How do you deal with sexism in your workplace?
October 16, 2009 12:37 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with sexism in your workplace?

I work for a "progressive" organization, and I've transitioned into a different job. I've been in this job for over a year.

I'm finding that I'm experiencing behavior such as being talked over, interrupted, and just generally that my opinion is not listened to. In many instances, I'm the only woman in the room.

Part of the reason I'm finding this behavior so alarming, is because I've worked in this organization for almost ten years, and never experienced anything on this level. I knew it existed, but never experienced it in this way. Also, most of the men I work closely with and have known for a few years do not treat me in this way.

The issue is with people I work with infrequently. and I'm just finding myself getting very angry when individual incidents happen, especially when I can see clearly that I am being treated differently than the men in the room.

I guess I'm just looking for good tactics in dealing with these situations so I don't end up feeling constantly angry and also so I feel like I handle each incident in a professional way that I can feel good about.
posted by hazyspring to Work & Money (31 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Treat it the same way you would treat people being rude or dismissive of you for any reason.

For example, when someone interrupts you, don't stop talking. Keep talking until you've finished what you were planning to say. Then, turn to the interrupter and say, "did you have something you wanted to say?"
posted by decathecting at 12:43 PM on October 16, 2009 [12 favorites]

Exactly what decathecting said.

Additionally, mentor and encourage women at lower levels of the organization. There is sort of a "critical mass" of women in an organization, when it becomes a lot easier for an individual woman to be assertive.
posted by muddgirl at 12:49 PM on October 16, 2009 [7 favorites]

First, if talking to HR or the managers of the people that do this is viable, go for that.

But if not, I'm not a woman, but I've recently had to deal with a couple people in the workplace that like to cut people off and talk over them. I let it go the first few times, but then I understood that they're not going to notice that they're being jerky.

When I'm talked over, I talk right back over whomever's trying to pull that shit. If someone butts in with a "NO, that's not blah, blah" I cut back in right away with "YES, actually, etc." Against particularly belligerent interruptions, just point at them and say, "Hey. Wait."

Generally, meeting interruptions head-on stops them.

Also, don't feel bad about playing the "are you ignoring me because I'm a woman?" card, with a half-jokingly or totally serious presentation. Stop them dead in their tracks a few times, and they may back off.
posted by ignignokt at 12:50 PM on October 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

I just interrupt back or keep talking. You can try "Excuse me, I would like to finish my thoughts," and just keep going. Be as sharp as you can be, don't take any crap and stay professional. Don't ever bring cookies, etc. to work. Do NOT volunteer to organize anything social or help with the softer side of things. These guys aren't mature enough to see you in a three-dimensional way. Focus on your projects and your good ideas will show. Eventually, they will listen to you if you keep hammering away.
posted by i_love_squirrels at 12:53 PM on October 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

I encounter this often, unfortunately. I've found that the above advice - to either keep talking as if they didn't interrupt you - doesn't always work. Sometimes, the person interrupting me will just talk louder and command attention. It sucks!

However, I'd advise you to try it. In my experience, the following works:

- as mentioned above, saying, "Excuse me, I would like to finish my thoughts." Using the interrupter's name seems to help here too.

- talking to the most common offenders one on one about it

- if the above doesn't work, bringing it up with a boss or HR

Good luck. I think it's really lame that I can't or rather won't do things like organize social events or even bake cookies because many people will think that means I find math hard (I'm a programmer for a living) and would rather be shopping. But, I do live in reality, and that's how it goes.

posted by jacquilinala at 12:59 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have found "please don't interrupt me," "I'm still speaking, John," and "Let me finish, please," to be workplace friends. I am a fairly soft-spoken but reasonably assertive woman and frequently find that people who are louder and more prone to, um, aggressive shouting about their supposedly awesome ideas don't have any idea they do this.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:00 PM on October 16, 2009 [10 favorites]

Direct, firm and clear, direct eye contact until they stop speaking "$Bob: Please don't interrupt me." Do not yield the floor (so to speak)
posted by edgeways at 1:00 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

It may not be malicious sexism but just a difference in "male" and "female" communication styles. Men tend to interrupt more. The otherwise all-male group may just be used to communicating in a very "male" style because they have never had to use anything else. Mixed-gender workforces are still a relatively new phenomenon in human history and a gender-neutral communication style hasn't really emerged or caught on yet.

Are you certain that you are being treated differently? As an experiment, pick a meeting that you don't really need to talk in and just observe the men. Keep a mental tally of how many times they interrupt each other. Then next time you talk in a meeting, keep a mental tally of how often they interrupt you. Is it proportional? If it is, you may just have to adjust to the group norms and get used to being interrupted (and interrupting them), even if you personally think it is rude.

If they really are treating you differently, it may be a reaction to your gendered communication style and not your actual gender. How do you pitch your voice? Many women pitch their voices high (like a little girl) and speak most of their sentences as if they ended with question marks. This makes the speaker sound timid and uncertain, and people naturally don't want to listen to someone who isn't even sure of her own opinions. Try consciously pitching your voice deeper and ending your declarative sentences with audibly clear periods. (And if you want to follow-up with a link to a recording of yourself speaking as you might speak in a meeting, that would probably help us diagnose whether you're doing anything that encourages people to ignore you.)

Here is a tactic I've found very effective in handling interruptions. (Mostly through people using it successfully on me, since I am guilty of frequent interruption.)
You: "Blah blah blah bla--"
Bob, interrupting: "--but blah blah blah ..."
You, calmly and unemotionally, as soon as Bob starts interrupting: "Bob. Bob. Bob. Bob. Bob."
Bob, finally noticing that you're repeating his name: "... what?"
You, calm, reserved, and polite: "I was still speaking, thank you. As I was saying, blah blah blah blah"

(Personally, I have always had a more "male" communication style and have had no problems making myself heard by men, even men who tend to interrupt or ignore other women. However, other women have told me they think I'm rude! So sometimes it's not really gender, it's the way one talks, it just happens that the way one talks tends to correlate with one's gender.)
posted by Jacqueline at 1:09 PM on October 16, 2009 [9 favorites]

A related previous question.
posted by emilyw at 1:14 PM on October 16, 2009

Are you sure it's because you're a woman? That may seem like the likeliest explanation, but I find that I'm not assertive in my communication style and am not great at adapting my style when I'm not talking one on one.
posted by anniecat at 1:16 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree, don't yield the floor. I would also say don't apologize--instead of saying, "Excuse me, I'd like to finish my thought" just say "I'm not done speaking" or something like that. I like the "Bob Bob Bob" approach, too. Steady, non-shrill repetition and eye contact can be effective.

For me, it also helped to be "one of the guys," which meant not doing things usually associated with women. My usual clothing and appearance is androgynous, which may have helped, and I'm tall. I took advantage of my height by standing to speak when I had the chance. If I was seated, I would lean forward, elbows on the table, feet apart, claiming my space--basically like the guys.

I wouldn't go to HR with this unless the treatment is downright hostile. You'll get more respect by dealing directly with the men who are trying to override you.

With all this said--in the end, I dealt with it (and the related pay ceiling) by quitting and starting my own business.
posted by PatoPata at 1:21 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

A good suggestion I've heard is the "stop" hand motion, a request to finish, finishing your thought without breaking stride, then handing the floor over to them.

Something like "[stop gesture] -- let me finish -- and because of ABC, this strategy would let us rule the world. Bob?" or "[stop gesture] -- hang on just a second -- which is the same strategy that was successfully used in the Smith Venture, and which I think we could successfully apply here. And you were starting to say, Bob?"
posted by salvia at 1:39 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, someone whose opinion I generally respect once recommended Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work to me. I haven't read it so I can't say for sure.
posted by salvia at 1:43 PM on October 16, 2009

Echoing the "are you sure it's because you are a woman" statement. Jacqueline gives great advice, and I would like to add that the more confident you appear, the less likely someone is to interrupt you. Low tones, speaking slowly, relaxed and confident body posture all works.

I work in a small organization, so it's much more confrontational to specifically point out that so-and-so is interrupting me. What works for me is staring at the interrupter blankly (maybe even with raised eyebrows), and then just continue what I had been saying when they stop speaking.

Don't ever bring cookies, etc. to work. Do NOT volunteer to organize anything social or help with the softer side of things.

