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Only my grandfather gets to call me young lady and I am not your honey.
August 20, 2011 9:02 PM   Subscribe

How do you confront sexism constructively? Without damaging friendships, relationships with coworkers, or coming off patronizing?

As I get older, I find that I can't just let the sexism roll off like I used to. Part of it is I can identify it more easily and part of it is that as I rise higher in the working world, I find myself interacting with far more senior people who still wish we were in the 1950s, when men were men, and I was getting them a sandwich...

It some ways this is a question without an answer because many of things I'm trying to avoid (namely coming off as a total bitch) are exactly the kind of tools that are used to shut down women who stand up for themselves or have ambition. I'm not looking to for a showdown when someone says something mildly or moderately sexist, but I also don't like saying nothing, which essentially just promotes the idea that it's ok. I'm basically looking for subtle, but effective things I can say that shuts down the comments, but doesn't overly chastise the person or turn it into some sort of war. Basically something that ends it, tactfully and succinctly voices my disapproval, and then it's over and done with, the conversation moves on with no one losing face too badly.

I realize I've focused on work here, but I would also like to include other instances of sexism. Especially with people I otherwise like a lot, but who sometimes say things I find very offensive.

Some examples are situations where my looks or being the token woman have gotten me chosen for special assignments at work (unfortunately this is likely true in at least some of the situations, not that I have much choice in the situation, or course in other situations the men are routinely favored over the women, but that's just "normal"), comments about how a rash of low level, low paid women being hired was because their looks, "diversity", whatever, comments about older single women being desperate to find a man, men not being able to control their "animal desires" and women just need to accept their bad behavior because they can't help it, men are more "logical" better at math and women are emotional, etc.
posted by whoaali to Human Relations (25 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ugh, I hate this. I'm still in college so I usually just argue, but when I don't want to get in a fight, I find sarcasm's pretty effective. Like if someone makes a comment that men can't control their baser desires, I might say, "Yeah, they're so ruled by hormones! That's why women are universally acknowledged as the more rational sex... wait, no they're not! Oh god, are gender stereotypes logically inconsistent???? My feeble woman brain is exploding!!!!!!" People generally aren't too pissed because they're busy laughing

Perhaps that's not appropriate for the workplace, especially if these jerks are super 1950s. In that case, I find a well-placed "I disagree" works well in response to a blatantly sexist comment. You're not trying to reason with them (because it won't work); you're just briefly and benignly stating your opinion. 4 times out of 5 when I just say, "I disagree," the other person shuts up or changes topic. The other 1 time, they'll start huffily defending their comment, in which case they've started the argument and you are free to proceed as you see fit.
posted by randomname25 at 9:24 PM on August 20, 2011 [13 favorites]


It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't kind of situation. Because you don't actually have power over these people I can't see a way to say that something makes you uncomfortable without appearing overly sensitive. Trying to change this kind of behavior is kind of impossible. I hope you can find people at work who symphathise so you don't have to keep this all in, or grab a tharipist. Good luck!
posted by The Devil Tesla at 9:24 PM on August 20, 2011


"...with no one losing face too badly."

Don't be concerned about this. Randomname25 has it right: "I disagree." State your opinion; otherwise your silence is your tacit approval.
posted by BostonTerrier at 9:28 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


This sounds like a job for Frown Power.
posted by bq at 9:34 PM on August 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


Yeah, the problem is you want something that voices your disapproval, and criticism of someone's actions (especially when others are around), however tactful, is unlikely to endear you to that person. There are a rare few who welcome criticism in the name of self improvement, if you work with lots of them I envy you.

If these are people that report to you, I'd second randomname25's "I disagree" plan. If they are your peers or superiors my only suggestion is to make statements that straddle the comment/criticism line and ideally lean towards commenting. "I think Don Draper said the same thing last week's Mad Men episode"

On preview bq's response seems better than my line straddling plan. I hadn't heard of Frown Power before.
posted by pseudonick at 9:46 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


'Is that something you really believe or are you writing content for breakfast radio now?'
posted by Trivia Newton John at 9:50 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Frown Power can help significantly. As can sarcasm (depending on your audience - not to be used with 1950s guys). Sometimes it works with superiors - you just have to know your audience. Usually being straightforward can diffuse a lot of issues - e.g. if someone tells you to get him a cup of coffee you say you don't do that. Feigning deafness can work because it makes them repeat what they've said and if they do verbatim, that gives you an excellent in to employ Frown Power or Blank Stare or the Errrr Sound of Doom.

Unfortunately there are just so many instances of sexism that women experience day in, day out, every day that it can become so depressing to have to deal with and may in fact turn me to drink at some point.
posted by mleigh at 9:54 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


One way I've heard of and tried with moderate success... whenever you hear the sexist drivel laugh your head off. Charmingly, without guile. As if it's the sweetest, funniest, cleverest, most ironic thing you've ever heard.
posted by taff at 10:08 PM on August 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Could this be a job for Jay Smooth's "How to Tell People They Sound Racist"? (Sub in "sexist," of course.)
posted by decathecting at 10:12 PM on August 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Giving a stinkeye or look of disgust can be really effective, if not always on the actual offender, at least on others within the conversation.
posted by threeants at 10:58 PM on August 20, 2011


"I disagree" is a good one; you can always follow it up with 'that hasn't been my observation' if they push, and if they're legitimately curious you can give them the actual response.
posted by Lady Li at 11:05 PM on August 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


All right, this depends on the degree of informality you can get away with, and whether you can joke with the person.
A lot of these 1950s dudes have a style of humor that is all about giving each other a hard time, so that's what I would do if I would get away with it -- jokingly give them a hard time. (**Note that some people who give others a hard time are shockingly sensitive and easy to offend then the shoe is on the foot so just be aware of that.)

So, when they start talking about:

older single women being desperate to find a man


I'd try the following:

Relatively innocuous reactions ---

Humorous/theatrical loud groan and eye roll
"Oh come ON!"
"You're killing me!"
"Oh give me a break!"
"This again?!"

It's hard to convey in text, but these should all be said in an air of good humor, joking around, etc."

Less innocuous reactions that require judgment to know if you can get away with using--

Him: "Diversity is a joke, blah blah blah!"
You: "What is this? The O'Reilly Factor?"

Him: "Men just can't control their animal natures!"
You: "It's like you think we all descended from monkeys!"

Him: "Men can't control their animal natures!"
You: "What? Now you're Cary Grant? I don't think so!" (or whatever old celebrity who couldn't keep it in his pants they would recognize).


Things I would not say unless I were certain that the guy would laugh --

Him: All older women are desperate for a man!
You: "And what are you so scared of? She'll come after you? Keep dreaming!"
You: "What is this? A caveman convention?"


Him: "Men can't control their animal natures!"
You: "Well, that's why we need mace!"


Now, if the jokiness about this sort of thing is just distasteful to you, I think it would also be effective to just let a stunned, uncomfortable look come over your face when they make these sorts of comments. If they stay something that's too over the line, you can just say firmly, "Come on, now."
posted by Ashley801 at 11:09 PM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not exactly carrot and stick, but stick and ... less stick: I agree with the above suggestions for discouragement, but I would add that a tiny amount of picking your battles would go a long way. I worked for an older man who visibly tried hard to be PC, but when he got really frazzled or exhausted the "hons" and "dears" would start flowing pretty quickly. The examples you've given aren't mere gaffes, of course, they're totally inappropriate, but I think it will help diffuse any possibility of you coming across as nitpicky, and will make the times you do express disapproval stand out more, if you let genuine errors pass.

As far as how to express disapproval when it is called for, I've always been a fan of agreeing with the speaker in a totally flat deadpan voice. "You're right Bob, all women over thirty are rabidly desperate to find a man who can complete them", etc. But then change the topic and move on with business.
posted by sarahkeebs at 11:50 PM on August 20, 2011


I'm basically looking for subtle, but effective things I can say that shuts down the comments, but doesn't overly chastise the person or turn it into some sort of war. Basically something that ends it, tactfully and succinctly voices my disapproval, and then it's over and done with, the conversation moves on with no one losing face too badly.

Honestly, if you have to ask, then you probably shouldn't be doing this without studying. Otherwise you'll get into a situation where you're out matched and just wind up looking like a fool. Some people have a knack for dealing with bullying in office politics and can say the right phrase, with the right tone to higher ups where certain boundaries are. So yes, study first, figure out the personalities of the office and the higher ups. Figure out the one or two leaders who would probably be receptive, in some fashion, to this sort of battle and focus on them. Being able to go up against them and win or at least hold your own will sets a tone, establishes a boundary.

