Diversity and Inclusion

How to Respond to Subtle Sexism at Work

Sometimes sexism in the workplace is obvious — like when a woman is always expected to get the coffee or take notes in a meeting — but it can also be much more subtle. For example, at an investment bank, a woman might have a male coworker ask, “Did you get interested in finance because of your dad?” Even if her coworker is trying to be friendly, his question has gender bias built into it. It assumes that a woman could only be interested in finance if a male role model steered her in that direction.

If the woman picks up on that subtle sexism, she may be torn about how to proceed. Should she call his attention to it, or let it slide to avoid making him uncomfortable?

For guidance on how to handle situations like this, Forté reached out to Colleen Ammerman, director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School and author of the book Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work. Colleen pointed out that there are many variables in workplace interactions, including the power relationship between the people having the conversation, that can make it difficult to respond in the moment. Even if you don’t address the sexism, she suggests considering it useful data to have.

What Subtle Sexism Reveals About a Workplace

When a coworker asks a question that includes a sexist assumption, Colleen said, “I think it tells you something about the culture, it tells you something about individuals, it tells you something about teams and departments and norms.” She believes that many women are unaware of the barriers and disadvantages they still face in the workplace. When women encounter these obstacles, they interpret it as a personal failing. Colleen noted, “That can be really demoralizing. It can contribute to women lowering their aspirations or feeling like they’re not able to stay on a leadership track.”

Even if you don’t feel comfortable calling out a sexist comment, it can be useful information to have as a way to evaluate whether your workplace is a place that’s going to support your success. Subtle sexism can be especially informative if it happens at a company where you’re thinking about working. Colleen said, “If you’re in a situation where you’re exploring a job, interviewing with someone, and there are comments being made that suggest that this is a manager who does not necessarily view women as capable or as valuable compared to men, that is something that is probably going to affect your career.” Even if you still wanted to work there and were able to convince this person to hire you, she noted, “Those — even unconscious — kinds of assumptions about women’s capabilities or commitment to work are probably going to make it harder for you to succeed.”

Addressing Subtle Sexism in the Workplace

Even in a casual conversation with a peer at your workplace, you may worry about how it will come across if you point out that a colleague’s comment or question could be perceived as sexist. Colleen said, “You can apply some of the same advice that you read in advice columns given to people about how to respond to an inappropriate comment of any kind.” She offered the example of not participating in the comment. “If it’s something where they’re expecting you to laugh or agree, not doing that.”

Many sexist comments are rooted in stereotypes that aren’t supported by evidence. Colleen said, “It could be as simple as pointing that out. That’s certainly something that I have done in my personal life, because this happens to be something that I have some expertise about.” She added an example, “What I often do is say, ‘You know, it’s interesting — that’s something that a lot of people think, but actually, I can tell you that the social science indicates X, Y, Z instead.’” You don’t have to quote data or statistics to make your point; you can also refer to your own experience and say something like, “As a woman, I have a really different view on this.”  Colleen said, “You can do that in a way that offers different perspective on the idea itself, rather than confronting the person in a personally charged way.”

When a man asks a question with built-in sexism, like asking a woman if her dad inspired her interest in finance, she may want to address the sexism without specifically naming it. Dave Smith, coauthor of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace, provided these sample responses: “I think what you meant to ask was ‘How did I get interested in a career in finance?'” and “Despite the finance industry being overrepresented by men, it is women such as Janet Yellen, Erika James, and Thasunda Brown Duckett who influenced my interest in finance.”

Dave’s coauthor, Brad Johnson, said the Socratic question technique can be useful in this situation, because it’s less likely to make someone defensive. He offered the examples of saying, “That’s an interesting question, I’m curious about why you would assume my interest in finance came from my father?” or “I’m curious about whether you would ask that same question to a male.” This approach encourages the speaker to check himself and his comment in a way that might expand the conversation versus him closing down.

Encourage Your Male Allies to Get Involved

Women aren’t solely responsible for addressing subtle sexism in workplace conversation — men can and should get involved. Ammerman encourages women to identify male allies at work, and said, “Build those relationships, and let them know how much it matters for them to speak up.”

She suggested giving men specific actions they can take. For example, “If you witness comments being made, be the one to step in. Instead of the woman who it’s directed at needing to respond, you can be the one to say, depending on the nature of the comment, ‘Hey, I don’t think that’s really appropriate,’ or ‘I think that’s a stereotype. I don’t think that’s true.’” When men speak up, it’s not viewed as self-interested, and it’s often taken more seriously.

Brad agreed that it can be especially effective for men to speak up. “Women who call out bias and sexism, especially when they are a distinct minority, can take a hit in their annual evaluations and leadership ratings. Not so for men, who get a bump up for doing the same thing.”

Brad Johnson and Dave Smith will be giving the keynote for Forté’s upcoming Men as Allies Inclusive Leadership Program.

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