I completely disagree with this. It's one thing to adapt your communication style to appear more confident, assertive and professional, it's another thing to change who you are (for example, if you are a social "softy" woman) and try to become act like one of the guys. Obviously, there is a fine line between adaptation and changing who you are to fit in, but even so, this is pretty clear cut.
posted by moiraine at 1:44 PM on October 16, 2009

It may not be malicious sexism but just a difference in "male" and "female" communication styles. Men tend to interrupt more. The otherwise all-male group may just be used to communicating in a very "male" style because they have never had to use anything else.

Men interrupt more? Really? I haven't found that to be the case. I've also heard a woman say that it's OK for women to interrupt because that's how women talk. People are very quick to justify things based on ad hoc gender stereotypes, but the fact is that both men and women can be the interrupters or the interrupted.

Seconding those who have said you can skip over the "Am I victim of sexism?" issue and just respond the way you would to anyone interrupting you -- by politely asking to finish your sentence before yielding. I'd give the same advice regardless of the gender composition.
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:03 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: In this specific situation, I feel I am being treated differently because of my gender. I have sat back and observed, and the men in this specific group I am working with are treated differently. I also had one person comment to me that he felt I was being treated differently, because I was the only woman in the group.

I have been in this workplace for about 10 years, and it has only been recently with a specific group of people that I have been feeling this way.
posted by hazyspring at 2:08 PM on October 16, 2009

It very much depends on the workplace, the dynamics, and the roles of those involved. I've mostly worked in mostly-male workplaces (by preference), and have come across everything from subtle patronizing to outright sexual harassment.

When you are a peer or superior of the individual(s) doing the interrupting, disregarding, disrespecting, etc., it is fairly straightforward to become more assertive (as in the examples given above) and stand your ground, finish your sentence, etc. (without being an ass about it, because we're all wrong sometimes).

When the person doing these things is your superior or following the example set by your superior, it can be much more challenging if not impossible to correct the behavior. In the case of superiors, do NOT talk over them in meetings or interrupt their interruption. Ask for a meeting, explain your position, ask that they respect you and set that example for your co-workers. If that doesn't work, go to HR or follow the chain of command up to the next level. If that doesn't work or there is no next level, decide whether it's a dealbreaker for you.

I say this from the position of having a boss for the last 9 years who is sexist, interrupts, blames women for any imagineable problem (contextually -- if there's a problem in sales, it must be her, not him), sets a poor example for other male employees, gives more credence to anything that comes from virtually any male over anything that comes from virtually any female (without regard to age, experience, training, past history of success or failure -- basically, if the guy isn't drooling or pissing himself, his word is taken over the female's), yadda yadda. But I like my job and my boss is the CFO and half-owner of the company. There is no one to appeal to, no one to rein him in. I decided it wasn't a dealbreaker for me. It's an individual choice.
posted by notashroom at 2:09 PM on October 16, 2009

I also disagree with the suggestions to avoid looking/acting like a woman in general, and think this actually UNDERMINES being respected by men.

Dressing like a man, not doing anything nurturing, AND communicating assertively? You get perceived as a bitch and shut out.

Dressing like a woman, bringing cookies, organizing parties, etc. and communicating assertively? You get liked AND respected.

Basically, if you look/act stereotypically female most of the time, you can "get away with" not acting stereotypically female when it matters.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:18 PM on October 16, 2009

If you're any good at sarcasm, adding a little dry humour when you are asserting yourself can work wonders. Stopping someone who is interrupting and getting a chuckle at the same time really gets people's attention.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:23 PM on October 16, 2009

Another previous thread that may have some helpful comments (it's not just about doctors).
posted by matildaben at 3:10 PM on October 16, 2009

I've had this kind of thing happen to me, but done by a woman to a woman. In my case, it was a status thing, as someone higher up in the organization speaking over top of a subordinate. So although the suggestions above are good, I'd say listen to notashroom.
posted by LN at 3:43 PM on October 16, 2009

If you are telling the OP that she just needs to speak up a little more, especially if you are a dude, you need to back off a little because you are totally missing the mark. The worst part of this isn't that she's being interrupted or talked over, it's that no one is listening to her.

Believe me, I've been there. I work in a male dominated field and there have been times where I felt like I was being treated like an intern when I had just as much education and job experience as everyone else. The crappy part was that I had to do 50% more work than anyone else. I had to have better data and better thought out arguments than anyone else.

Let's face it, that totally sucks and sometimes you still don't get listened to. I never lost my cool, but inside it made me wanted to rip my hair out when the boss would bring in outside consultants to say the same things I had been saying for months.

