Colleagues make sexist comments out of female earshot. What do I do?
April 17, 2014 3:16 PM   Subscribe

I am a feminist, and many (not all) of my colleagues routinely make sexist comments. They know I am not okay with this, and instead of holding back, they now often do it even more blatantly, partly to get a rise out of me. I'm something of a beginner feminist so I don't know what to do. Tips please?

My workplace is a combination of two of the most entrenched sectors of overwhelmingly male staff in the modern world. There is, as you may guess, a very strong boys' club mentality. I've objected strongly to a number of the comments in the hope that it would do some good, but instead what has happened is that the people who make them have just escalated - now they are said very deliberately in my direction. Since my female colleagues work down the hall and are almost never in the room I'm in, it hasn't actually happened in front of them that I've seen, and I don't know if it would - but that shouldn't matter.

A general illustration of the kind of comments - explicitly stating [referring to a female colleague] that appearance is her primary asset, general things about women not being as good in any number of things including the field in which we work, rape apology, rape/harassment/stalking jokes and plenty of other stuff besides.

Please note that when I've been able to get any kind of serious discussion going (though this has only happened with a couple of the people concerned), they are quite ready to speak of women equally and listen to points about what causes the dearth of applications to work in our field, and plenty of other issues relevant to equal rights. This post is about the majority of the time when they just want to joke around and find an easy route to doing so in throwing off these kinds of comments - and yes, I've already pointed out that it is part of the problem, and they laughed it off.

Part of the problem is that I'm not comfortable taking this to my immediate boss because although he's pretty good in comparison, he still leans that way a little bit and I'm not confident he would see it as a problem. I'm also worried about what would happen if I found an appropriate person to take it to - this is something the majority of my closest colleagues do, and I would expect them to feel aggrieved if I made an issue about something they consider 'just banter'. Finally, I'm also desperately bad at confrontation, regardless of what it's about - my natural inclination would just have been to refuse to take part but I know that's not enough.

I don't want to consider leaving - this job is solid gold for my career in a dozen different ways, but the most ethically sound course of action I have come up with so far seems to involve taking a flying leap at this mental barrier AND most likely alienating myself in the process.

What alternatives do I have?

NB: the people involved include both my peers and a couple of people who are senior to me; although they are NOT in charge of me, they do have some influence such as input into my performance reviews and being some of the primary sources of on the job learning.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (33 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Does your place of business have any sort of formalized HR department? Speaking as the entire HR department of a small business, it's HR's entire job to solve this kind of situation to their greatest abilities. If you do have HR, talk to them-- they should be well-versed in solving problems with anonymity.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:25 PM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

You need to stop trying to have a discussion with these people. I commend you for trying to fight the good fight, but this will not end well. It is not your job to educate these dickweeds. Do that outside of the workplace (with other dickweeds, not your colleagues).

Your workplace should have an HR department. If it does not, for some reason, and you find someone else to bring the issue to, it shouldn't be phrased in a "social justice-y" manner, but in that these people are creating a hostile/abrasive work environment. HR, your boss, whomever, does not care about the personal political beliefs of their employees. What they do care about is employees intentionally rocking the boat and messing up the workflow.

rape/harassment/stalking jokes

This, specifically, is something that can be taken as objectively "not ok" without any attached feminist bias.
posted by FirstMateKate at 3:27 PM on April 17, 2014 [14 favorites]

Yeah, this is not for discussion or "hey can we chill with the jokes" chats. This is for reporting up the ladder fast and high, because - assuming you're in the US, this is called a hostile work environment and it's illegal. Illegal things make for very expensive lawsuits and very bad publicity.
posted by rtha at 3:31 PM on April 17, 2014 [33 favorites]

Someone in HR will not be amused that workers are standing around, drawing pay, and making rape jokes.
posted by Houstonian at 3:37 PM on April 17, 2014 [15 favorites]

A general illustration of the kind of comments - explicitly stating [referring to a female colleague] that appearance is her primary asset, general things about women not being as good in any number of things including the field in which we work, rape apology, rape/harassment/stalking jokes and plenty of other stuff besides.

If you feel like they are doing that douchey bro thing where they don't actually "mean" any of it but they just want to piss you off, a very flat, "That's sexist and inappropriate." can be very good for, like, blonde jokes and girls can't computer type stuff. Then don't say anything else.

Colleague: [sexist thing]
You: That's sexist and inappropriate.
Colleague: But [joke/freedom of speech/girls can't computer!]
You: Let's get back to work.

