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4 women on finding the right response to sexism at work

Plus what to do when you wish you had responded differently in the moment.

4 women on finding the right response to sexism at work
[Photo: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash]

Working as a firefighter was Alexis Moore’s dream job, she says. She had been training and preparing for the role so rigorously that she sailed through training. “I was ready to go,” she recalls.

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But when she reported for duty, her supervisor wasn’t as enthusiastic. He told her that he and his team didn’t want a woman there, she recalls. Throughout her time working as a firefighter, she says she experienced harassment. Over time, Moore tried forceful comebacks as well as trying to just ignore the situation. Ultimately, she was injured on the job and left her beloved career.

“I did not report the injury at the time, or the bias and abuse, out of fear that I would never find another job in the fire service,” she says. “Sadly, this was advice I received from lawyers and the union representatives at the time the ’90s.” Today, Moore is an attorney and advocate who helps women who have experienced sexual harassment in their careers.

More than 4 in 10 women have faced gender discrimination in the workplace, according to 2017 data from the Pew Research Center. From being underestimated to dealing with outright sexism and discrimination, to enduring insulting comments and jokes, women still unfortunately are subject to all manner of workplace slights.

Say what?

Finding the right response in the moment—one that is both satisfying and effective—can be difficult. It’s something with which Charlie Brook struggles. Brook writes Her Me Out, a blog about rape culture. Some of her workplace interactions at a startup in Barcelona have been very inappropriate, she says, including a coworker who touched and spoke about women problematically.

She recalls one instance in which the coworker announced to everyone in the vicinity how “sexy” a client was after she left a meeting. Brook went to senior management with her concerns about her coworker’s behavior. Brook says they didn’t take her seriously. She says that now she wishes she would have confronted him more directly in the moment.

“I basically did women’s studies and gender studies in my master’s degree. So, I obviously know the mechanics of how the whole system works,” she says. “I thought I’d be the kind of person that would just immediately report somebody in that way, but actually, when you’re in the situation, it’s so much different.”

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While it may be tempting to clap back at the perpetrator with a sharp retort or expletive, that may not always be the best response. “What you don’t want to do is react emotionally and to get hijacked,” says executive coach Sharon Melnick, PhD, author of Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident, and Productive When the Pressure’s On. While you want to express how you feel and demand justice and fairness, it’s also possible to fall into the trap of being labeled “too emotional” or with other unfair stereotypical attributes, she says.

Prepare for impact

Women shouldn’t excuse bias, but trying to understand the situation first is important, says mediator and conflict resolution expert Carol Barkes. It’s helpful to determine whether you’re dealing with intrinsic or extrinsic bias, which can help you find the best way to deal with the situation, says Barkes.

“If it is intrinsic, a simple statement bringing attention to the matter can be all that is needed. Extrinsic bias requires more savvy,” she says. Try pursuing a simple line of questioning: “Why do you think that?” or “Why did you say that?” she suggests. By asking people to consider their response or thoughts, you may stand a better chance of getting them to change their thinking or behavior in the long run. Humor or a light touch can also defuse a situation.

Yes, it’s more emotional labor to determine what the best way to respond to workplace bias might be. However, women need to consider the option that’s going to work best for them in the long term. Sometimes, that option is anger, Melnick says.

It’s natural to not always respond as we wish we had in the heat of the moment. If you feel like you need a do-over because you think you should have said something else, take it. Some will be more open to the conversation than others, but if you have an opportunity to stand up for yourself and improve your workplace conditions, “I think it’s totally worth it in most situations,” Melnick says.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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