Here's an example which might fit your situation, from astronaut Frank Borman's biography 'Countdown'. He's talking about Winnie Gilbert, a female vice president.
I had to admire the way she stood up for her sex without being belligerently feminist. At the first staff meeting, she attended as a new vice president, the only woman in the room, she rose to get a cup of coffee. As she passed behind my chair, I said rather brusquely, "While you're up, I'd like some coffee, too." Winnie didn't say a word. She poured one cup for herself and marched back to her seat. I knew damned well she had heard me, but from the set of her jaw I also knew damned well she had just made her point.

At the next staff meeting, I was heading for my second coffee when she caught my eye with a glance that was like a radar signal. I said politely, "Winnie, would like a cup?"

"Thank you , Frank," she said sweetly.
The lesson I'd take from this is to pick your battles, decided what you will and will not put up with and press your case in an acceptable way. Nobody likes it when people point out they're wrong, so tread carefully and slowly. Figure out where you can push and if you can handle pushback.

Note that Gilbert didn't directly challenge Borman, she just wasn't going to do some minor action that didn't have anything to do with her job as VP. Also note that Borman was intelligent and perceptive enough to get her point, concede it and publicly acknowledge it without making a big deal out of it. In short, he was a good guy, just with some old fashioned notions. You can tell from this short passage he definitely had some negative thoughts about feminists, but Gilberts actions, which tacitly acknowledged and accepted Borman's higher status, put her in a different and better class in Borman's eyes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:06 AM on August 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Play the long game. When you hear this stuff, say to yourself "we will bury you and your kind". Patience.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:01 AM on August 21, 2011 [10 favorites]


I tend to blink at the person, keep my face very still, and say in a neutral-to-concerned tone "Why would you say something like that?" Pause for a single beat, then move the conversation along to something else.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:51 AM on August 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Big smile. "Why Bob, that sounds a little bit sexist, doncha think."
posted by bunderful at 7:39 AM on August 21, 2011


I like the, 'I disagree' or a 'Really? Really!?'

Even better is sometimes just a sarcastic "Wow." With a 'I can't believe you just said that' expression.

For some of these statements you can turn them around to being how awesome it is to be a woman. "Wow, men really can't control themselves? I'm glad we women are above all that." With coworkers on my own level I've teased them back the way they rag on each other. "Hey Joe, you know that sexual harassment training we have coming up? I think you ought to sit in the front seat."

Or sometimes you just have to be blunt. One coworker was complaining about a glass ceiling and I just told him that he was the wrong gender and wrong color to be talking about that issue. Then I turned to someone else and started a new conversation.

But as to the friendship thing... I think the important thing to remember in this situation is that THEY started it. You say that you don't want to make them uncomfortable. Fuck that. They made YOU uncomfortable. And they made you uncomfortable by being sexist. And that's not ok. Call them out on it. Get your debate points in line if someone complains about affirmative action.

You might get some initial flack for being humorless, or even a humorless bitch. But again, fuck that noise. Teach them that bringing up that crap will only make it unpleasant for them.
posted by Caravantea at 7:40 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Damned if you do, damned if you don't pretty well covers this, unfortunately. This guy isn't likely to change, and sees any objection (no matter how mild) as you being a bitch --- see also "femi-nazi". These troglodytes hate anything they consider 'feminist', which they equate with the terms 'ballbuster', 'man-hater' and the like. In his warped little mind, no matter what you say, you're just a bitch who's probably having PMS.

So: since he's gonna call you a bitch no matter how nicely you react to his sexism, go ahead and be one.
posted by easily confused at 7:52 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some examples are situations where my looks or being the token woman have gotten me chosen for special assignments at work (unfortunately this is likely true in at least some of the situations, not that I have much choice in the situation, or course in other situations the men are routinely favored over the women, but that's just "normal"),

When it comes to responsibilities, or not getting assignments that you would like to do, you should proactively address the situation. Perhaps it's a matter of pulling your boss aside and saying "I have yet to have the opportunity to work on something like X, the next time we have a project like that I would very much like to be involved". You need to raise your hand for assignments you want; as many bosses have told me, you cannot expect your boss to just give you things you want if you don't ever ask.

