Experiences of sexism at work are very common. There is no single solution on how to deal with it effectively. It largely depends on each individual. Therefore, let us explore some possible options.
What is your lesson?
There are various factors that influence the way we respond to sexism in the workplace.
Timid personality: Perhaps you are a quiet introvert who is unable to assert yourself especially in a group. This could make you an obvious target for sexist comments. It is as if others see you as an innocent victim. So one of your lessons in life may be to assert yourself and to set boundaries with how you want to be treated.
This means that you will express how you feel about a sexist comment. Most times it is more appropriate to talk to the “offender” in a one to one session as opposed to in a group. Describe what they said or did that was sexist and how it made you feel. Then suggest one or two ways in which you would prefer to be treated in future. This should minimise sexism if you communicate in a firm and assertive manner. If you come across as apologetic the chances are you will not be taken seriously.
People pleaser: Many women are socialised from a young age to be the “rescuer” or “people pleaser”. As a result they will often keep quiet when confronted with sexism at work. It is easier to keep the peace and maintain harmony even if it comes at the expense of their well-being.
Generally as women reach their forties and fifties they realise this way of reacting no longer works for them. They find their own voice and begin to express it! And so any sexist comment is potentially a trigger for them to say how they really feel.
Not sweating the small stuff: Some women feel sexist comments reflect the issues of the other person. So they do not take it personally. Consequently, they refrain from reacting in any way. Instead they look for “mitigating” reasons for the other person’s comments: for example, perhaps that person feels insecure, or has a need to appear “better than” or they are succumbing to subtle group pressure from men to put women on the spot, etc.
Either way, a woman may choose not to react because she sees it as the man’s issue and something he needs to deal with.
How to respond
If you decide to respond ensure that your first option is to talk to the person in a private meeting. There are some individuals however, who will only get the message when you confront them in a group. But you need to know who you are dealing with before you do this!
Sometimes sexist comments are made with little self-awareness. So it could be a “blind spot” for the person making the comment. Giving the person feedback may give them greater insight into their behaviour.
Be careful of making assumptions. Often sexist comments are made out of “affection”. Therefore you may find you have a staunch supporter in the person who makes sexist comments somewhat jokingly.
Only you will know if you need to voice how you feel. However, if it upsets you and you think about the comment for days, do something about it.
If you find that sexist comments affect your emotional well-being, then rather seek help.
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