may think that they’re alone. That’s not true! Unfortunately, almost every woman in the workplace experiences one form of sexism or another. From “I don’t know how you do this with kids at home,” to “Are you sure someone like you can handle it?,” these microaggressions weed their way into everyday conversation. Sexism and racism intersect as well: black women and Asian women are more likely to experience sexism due to the stereotypes of their race. “I’ll say with what I’ve noticed with studying the Me, Too Movement, is that a lot of women experience harassment, whether it is sexual harassment, and we also studied gender harassment… they think it’s only them. Like, they’re the only person receiving this treatment and therefore, it must be something wrong when them. But when you learn that everyone is experiencing the same stuff…it may be more comforting to know that it’s not your fault—it’s their fault, the person doing it. There’s value in that,” said Professor Johnson.  Don’t ever blame yourself for their sexism! And the next time you feel alone, or that it’s just you, remember that you have a whole movement behind you.
10. Remember: You’re Awesome
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Girl! You were meant to get this job. Just because some ignorant and arrogant coworkers may suggest otherwise, does not mean it’s true. “From personal experience, sexism has made me extremely uncomfortable and nervous, which are not feelings you want ever, especially at work… [But] the advice I would give is to hold your head up high. It is important to have confidence in yourself and your actions, especially in the workplace,” said Tenuto. It’s common to experience the Imposter Syndrome, where you harbor feelings of inadequacy, guilt and self-doubt even when experiencing great success due to your skillset. In fact, it is estimated that around 70% of people during their lifetime experience it!
There is such an overarching issue with men diminishing women’s accomplishments, multiple studies were even conducted on it! “There was a study that was pretty cool that actually showed that managers—it’s not like they’re trying not to recognize women’s accomplishments—they truly don’t see them… Confirmation bias is this phenomenon of like, ‘I expect this person is going to be a really good athlete’ and when I watch them play, I see all the good things they do because I expect them to be a good athlete, right? And if I expect you to fail, and you make a mistake, I’m like, ‘Oh, well, I knew you were going to make a mistake.’ I think because of that lower presumed competence for women because they’re ‘lower status’, people are more likely to notice mistakes than they are accomplishments because the accomplishments are inconsistent with our biases and so you overlook them…It feels like less of a big deal,” said Professor Johnson. But remember that you deserve to be there. You did the work, you got the interview and you got the job. After all, you’re not costume jewelry—you’re Cartier!

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