On the flip side, if you are constantly given assignments that you aren't interested in because you are a woman, you should also say something. "I have done this sort of work in the past, and I think it is time for someone else to learn how to do it". Sell it as a risk for the team, you can't be the only person that knows how to do something because what if you are out sick, or hit by a bus, or whatever. Or if it is clearly a crap job, "I don't understand why I am the only person ever asked to do X". You need to be very tactful and political, and this is not something to call out in front of a room full of people, but again, for all you know the person giving you the assignment thinks you like it, thinks you don't mind, or just isn't thinking at all.
posted by ch1x0r at 9:05 AM on August 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


These situations have no templates, and individuals must tailor their reactions to suit their personalities and their goals. You are going to have to make your own decisions and take responsibility for your words and actions, and your pool of resources will always be limited. Balancing ideals against a paycheck is nothing new.

From your description, you are fighting not just sexism but office politics as well, and the rules for that change from one place to the next. If you try to fight just the sexism, you will get bowled over by everything else. Nothing comes in its own neat, tidy package.

Ultimately, you must answer for yourself what you want and what you will do to get it. The sexism you meet along the way may or may not be an obstruction toward your goals. If it blocks you, attack it. If it is just another sight along the way, determine if it is worth your limited resources to pursue. Since you are the only offended party, this will always be a you-against-them fight.
posted by Ardiril at 9:49 AM on August 21, 2011


My boss is a sweet guy whose actions are much less sexist than his words. He is at his worst when other dudes are around during lunch or whenever. Since we know each other well, I tend to just give an exasperated snort, or roll my eyes. He laughs, but also looks embarrassed, and usually the subject gets changed.

In more tense situations, I have effected a look of baffled exasperation, sometimes adding "What?" as though I simply don't understand; this often has the amusing effect of making the perpetrator have to try to explain their sexist remark, and inevitably, sounding stupid while doing so (because sexism is stupid, and can only be maintained if no one questions it or demands reasons). After the stupid explanation, I sometimes say a noncommital "Huh," which usually is the point at which someone leaps in to change the subject because it's all awkward now.

This tends to lead to a decrease in these remarks, because they become embarrassing. I'm under no illusions that the attitudes have changed, and I don't care, honestly. I continue to exhibit calmness and courtesy, but I refuse to enable/laugh at sexist jokes/pretend I agree with this stuff. I can't do that, and I won't.
posted by emjaybee at 11:11 AM on August 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Damned if you do, damned if you don't pretty well covers this, unfortunately. This guy isn't likely to change, and sees any objection (no matter how mild) as you being a bitch --- see also "femi-nazi". These troglodytes hate anything they consider 'feminist', which they equate with the terms 'ballbuster', 'man-hater' and the like. In his warped little mind, no matter what you say, you're just a bitch who's probably having PMS.

So: since he's gonna call you a bitch no matter how nicely you react to his sexism, go ahead and be one.
posted by easily confused at 7:52 AM on August 21 [+] [!]


Please do not follow this advice. It is simply giving you permission to sink to their level, providing an excuse for you to treat someone differently because of their gender.

It is a difficult skill to master, to be able to assert one's preferences, feelings, and protestations in a straightforward, non-confrontational manner. But it is a skill that every grown-up has to master.

The basis of all of this is to assume good intentions. It is hard to do, but eliminates a lot of misunderstandings. A good starting point is not assuming people are troglodytes.

Or this:

Or sometimes you just have to be blunt. One coworker was complaining about a glass ceiling and I just told him that he was the wrong gender and wrong color to be talking about that issue. Then I turned to someone else and started a new conversation.

That is not a constructive attitude. Glass ceilings can exist for all sorts of reasons, and no group has a monopoly on any subject.
posted by gjc at 12:27 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Rereading your question, I should that if you do not send a clear message, then you cannot expect a clear message to be received. You can hee and haw all you want, but subtlety does not inform the other person that something they did was wrong, nor does it identify what that action was nor explain why you feel it was wrong. No one can read your mind, and no one will be educated about your issues if you do not express them clearly.

This is a social skill you should already be showing in all business related matters.
posted by Ardiril at 1:28 PM on August 21, 2011


Here's the scholarly response. The gist of the article is that you have four choices: ignoring, confronting, deflecting, or engaging. Your choice will depend on factors including the context and their motivations.

In her conclusion, Schneider notes, "First, you should check your own assumptions and be sure you are not projecting them onto the other person. Second, you can try to understand their motivations in making such a comment. And third, you choose a response to their comment with your goals in mind. The question 'Why?' can be used at every stage of this process, and is particularly important when you choose to engage the other side."
posted by equipoise at 5:13 PM on August 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


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