You can talk to some people about it directly, but some are assholes and will see you as a complainer. Unfortunately, who is or is not will not be immediately obvious. The best thing to do is choose a couple accessible ones and build relationships outside of work; having a few people on your side can help the dynamic. It helps (sadly) if you are 100% not available, because, again, some people suck.

Lastly, some groups are just unfixable and it is not your job to fix them. Be prepared to cut your losses.
posted by Alison at 3:49 PM on October 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

You have to ignore the voice in your head that is telling you to be irritated or frustrated, and listen to the voice in your head that reminds you that you know what you're talking about and it is simply common sense for you to speak your thought uninterrupted. After all, you're in this meeting for reason besides warming a chair.

Being disregarded is a larger and more subtle problem. Sometimes I am lucky enough to have colleague in the meeting who I know is in my corner -- pre-meeting, I remind him of this, framing it as a "you know how people don't listen to anyone but themselves" problem, so that he remembers to back me up and help refocus attention.

Save that frustration and irritation for later, in my experience, it doesn't help you project that cool, calm, authoritative demeanor in the moment. Related, mentally, I find it useful to postpone the meta-analysis of the sexism until later, and treat the incident as simple rudeness (even when it is part of a clearly sexist pattern.)
posted by desuetude at 4:35 PM on October 16, 2009

When talked over, I would politely but firmly interrupt the transgressor, and say "Excuse me, I wasn't finished." Having your opinion ignored is a bit more difficult; I might follow up problematic meetings with emails summarizing the high points of your contributions to the meeting. ("To elaborate on what I brought up in today's staff meeting, [restate my ideas here].")

If it persisted, frankly, I would quietly change positions, or if that wasn't enough, I would move to a job with a competitor. Someone will probably disagree with me, but I feel that you have very much to lose and little or nothing to gain by making an accusation of sexism for any action short of physical assault. Any complaint you make to HR, to your boss, to your offending coworker, etc., will follow you throughout your employment at that company, through position changes etc, and depending on how small a world your industry is, even to other jobs. In most cases not worth it, in my opinion as a female who has always worked in male-dominated offices (IT, aviation).
posted by 2xplor at 4:44 PM on October 16, 2009

I would say, "That's a good point, John. Now, to continue what I was saying..." and if John still keeps talking over you, say, "John, I appreciate your feedback. Can we take this offline after the meeting?" That's a definite message to anyone who digresses off your track or jumps in to offer an argumentative position.

It may be because you're new to this particular group, and a woman, yeah. It's a lot easier to argue with say, software engineers in a small group ("no, you can't call it 'documentation,' you have to call it 'help,' because users won't get it" - repeat for 45 minutes) than it is to make your point in a much larger group, especially if you're not used to their dynamic.

You say you've sat back and observed. Have you observed who people listen to and don't jump over? Is it strictly hierarchy? Do they sit still for management when they're speaking? Or is everyone at the same level?

I wouldn't ignore the interruptions, but I would definitely time my responses and speaking points to seem more of an E.F. Hutton than those who talk over you. I say this as someone who's sat in corporate meetings at all levels and heard everything from, "you're an asshole, why are you talking to me like I'm in kindergarten?" to "well, yes, that's an interesting point, now as to what I was saying..."

Good luck!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:22 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sounds like your "progressive" organization could use a little diversity training. Seriously, this might just be an example of people doing something they don't realize they're doing, and while yes you can and should stand up for yourself and make it uncomfortable for them to talk over you, this might not be a battle you can fight entirely by yourself. Do you have anyone above you that you could talk to frankly about these concerns, that might be able to point out the behaviors to the offending parties without singling you out? Could you talk to any of the members in the group about the fact that you feel you are not as impactful as you could be and ask them for their advice? Sometimes just asking neutrally for advice can cause people to pay more attention to you.
Whatever happens, I hope it turns out well. I like to believe that most men are not consciously sexist and just a little awareness is all it takes for them to change their behavior. It can be lonely being the only woman in the room (believe me, I know), but try not to dwell on it too much, it will only make you more self-conscious.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:35 PM on October 16, 2009

I'm a female who's worked as a programmer for 15 years. I've run into this a lot. So much so that for most of those 15 years I've chosen to work from home rather than suffer through it. In the past 5 years companies have been less willing to let contractors work 100% from home, so I've had to compromise and go into an actual office about once every two weeks for some time now. This has given me the chance to compare and contrast several different work environments. I have noticed consistently that the only thing that makes any difference is the number of women in the room. Is there a way you can get more women in these meetings? I think that's your best hope.

