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How to speak up about workplace sexism & What companies and coworkers can do to help

I recently came across a BuzzFeed video about every day sexism in the workplace. It does a really great job at depicting the subtle ways women may experience sexism in a male dominated environment. What mostly struck a cord with me was the scene in which the guy tries to write to his supervisor to talk about what he is experiencing. He makes several attempts of writing and deleting his message until he comes up with something that does not sound like an accusation to the other person. It clearly takes a lot of effort to write it.

Having made similar experiences in my professional life of being talked over, my contributions being disregarded or my abilities being under-estimated, I had to take this step of writing a message to talk about my observations several times in my life. Every time it gave me sweaty hands and a tense stomach.

Why is it so hard to say something?

In the moment discriminatory behaviour happens, it is virtually impossible to react to it. Being talked over can make you feel paralysed, small and powerless. The more often it happens, the more likely your self-confidence is going to take a hit and the less likely are you going to speak up about it.

I also observed that people tend to copy the behaviour of people in power. If someone in a higher position constantly talks over you or treats you dismissively, other people start doing the same. This might make you feel even more powerless and excluded from the group.

Furthermore, if a discriminatory move happens in a group discussion, it might be difficult to confront someone with their behaviour. Not only because it interrupts the discussion, but also because you don’t want to embarrass the other person, nor do you want to be seen as “aggressive”.

What makes it harder is that people are often not aware of their sexism. You could ask anyone if they are sexist and most people would reply “no”. However, studies have shown that everyone (women included) tends to talk over women in group discussions without noticing it.

Because of this unawareness calling someone out on their behaviour is often difficult. You might generally like this person and don’t want to offend them. You might be in a lower level of hierarchy and afraid of repercussions. Or you might wonder how speaking up will reflect on you. How often are women told to “not be so sensitive” or “emotional”. You might be afraid that you will be perceived as being “difficult” which might result in the other people avoiding you altogether.

What can you do when you experience workplace sexism?

Experiencing sexist behaviour might make you angry. That’s good! Use that anger to say something. This energy will help you make your point.

If it is too difficult for you to go to the person directly to talk to them, write an email. I am better with words when I write them. It gives me more time to think about what I want to say and what message I want to convey. You might be different, but I encourage you to at least write down your thoughts before you initiate the conversation.

Your message to the person should include these things:

Describe the situation when the behaviour happened. It is better to use an exact situation or several situations, instead of saying “you always do this”. In general, avoid cliches and generalisations, keep to the facts.

Describe how you felt in this situation. It surely makes you angry, but what else is there? Does it make you feel not taken seriously, excluded, not appreciated? Your emotions will help the other person to see the situation from your side. This way they will less likely see it as a personal offence.

Describe how this behaviour changes your behaviour. Are you less likely to contribute to conversations even though you have valuable insights? Are you drawing back from the group or even avoiding them altogether? Tell them what effect it has on you and on the company.

Say that you would like to talk about it in person whenever they have time — tomorrow or in the next days. Your message will most likely be a shock to the other person. As I said before, most people are not aware of their behaviour. So give them time to let it sink in, think about it and emotionally prepare themselves for the conversation. You should do the same by the way 😉 Don’t let too much time pass. It’s possible that the other person tries to avoid confrontation. In that case remind them that you want to talk about it or catch them and ask for a spontaneous meeting. When the time has come, explain again what you experienced and how it makes you feel. Emphasise that you want to improve your work-relationship.

Listen to what the other person has to say. They might deny everything or they might be remorseful — they will definitely be shocked that they might be sexist. Repeating how you feel will make them understand that it is actually an issue which needs to tackled. It’s possible that their behaviour is a reaction to yours as well. Stay open for their feedback. No matter what the outcome is, your conversation will make them more self-aware.

What can companies do to help women?

  1. Create a feedback culture
    This is the most important step in my opinion. If you have an environment that is afraid of feedback or where feedback is often replied to with aggression or avoidance, it is harder for people to say something. If you create an environment that embraces feedback, people will learn to use it for personal growth and are less likely to interpret it as a personal offence. This makes it easier to talk about personal experiences.
  2. Train people for unconscious bias
    Because people are often unaware of sexist behaviour, companies need to train their employees (especially their managers) for unconscious bias. This increases not only everyone’s self-awareness, but also the awareness for situations where someone else is behaving inappropriately. If you are interested in this topic, watch Google’s recording of their unconscious bias training.
  3. Speak up for other people
    Because being on the receiving side of discriminating behaviour might be paralysing, it is important to speak up for other people when you see it happening.

How to react when someone calls you out on sexism

  1. