My current workplace is relatively gender-balanced, and after a year of working here I haven’t really encountered any overt sexism. However, at a colleague’s small farewell lunch two weeks ago where I was just one of two women, I was unpleasantly surprised. Most of the men (five out of six) started discussing which women in the sales department they’d like to sleep with, joking about planting webcams in the women’s bathroom, responding to advice I suggested about a software problem with “Oh, but you’re a woman, so you don’t know anything about computers, am I right?” (It is a software I use daily and most of them use once or twice every two weeks.) It was a very unpleasant lunch, and I came away with the perception this was par for the course for my co-workers, as they didn’t indicate their conversation was in any way unusual.
I have had similar experiences at a previous workplace where I did an internship.
I am looking to leave my current company for unrelated reasons (there is an iron ceiling into management, and it’s not likely I’ll be able to move up unless someone dies or is fired). As I work in a fairly male-dominated sector I’m worried I will run into this more frequently at my next places of work and as I move up the career ladder.
What is the best way to respond to casual workplace sexism like this? I don’t think running to HR would be very effective, especially when it is so endemic – but I also don’t want to ‘grin and bear it’ and give the impression I approve or think it’s funny.
This is such a great, great question, and I can’t wait to see what the readers say. First, let me just say that this doesn’t sound so “casual” to me — the fact that these men were making these comments knowingly in your presence is shocking, and says a lot about the power dynamics at that lunch and in your sector. I’m also going to assume that everyone at this lunch was, more or less, on the same “level,” and no supervisor was present. So how DO you handle such sexism in the actual moment? (Pictured above: Pigs, originally uploaded to Flickr by andjohan.)
- Gently let them know that what they’re saying is sexist, misogynistic, and inappropriate. Look at this as an opportunity to educate these poor, sad men that, in actuality, they’re speaking like pigs. Then, change the conversation. I’m sure that they’re all good-hearted saints beneath it all (of course!) and they have no idea that they’re a huge lawsuit waiting to happen. It could be as simple as “And in non-misogynistic news, how’s Project ___ going? I heard they were adding two new people to the team.” (or as direct as “Wow, guys, way to be sexist pigs.”) The key is thus: Don’t get offended or get a chip on your shoulder, but let them know they’re being inappropriate and move on.
- Get offended. I wouldn’t advise this, but you could get in a huff and really tell these men off. They will undoubtedly call you overly sensitive, perhaps say that you’re on your period, and ultimately call you a Bitch. (And, do note: It isn’t a bad thing to be a Bitch — I know a lot of women who pride themselves on being one, sometimes including me — but it does limit the way you’ll be interacting with these gents in the future.)
- Get away. You don’t have to sit there and listen to it — leave the conversation. This can be tricky when there’s no one else to talk to.
- Grin and bear it. Don’t beat yourself up too much if this is ultimately what you end up doing — it can be really hard to summon the courage to say something, even in a joking manner, when you’re being smacked in the face with the fact that you have no power. But: don’t forget. These men are not your friends, they are not your allies — they’re pigs. Maintain a good working relationship with them so you can get what you need from them, and move on at the end of the day.
(If you were the supervisor, don’t hesitate to tell these jerks that they’re being inappropriate. You’re supervising! If there was a supervisor present during this lunch, I would have made direct eye contact with him to try to communicate wordlessly my lack of amusement. Afterwards, I would have spoken to him, and no matter what I would start making a record of exactly what he said at the lunch and in response to your complaint.) Beyond the actual moment, your options get wider.
a) Talk to HR. I wouldn’t advise this, and you say you’re not inclined to do this, but I thought I’d mention it anyway.
b) Talk to an employment lawyer. You may already have a case for a hostile workplace (I’m just not up on the law enough to know), but I’m not sure I would advise this either, at least at this point — being a plaintiff in a law suit of this kind is unlikely to win you any friends, and will probably affect future job prospects. But start keeping notes of what was said, and when (including saving any emails or voicemails that are misogynistic). There may come a time, either when you’ve been passed over for a promotion or just when You Can’t Take It Anymore, that you want to bring suit.
c) Start a networking/support group for women in your niche area. (I’m assuming one doesn’t already exist; if one does, join it!) Whether it’s company-wide or city-wide, this is the perfect kind of impetus to create a networking group for women in your niche area. All it takes is one or two women at different companies to get the ball rolling; you could even reach out to your alumni groups to see if other women are working locally. This has a few advantages:
- You actually get encouragement and support from your female peers, and perhaps your group can even brainstorm for how to actually change things in the industry (or at least in your area). At the very least you can educate other women that these kinds of comments are not acceptable, which in and of itself might change things.
- Whether it’s a company-wide or area-wide network, you’ll be better tapped in to new job opportunities (one hopes) than your male colleagues.
- As the founder, you’ll get some exposure and notoriety — everyone in the area will know your name, and it’ll look great on your resume. People may even start coming to you to say “we have X job open, do you know anyone who might be looking?”
I would send out a few casual emails to see if other women in the area want to get together for drinks. I’d avoid making the initial email a “call to action” or complaining in any way about your experience — but rather just putting the feeler out to see if people want to get together. If other people have had similar experiences (and I’m sure they have) then your email will be welcome.
d) Leave the company. Ultimately, I think you’re on the right track by getting out of the company — this misogyny is absolutely something that should be mentioned at your exit interview, and I might even go so far as to write a letter to them so that any woman in the future (who might, say, bring suit) has evidence that the higher ups knew of the problem.
All right, readers, let’s hear it — how would you handle this kind of situation, both in the moment and down the line?