Lately, there's been no shortage of news coverage on overt workplace sexism. But alongside these more explicit examples, there is subtle sexism — which is oftentimes even more dangerous, because subtly sexist language and actions can be more difficult to call out. You may even think it’s all in your head.
Subtle sexism can appear in various, stealthy ways: in a meeting, perhaps all men look at you to take notes since "women are good at that;" you get asked if it's "that time of the month" for simply disagreeing with someone; or you get interrupted by a male colleague who repeats exactly what you were saying but gets the credit for it. Individually, these examples seem trivial, but when experienced frequently it can become frustrating and make you feel undermined.
What should you do when this happens? Let it go? Say something about it? You may not always be sure if it was a serious remark or if it was a joke, and you don’t want to put your reputation, or even your job, at risk.
Here are three powerful recommendations to keep in mind when you find yourself in a similar situation:
1. Choose your battles
As Deanne Bell, co-host of CNBC’s Make Me a Millionaire Inventor, said in an interview: “We all make sexist assumptions or remarks—myself included—but we all have different levels of awareness. I gauge that level of awareness and craft my actions and words accordingly. If it’s someone I think will be receptive to being confronted, then I will respectfully bring it up. If it’s a comment from someone whom I rarely interact with professionally, I take a deep breath and move on. And in every case, I strive to prove them wrong.”
An executive by the name of Emily who was featured in our book, "Worldly Women," shared that she was sensitive to company and geographic culture when deciding how to assert her authority and role. She recalled, “When I was in Budapest, my deputy was a man, and we’d often travel together in the Former Soviet Union, and almost inevitably, they would think, he is the boss.” She added: “We used to laugh about it…see how long it [would] take them to figure out who was...the boss.”
If the comment is worth addressing, consider first what the reaction might be. Depending on their personality, they may be open to feedback, or they could dismiss your comment (“It was just a joke.”) or get defensive (“What are you accusing me of?”). Also, what authority do they have over you? Can and are they likely to punish you for speaking up? If that is the case (e.g. because you know women who have been fired when they addressed a similar issue) then you know what the consequences might be and decide whether you think it is worth it.
2. Avoid sarcasm and employ direct communication
Sarcasm is typically a cutting remark that takes the form of humor. Rather than being considered as humor, a sarcastic remark can easily be interpreted as disrespectful, impolite, and insincere. If you decide to address a sexist remark, say it as if the person didn’t mean to offend you. Most of the time they don’t even realize their remark was offensive. You can explain how it makes you feel: “I know it wasn’t your intent, but that made me feel very uncomfortable.” That is more likely to change their behavior in the future. You can also ask them questions about what they meant with the comment. By starting a discussion you can learn about and make them aware of their biases. Speak to them separately, so as to save them from public embarrassment.
3. Form a support group
Just as Jessica Bennet did with her Feminist Fight Club, gather a group of women in your department, area, or network. You can share experiences, doubts and tips - not only about sexism but on a lot of topics. Knowing that a group of women have your back will make you feel empowered and more confident. More in general, professional relationships with superiors, peers, teams, and clients are the building blocks for navigating through challenging times.
If subtle sexism evolves into something occurring on a regular basis and makes you growingly uncomfortable, we suggest you bring this up with your manager or HR. If you decide to do this, make sure to take note of the incidents and be specific (who, what, where, when). Your case will be stronger with a detailed record.
We founded Leverage HR with a simple vision - transition talented women to the top through an international, multilingual network of qualified coaches and trainers. We inspire our clients to understand their talents and how to leverage them to maximize their personal leadership to achieve results. Since the publication of Worldly Women, we have developed and implemented solutions to create diverse leadership teams with some of the most notable Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies, and NGOs across the US and Europe.