Although third wave feminism has dramatically advanced the position of women within society over the past few decades, they are unfortunately often still faced with sexist comments in a number of environments. Most problematically, these comments often arise in the workplace, where many women are still looked down upon or not taken seriously because of their gender. Sometimes people will say things that, although offensive, are not quite extreme enough to be reported to Human Resources (HR).
Most recently, scientist and Nobel prize winner Tim Hunt made headlines with his now infamous statement, made while speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea in June: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”
Sadly, opinions such as the above are still widespread. Otherwise genial colleagues can often make unintentionally sexist comments, completely unaware that they are rendering others uncomfortable. These comments, like Hunt’s above, often dismiss the ability of women to perform certain tasks because of their gender, and stereotype women as being overly emotional or hysterical.
Sexist comments at work should not give you a reason to resign but, rather, a cause to fight. Such statements should be challenged to put a stop to stereotypical attitudes towards women. Stand up for yourself with the following tips.
1. Don't Ignore it
When you are faced with a sexist remark, it can be tempting to simply let it slide. However, the reason comments like these are still made and accepted in society today is exactly because of the fact that many of these opinions go ignored. The single most effective tool we have for eradicating sexism is confronting it head on. Think about it: if someone is unaware that their behaviour is offensive, they are unlikely to figure it out on their own. The only way this problem can be solved is if you highlight it.
Although no one wants to make a scene at work, it is important to immediately address any inappropriate comments. Doing so will not only win respect for yourself, but it will also ensure that the offender thinks twice before making such offhand statements in the future. There is no need to become overly emotional or start a massive row; instead, stay calm and express your dissatisfaction at being spoken to in such a derogatory or condescending manner.
In general, men actually respond positively when they are called out on their sexist comments. Not many men in this day and age want to be perceived as sexist pigs, so they will usually apologise and clarify their position after considering it from your point of view. Countless studies have proven that confronting bias improves the subjects’ perceptions and reduces their future bias, so do not be shy to speak up.
2. Repeat Their Statement
One of the best ways to deal with sexist comments is to ask the speaker to repeat themselves. State that you do not understand their comment or joke. For example: “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Could you please tell me why women are bad drivers?” The person is guaranteed to feel stupid as soon as they start having to explain why an out-of-line statement is indeed humorous. He will be far less likely to make such jokes in the future, if it risks public embarrassment.
Asking someone to repeat themselves is often all that is required for the person to realise how inappropriate they are being.
3. Use the Same Tactics
If a man comments on your clothes or your body, respond by saying something about his clothes or body. Doing so often makes the man realise how he is exhibiting a double standard regarding gender.
In addition, bigots hate being called emotional. If a man says something that is out of line, simply respond by saying that he is becoming emotional and needs to get back on track with the topic at hand.
4. Ask if They Would Speak to a Man in the Same Way
If a man calls you “sweetheart” or “honey”, tell him you do not appreciate being given pet names and ask him if he would speak to a male colleague in the same manner.
Prescriptive gender bias is still rampant in the workforce. This occurs when a woman is seen to have broken through the ranks and claimed a traditionally male position, thereby violating her prescribed gender norms. If a man says you are being too bossy or aggressive, again ask if they would describe a male colleague with the same words.
Usually the answer to both of the questions above will be ‘no’, which gives you the perfect opportunity to calmly point out what is often unintentional sexism.
5. Question Gender Assumptions
Women are often lumped with the low-value jobs around the office, such as answering the telephone, taking notes and showing around junior employees. Even when a woman is in a senior managerial position, she will often still be expected to take on the secretarial tasks if she is the only woman in a room full of men. The next time someone asks you to make them a cup of coffee or bake cupcakes for a colleague’s birthday, ask why they cannot do it themselves - unless, of course, you love baking!
6. Find an Ally
If someone makes a sexist comment within a group setting, such as during a meeting, look around the room and see if you can find someone who appears equally disgusted. Lock eyes with that person, roll your eyes and, once you challenge the speaker’s statement, ask your ally to chime in with their opinion. In this way, the tables will turn and the speaker will be the one who finds themselves ostracised from the group.
7. Tread Carefully When Dealing With Your Boss
Although it can be easy to follow the above strategies when it comes to dealing with your colleagues who are on the same level playing field, it becomes a different scenario when you are faced with a sexist boss. That said, fighting back and demanding respect is often viewed as an honorable trait by those on top - just make sure you are extra careful when choosing your words. It is still important to challenge gender assumptions and stereotypes regardless of who has made the statement.
8. Seek Higher Help When Necessary
There is a difference between an offhand statement, such as “women can’t do math”, and someone partaking in sexual harassment. If you repeatedly feel uncomfortable and are afraid to speak out against an intimidating colleague, keep a log of all the comments made and take it to HR. Tell them that the other person’s actions are interfering with your comfort, safety and efficiency in the workplace. The person will be reprimanded for their behaviour, and your work environment will become far more pleasant.
9. Use Gender Bias to Your Advantage
Sometimes, it can be helpful to indeed embrace sexist stereotypes and ask yourself what a man would do in your position. For example, would a man sit back and let himself be insulted?
One reason why men still often earn more money than women for the same job is because women are usually afraid to ask to be rewarded for their hard work. Women are expected to work harder and be more of a team player, so they are often viewed negatively if they ask for a pay raise. Again, ask if a man would doubt his abilities and deny himself something he has earned. In most cases, the answer is no. If you spot an opportunity to either stand up for yourself or demand more within the workplace, seize it.
While not everyone has the freedom to leave a company which is rife with sexism, you should never have to put up with having your confidence and self-worth undermined. Use the tips above to fight back against misogyny and micro-aggression, and share your stories with other women to create an open community of resistance. Only then can society really change.
How have you fought back against sexist comments in the past?