I also second rtha that you should totally report stuff that makes you especially uncomfortable/is fucked-up and illegal. You can do both at once, if that helps.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:37 PM on April 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Thank you for your good intentions - I can't speak for anyone else but I appreciate your attempts to do the right thing. Is there any opportunity to suggest (anonymously if possible) some equality / sensitivity training for the workforce in general? Like getting someone in from outside the organization to talk about how negative attitudes will eventually result in lawsuits, financial repercussions, a falling off of any status the organization might otherwise have held and its eventual inability to recruit the best candidates for jobs - thoughtful men as well as women, given your example. Not to mention that their daughters might one day find themselves working in a similar environment and how would they feel about the rape jokes then?
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 3:42 PM on April 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

What Makes a Work Environment Hostile? You may find this article helpful...
posted by elf27 at 3:48 PM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

"I don't want to consider leaving - this job is solid gold for my career in a dozen different ways, but the most ethically sound course of action I have come up with so far seems to involve taking a flying leap at this mental barrier AND most likely alienating myself in the process."

Yo, this is explicitly what's meant by a hostile work environment with regard to sexual harassment. Leaving aside your feelings, this is a huge fucking liability for the business.

But, if you don't end up going down that route, what I'll say is that shit like this is often a proxy for alpha dogging, and getting it to end means accumulating some workplace power and using it to shut this shit down. (Depending on how crass you can get away with being, a lot of that shit goes at least underground around you if you can trot out the, 'Why are you so afraid of women?' lines, often including things like calling out coworkers as pencil-dicked assholes over it. Treating expressions of misogyny as statements of inferiority and insecurity, and being fairly ruthless about it, can shift power dynamics pretty quickly — or it can backfire horribly. Use your judgment.)
posted by klangklangston at 3:53 PM on April 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

Document what is going on, read your employee manual for any sexual harassment policies, and make an appointment with HR. Do not confront them. You don't want to stoop to their level of behavior.
posted by Carol Anne at 4:00 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm probably more cynical than is useful, but although you have the moral and legal right, I think you'd suffer for protecting it so long as you're in their echo chamber. If you're determined to stay, my thinking is, set some specific career targets and move on within two years. I like Snarl Furillo's advice on language. Using humour to deflect things other times might keep them civil, but given what they think is funny, it would get old fast. (And, I would imagine, it would take years to be plausible in whatever Joe Rogan crap they admire. Not that that should be a goal.)

Or, you could try to roll with it for a while but push hard for serious commitment to changes in recruitment. In a positive way, you know, be sunny about it. We're cheaper, etc. (kid) They'll have to pretend to be decent with more women around.
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:00 PM on April 17, 2014

Only you know your office dynamics and how effective escalation is likely to be. If you're leaning towards a more gradual or restrained approach for the present, there's something to be said for the oft-mocked feminist humorlessness. It's a low-key "that's not funny" paired with a calm but subtly disappointed look that sends the message, hey, you're kind of embarrassing yourself. In fact, I suspect that these guys are escalating because you've made them feel worried that they're behaving badly, so they're seeking reassurance from each other that their behavior is OK and you're just the outsider whom they don't have to listen to or worry about. Keep having the effective one on one talks, but not just for the deep thinking issues. There's also peeling off the less sexist ones from the herd by making them feel like this is a small deal and they can just stop the jokes, which (you imply) would put them back in the "good person" column.
posted by prefpara at 4:01 PM on April 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

My long-standing strategy for dealing with clearly inappropriate jokes that I suspect are being told simply to get a rise out of me is to wait until everyone is done laughing, then turn a puzzled face to the joke-teller and say "I don't understand that joke. Could you explain it to me?"
posted by DrGail at 4:11 PM on April 17, 2014 [20 favorites]

The base question is whether you think this behavior rises to the level of harassment or a truely hostile work environment. If so, then it goes to the boss or HR.

On a more nuanced level, realize that you can't change what anyone thinks, even much about how anyone acts. If they are acting out to tease you, don't rise to the bait. They know you disapprove. Try to have a friendly enough relationship so they know they are offending a friend.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:35 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

OP it sounds you yourself are a guy. I'm honestly not sure if the "hostile work environment" rule would apply in that case.
posted by travertina at 5:08 PM on April 17, 2014

nthing the advice to take this sorry situation to your company's HR department. These jackasses are putting your company at risk of getting sued -- not necessarily by you, but by someone who's been overhearing them create a hostile work environment. It's HR's job to deal with it, and I hope they do.
posted by Gelatin at 5:11 PM on April 17, 2014

Conduct yourself decently, avoid discussions that dehumanize people, hire qualified women when you are able, include women on cc lines and in meetings and on projects. These things are wildly undervalued. People get all jacked up about whether or not there's a female VP in the room and in the meantime have forgotten to invite a female coworker to the last five project launches.

Do not forget to send them the conference line number. When you can, encourage your boss to consider such issues.

Send twenty dollars every time you feel terribly despairing to a social justice organization that supports women's needs.

