This is for everyone who knows exactly how office sexism works, but still doesn’t know how to do anything about it.
You always told yourself you would do something if confronted with this situation. So when sexism happens and you find that you freeze or, worse, dismiss it with a nonchalant laugh, you create excuses. You start to question if you’re overreacting. You gaslight yourself. “It’s not a big deal. If he was dangerous, I would say something," you say in your head.
You put yourself through all of the subjugation that you’ve studied to be myths, even though you know how incorrect they are.
“Tomorrow I won’t wear such a tight dress, so he can’t tell me that he likes ‘the fit’ of it.” “Why did I have to walk past him this morning; couldn’t I have just waited to go to the bathroom?”
You see the looks of internalized fury in the eyes of a female co-worker as he massages her at her desk. And yet you still wonder: am I just blowing this out of proportion?
Then, you start to get mad. You privately scream at yourself for remaining silent within this archaic power balance, perfectly aware of how you’re minimizing not only your own experience, but that of others. It starts to drive you insane. Eventually, you’re only left with one question: If I — a rape culture educated, outspoken feminist — am not able to speak out against office sexism, then who is?
With everything that’s been happening with regards to women speaking out about gendered harassment, we would like to believe that it has gotten easier. But even before the #MeToo movement picked up speed, I thought I had the ‘speaking up’ thing under control. I honestly believed that if faced with office sexism like the kind I experienced this year that I would shut it down immediately, backed by my studies of feminist theory.
However, in real-life situations, it is intricately difficult to point a finger at someone you work with everyday and tell them that their behavior is sexist. Because on top of recognizing it, you have to be able to define it to someone who doesn’t want to know (and who has influence on your future at the company). So, despite everything you know about sexism, you internalize it. You decide it’s just not worth it to do something; it’s only low-level stuff. What would you really gain anyway?
But you end up losing a lot. Whether it’s a flashing neon sign of harassment or it’s a delicate, seemingly trivial situation, it is important to speak up. It’s scary, but there are ways to get through to the people around you.
When I finally decided I would do something about my manager’s sexist behavior, I was nervous. I feared being told I was overreacting, I feared embarrassment, and I feared losing my job.
I came up with a game plan. I work for a small company with no HR. So rather than saying something directly to the manager, I chose to schedule a meeting with my — thankfully — female supervisor. I explained to her that I would no longer accept the manager’s behavior. I just wanted someone to know, so that if it ever came back around they would understand where it was coming from.
This is why we need more females in management roles: she immediately understood. She asked if she could bring this up to the higher management. And, with my permission, she took action. The next day, I was called into a meeting with my director and the same supervisor. Everybody listened and supported my actions.
I wish I could say that it was as easy and positive when I was called into a meeting with the CEO. With no supervisor present, it was just me awkwardly trying to explain to him that the manager’s behavior is in fact very gendered and inappropriate while he sat on the other side of the desk not getting it. He seemed to get that the manager is touchy, but he didn’t understand why it had anything to do with gender.
By the end of the meeting, I was unable to give him any perspective on how office sexism works. I felt like a failed feminist. Why couldn’t I figure out a way to frame it to him? Later, a friend would tell me: “It’s not on you to explain it to him. It’s on him to figure out how to understand.” I looked forward to the day when it would click in his brain.
A month later, I was sitting at my desk while the CEO and a few others had lunch in the office. The manager, who had been given only a light warning, came in and started to tell a story about a girl that he almost hired.
He had decided not to hire her, but when he saw her picture, he joked that he regretted it. What a mistake not to hire such an attractive woman. He laughed, and waited for everyone to join him. An awkward silence resounded in the office, where in the past there may have been validating snickers and ‘banter’ about sexy sales reps. I released my clenched jaw. Maybe the manager didn’t get why his coworkers didn’t think it was funny, but at least his coworkers got it.
In the silence, you could hear something start to click for the CEO.
Charlie Brook is the creator of Her Me Out, a feminist blog about rape culture in the media. Having studied the subject in her Masters, she’s endlessly driven to write about how our culture perpetuates rape. Currently living in Barcelona, Charlie works as a full-time content writer.