The #MeToo movement started well over a year ago, but that doesn’t mean sexual harassment, misogyny and sexist remarks no longer happen at work. It remains a frequent occurrence, sometimes overt, but more often subtle and insidious.
No industry or company is fully free of biased behavior and commentary.
The issue is especially prevalent in male-dominated industries, companies and teams. It is here that a culture of toxic masculinity fosters and grows. Over time, the lack of diversity allows a tunnel vision of sorts to develop. Individuals become unable to see beyond themselves, their preferences and their concerns, let alone how those may affect others.
Conformity is highly prized in such environments. This makes it rather easy for these ideas to be passed down from senior leadership to managers and new associates. A point often overlooked, female-dominated industries and companies as well as others that lack diversity beyond gender are equally problematic.
Single-sex dominated environments are difficult to change.
There have been generations of women working, yet they continue to struggle in male-dominated industries. As it relates to sexual harassment, 62% of women surveyed in 2017 reported it was a problem in their industry, and 49% said it was a problem in their workplace. A survey of lawyers found that 82% of women reported hearing sexist comments at work. The pay gap is larger in these industries, and women experience delays in promotion and access to higher profile assignments.
We can continue to wait for companies and leaders to do the right thing. Or, as we’ve seen play out publicly in Hollywood, we can take actions that will allow us to more effectively respond to bias, survive it and thrive despite it.
Sexual harassment defined
Before we go any further, let’s define sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is overt sexism at play. It includes unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature that interferes with the performance of one’s job. You could be propositioned to perform sexual favors in return for something like a promotion or pay raise. Alternatively, you could be denied those benefits should you decline.
Overt sexism, shockingly, still occurs. Yet, it’s the more subtle forms of sexism that is more common today. This makes it more difficult to define, and at times, harder to recognize. Often, this type of sexism is well-ingrained due to dated company or team cultures. It can be comments about your gender being inferior or a “harmless” sex joke, or a male boss treating his female employees differently than their male counterparts. Essentially, this type of sexism relates to any and all instances that can create a hostile working environment.
We know overt sexual harassment can cause bodily harm, and can have long-lasting emotional and psychological effects. Subtle sexism can be just as damaging to individuals and their sense of place at work. We need to remember this, so we can each do our part to dismantle the culture that allows sexism to thrive.
How you deal with sexism at work depends on the situation, your personality and what you are comfortable doing, as well as your relationships at work and more. Here are six possible approaches you can try.
Call it out
The easiest way to stop unwelcome sexist comments or sexual advances in the workplace is to address it in the moment. There are plenty of ways you can do this. If sexist “jokes” run rampant in your office, don’t laugh. You can walk away, and let your silence be your voice. Or, simply say, “That’s not appropriate.” If that’s not enough for you, you can use it as a teaching moment by explaining why the comment was inappropriate. Alternatively, you can use humorous retort that puts their comment into perspective.
If someone propositions you at work and you’re not into it, you must clearly let them know. If it’s not possible to do so in the moment or you feel it warrants repeating, circle back with the individual and let them know where you stand.
Sometimes people don’t realize the effects of their actions or comments. Or, as is true in male-dominated workplaces, the culture is so inherent they can’t see anything wrong with what they are saying or doing. You can help them grow and improve. It starts by raising their awareness of their behavior without attacking it. People have a harder time to listen and accept input when they are feeling criticized.
Instead of clapping back after hearing a sexist remark, ask them to repeat it. A comment may be deemed funny in the moment, but once repeated out of context, your colleague may immediately realize how inappropriate it was to say in the first place. Similarly, you can ask for clarification. Feel free to feign ignorance: “Why is that funny?”
If you’re always being tasked with office housework (i.e., taking notes, getting coffee), bring it to your supervisor’s attention by asking why: “Is there a reason why you haven’t asked Brad to fetch the team’s coffee orders?” As in the first instance, asking for an explanation requires the individual to pause and consider their reasoning.
Frame the situation
It may not always be appropriate or effective to respond to a sexist remark or biased behavior in the moment, or you may have recognized a pattern of behavior that needs more serious attention. In these instances, speak privately with the individual.
When you do, frame the situation from your collective desire to do good business. For example, if your colleague made an off-color joke in front of a female client, you can pull them aside to let them know how their comment may have been perceived by the client and how that could impact their working relationship.
Did your boss make a biased assumption at the team meeting, express how it could discourage or demoralize the junior team members. The intent is to assure the other person you’re both on the same side and want to do what’s right for the greater goal.
Of course, you will need to assess if such a conversation is appropriate. Consider your relationship with the person, the severity of the situation as well as other possible factors.
Find allies at work
Whenever we’re faced with a challenging or difficult situation, it’s always a good idea to find allies you can trust. This includes other female colleagues that could also be affected by the situation. Talk to them to understand their experience and share yours with them. This can be a great way to gain fresh perspectives. Plus, if your experiences align, you may be able to join forces as you raise the situation to management or HR.
Don’t overlook male allies. Most men are opposed to sexist and misogynistic behaviors. They can provide a unique perspective that can help you more strategically deal with the situation. Plus, having a male on your side when you call out bad behavior can go a long way in breaking the cycle.
Much of subtle sexism at work flies under the radar. Frequently, we are left wondering if we’re just being overly sensitive or if what happened could be classified as sexual harassment. We question motives and intentions, and second guess our feelings and reactions in the moment.
If you think you’re being harassed or the sexist culture is making for a hostile work environment, keep a record of each and every interaction. This includes phone conversations and in-person meetings. For each one, log the time, date and names of others in the meeting, and summarize what happened during the interaction. You’ll also want to keep any and all emails and text messages. If you’ve found an ally you can trust, tell them about your experience.
Two precautions: Keep your documentation on a personal device, notebook or file folder and store it outside of your office. Your work computer or phone isn’t the most secure place to store such information. Plus, don’t show or give your documentation to anyone at the company.
We’re finally at a point in time when women don’t have to submit to being sexually harassed (overtly or subtly) in the workplace. If you are being sexually harassed, or subjected to sexist commentary or biased behaviors that interfere with your ability to work, report it.
This isn’t always an easy step to take and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Be strategic, take the time to plan out your approach and play out different scenarios for the conversation.
First, consider who’s is the best person to tell. Will it be HR, your manager or perhaps, a senior leader you trust? To decide, consider who will take your concerns seriously and who is in a position to do something about it.
Next, consider what you want to happen by coming forward. How can they correct the situation so you can feel safe and respected at work? What improvements need to be made so it’s a better environment for everyone? If you have any solutions, come ready to share those. Any solutions you decide to present should be realistic and fair.
You’ll also want to take time to plan out what you will say. Speaking out can cause friction and discomfort. That’s why it’s imperative that you stick strictly to the facts in your conversations. Avoid any commentary where you have to assume another person’s intentions, state of mind or feelings.
Once you’ve had your meeting, following up in writing. Then, add your email to the rest of your documentation.
Speaking out against sexism at work is everyone’s responsibility. It’s not always easy and change doesn’t come overnight. So consider the above tactics and consider which will help you make the lasting changes you want to see at your company.