You can't change this through corporate frameworks like HR. It will always be your word against theirs. "Did Danny tell a rape joke?" Everyone in unison: "Of course not!"

Think small. Do small things that make a meaningful difference in corporate culture.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:22 PM on April 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

I don't know - do you really want to work with people this dumb? I've worked with people like this before and they've always wound up being massively dumb in other areas as well (I mean, massive incompetence).

As you've said, since bringing this up, now it's being thrown in your direction. That's flat out dumbarse, entrenched hostility. They can't do it with the women down the hall because obviously they are well aware that's wrong - and they'll present themselves in particular way publicly so as to not cop any shit.

But you're supposed to play the game here and you're not! You actually want to treat women as people (and not just for show) - how dare you! You've got concerns about that - pfft!

Dumbarse, entrenched hostility.
posted by heyjude at 5:37 PM on April 17, 2014

When inappropriate comments are made, send an email from work to home with the comment, and who was present. It's not perfect documentation, but it's something. If there are comments on IM, take a screenshot. Email - forward it.

This environment is illegal for a reason; it makes your work life much more difficult. It forces you into a less powerful position, and there's open disrespect.

I encourage you to write up a number of specific quotes and take them to HR. Explain that you find the situation unacceptable, that it reduces your effectiveness at work, and that you find the environment quite stressful. At the very least, they can require some training. If they're smart, they'll address the issue with the more senior staff and require them to cut it out and stop other staff from pulling this crap. Also, they're going to keep doing this to you and to other women, and while taking a stand is not easy, it can change things. I say this from experience.
posted by theora55 at 6:29 PM on April 17, 2014

nthing contact HR, if you have one.

What they are doing is illegal.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:42 PM on April 17, 2014

Seconding A Terrible Llama. Without martyring yourself to the cause there isn't much you can do but "be the change."

1) Don't make a stink about it, but don't join in, either. Be the one who includes women and values their opinions just like those of the men. Be respectful of everyone, even if someone else isn't. It will be noticed. Build your own reputation until people look up to YOU, and be a good example.

Whenever possible, surround yourself with the kind of people you like to be around. Can you move into the other office where more women are?

2) The best way to beat any kind of clique mentality like this at work is to have the "outsider" group eventually be more desirable to be a part of. Someday you will be in a position to select teams for things. Use your power for good. Conspicuously (but tacitly) discriminate against the "good old boys". That's probably not fair, but tough. "Obnoxious sexist" isn't a protected class.
posted by ctmf at 7:07 PM on April 17, 2014

Have you tried turning the joke on the person making such comments? Keep up the tone of the banter but direct it at the guy or guys saying this quick, be sharp, and get the others laughing at them...I've found it works provided you keep it funny.
posted by HoteDoge at 8:01 PM on April 17, 2014

This blogger has some good advice: Just frown.

Though you haven't said, I'm assuming you're male; apologies if that isn't so. Kudos for standing up to dudebro culture; I for one appreciate it.
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:32 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

When a colleague was getting a bit out of line with his jokes and comments, after he went home I left on his desk a copy of When No Means No: A Guide to Sexual Harassment/by a Woman Who Won a Million Dollar Verdict
posted by Sophont at 9:47 PM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

IANAL, but your description is in line with the definition of a hostile work environment according to every sexual harassment HR video training I've ever seen. Even if you yourself are not a woman. I also wouldn't discount the possibility of liability for yourself in case a woman ever does overhear one of these jackassess making such a remark in your presence. In short, I would report to HR asap. No need to go through your own manager to do so, especially as he's participated in the activity in the past.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:49 AM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with posters who are stating that one should draw a hard line at accepting rape jokes/rape analogies in the workplace. Absolute end of sentence. Someone makes a rape joke at work--regardless of whether there are women in the room, regardless of whether the comment is about a woman--HR gets informed. Then my immediate supervisor gets told that I will limit my interaction as much as humanly possible with a person who thinks rape jokes are appropriate--not simply from the lack of humanity and the hostility but the appalling inability to understand that is not how professionals express themselves. You've said you don't believe your immediate boss would be sympathetic to this viewpoint, but perhaps if you frame it as a professionalism issue (don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good), your boss will agree.

Personally, I walk out of the room; "social" consequences fucking be damned; that is not tolerable behavior from an adult, especially not at work.

The rest of it? You have to be the change, I think. You don't respond to sexist comments. Seriously. You let them hang in the air as if no-one had spoken. You don't pick those assholes for your team. If asked why you prefer not to work with Joe, you might remark that you find his attitude toward his colleagues unprofessional; you might not.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:06 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I didn't catch at first that you were not a woman, which does change things slightly. In some ways, it may be that a guy who doesn't put up with that crap is more alarming than a woman who objects; you're breaking the douche code. These guys don't know what to do with that. Clearly some of their workplace socialization is based on doing stupid shit like this. So I'm going to suggest a social-engineering response.

Consider using your status as Fellow Dude to improve the tone of the conversation. Just don't laugh at/ignore the shitty jokes, and redirect the conversation towards whatever "fun" stuff that's not shitty to talk about..sports or hobbies or whatever these guys do that you can talk about also.

The point of this is to a) remove the confrontation aspect (so that it's no longer a macho contest to control the conversation) and b) change your role from Bob Who Hates Us to Bob Who's an OK Guy But Hates Rape Jokes. At least some of the guys may eventually drop that behavior because they like you and know you don't like that stuff (much as they might if they thought you were very religious and got offended). Probably at least one of the guys only makes/laughs at those jokes to go along and wouldn't mind if they went away because they are kind of gross and stupid.

This will only work if you think you can stand to do it, of course, and if you think you could connect to these guys if they dropped the shitty jokes. If you have nothing in common with them or find it uncomfortable, then it won't work as well.
posted by emjaybee at 8:02 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Someday you will be in a position to select teams for things. Use your power for good. Conspicuously (but tacitly) discriminate against the "good old boys". That's probably not fair, but tough."Obnoxious sexist" isn't a protected class.

Just wanted to note, and I hope this isn't a derail: I don't think it's discriminatory to exclude them. They should be excluded because they undermine group cohesiveness and create a fragmented and oppositional work culture. They reduce the ability to do good work, because their mindset disregards team members who otherwise might be making great contributions for the crime of having vaginas. There's no way their verbal dismissiveness and disrespect doesn't impact their actions -- like remembering to invite women to meetings.

Ultimately, they damage the ability of the organization to do good work and refusing to promote people like that isn't discriminatory, it's good business. Most of us want to work with people who grow the business, grow the team, contribute to a better product and a workplace that attracts the most talented people we can get. If someone is standing in the way of that, that's a failure on their part to perform professionally and is subject to all the usual repercussions for such failures.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:37 AM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mod note: A couple comments removed; if you need to talk about moderation, reach us at the contact form or do it in Metatalk, not as an in-thread complaint.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:30 AM on April 18, 2014

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
Yes I am male.

A complicating factor is that I am part of an on site contract to another organisation, and several of the colleagues involved are contractors supplied by companies other than my own. My employer, and my HR, only apply to about half of the people concerned with the rest being split between the other contractors (mostly independents) and the customer.

I appreciate everyone's input and particularly like emjaybee's suggestion to consistently and firmly redirect conversation.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:40 AM on April 18, 2014

this is called a hostile work environment and it's illegal.

The problem here is that generally, HR only considers it a hostile work environment if you are of the gender who is being spoken of there.

Guys I know have had good success in the military by variants on the following:
"Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?"
"What a joke. Do you tell it to your sister?"
"So, how's your mother/sister doing?"

Essentially, the "Point out that there are women you love and respect and you wouldn't want people talking about them like that" gambit. It has the downside of reinforcing mild sexism - them as protector of the females in their family - but the upside of stopping that behavior as you are killing the joy of the jokes for them.
posted by corb at 12:16 PM on April 18, 2014

The problem here is that generally, HR only considers it a hostile work environment if you are of the gender who is being spoken of there.

Given the OP's update, this may all be moot anyway, what with various companies, contractors, and HRs invloved, but it's important for people to know that it's not up to any one company's HR department to decide what is or is not a hostile work environment, especially if the worker decides to take it to the law. Here is a relevant regulatory language from the EEOC.
posted by rtha at 12:25 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

"The problem here is that generally, HR only considers it a hostile work environment if you are of the gender who is being spoken of there."

You're flatly wrong when it comes to legal precedent and what the standard is for a "hostile work environment." See: Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services. (Which is different from the situation discussed here, but refutes your formulation.)

Please double-check your speculation to make sure it's accurate in the future.
posted by klangklangston at 3:24 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you don't pursue the HR angle, and ignoring it is not an option, then at least strive to make them feel guilty, rather than ashamed. Guilt is "I object to your behavior, you know better," shame is "how could you say such things, I reject your entire person." Because they feel someone's trying to shame them, they'll push back, and they'll be even less likely to feel guilty.

Keeping a tone of "you're better a better person than that" works far better than "you're a terrible person beyond hope." The former gives someone who most likely does indeed know better an out. They can improve their behavior. The later can lead to a good person concluding that they don't have to listen to you because $excuse; everyone thinks that they're a good person, and when someone calls out their behavior as being bad, they only hear "that person is saying I'm a bad person." And since they're a good person, in their own mind, it's much easier for them to conclude you're wrong, rather than admit they're acting badly.
posted by wires at 5:23 PM on November 16, 2014

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