Please don't listen to the people who are telling you to be more or less girly. It doesn't make a difference. You'll just end up selling yourself out.
posted by january at 5:48 PM on October 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'd like to temper the calls to not yield the floor when speaking. Whether the interrupting is part of the culture, or simply honest to goodness sexism, doing that is an aggressive behavior. And aggressiveness usually isn't conducive to a good work environment. Where interrupting someone is a faux pas, bringing it up and interrupting back is worse. It is a direct challenge- you are calling their rudeness and raising them with your own interruption, and basically daring them to start a fight.

Interruptions are hard to judge, especially if you are already on edge and noticing them. Sometimes interruptions are a good part of the art of a rollicking conversation, sometimes they aren't. The only time a direct call-out of an interruption is warranted, to me, is when the floor is clearly yours. You are making a presentation or something, and someone interupts you, that's a good time to not yield. But if the meeting is a round table of sorts, just let them alone. When the interrupter is done speaking, acknowledge what they said and continue with what you were saying without any kind of "as I way saying". Unless you want to increase the stress in the room.

What seems like sexism might also be just what happens to the new person.

My advice is to ignore the desire to categorize the interruptions into any manner of insult. Arguing motivation is rarely constructive. Treat others as you want to be treated. Be the change you want to see in the world, etc. Give up that little part of your ego that notices gender and race and all that. Just go about the business at hand, and don't change who you are to yield to the others in the room. Maybe they are jerks and don't deserve your respect, but you diminish yourself when you sink to that level.

As for complaining to HR or the boss, it makes it way easier to get action if you can show how the treatment is simply different from others, and that it affects the work product.
posted by gjc at 6:51 PM on October 16, 2009

Yeah, I've had this happen a lot, particularly in my younger years. I've had some success with this behavior by talking a LOT louder. I'm a naturally a soft talker, but in professional situations, I notice that when I really project my voice and speak louder, I don't get interrupted as much. Don't be afraid to be assertive and a little bossy.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:08 PM on October 16, 2009

Being funny can help keep the general impression on the side of "sharp and sassy" rather than "uptight bitch." [sigh] Yeah, it's exhausting to think in sexist terms just to maneuver your way into not being disregarded.

The problem with complaining to HR about something like this is that the sexism is often largely subconscious, nearly impossible to quantify, and very easy to rationalize.
posted by desuetude at 7:49 PM on October 16, 2009

Best answer: I work with construction workers in their 50's and I'm often the only women in the room.

First, humor is absolutely your best weapon. For example, a female attorney I worked with was once handling an arbitration out of town at a hotel. One of the clients made a joke about her coming up to his room. She could have gotten all bent out of shape, but instead she countered with a joke. Without missing a beat, she said, "you think my rates are high now?" Everybody laughed and moved on. When you can, try to make a joke about it. It's even better if you can make a joke that makes it clear that the other person is acting like an ass but is still funny.

Second, stand up for yourself. Don't let people interrupt you. If they start talking over you, just keep talking. And do make sure you're talking loudly. I was at a meeting last week when a client had to tell another professional to "speak up, dear." I cringed. Make sure you speak at a volume where people can hear you. Speaking softly makes you look weak.

Also, I find it helps to separate "problem" sexism from "not a problem" sexism. "Not a problem sexism" is sexism that doesn't interfere with me doing my job. Clients call me "honey" "darling" "sweetheart" and "kiddo." I take it as their way of being friendly. I gave up on getting angry long ago. It doesn't interfere with my job, so I just let it go. Another client would get drunk and try to hug me and once I was sitting next to him and he reached over and ran his finger along my foot. My boss wanted me to make a big stink. But I just make sure I never sit next to him. Problem solved and now it doesn't interfere with my doing my job.

Basically, as long as I can do my job and represent my clients effectively, I overlook any obnoxious sexism. I know I'm a good lawyer and I don't need their validation. So that's how I handle it. YMMV.
posted by bananafish at 12:36 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older CSI: Kmt?   |   FatCow or NearlyFreeSpeech? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.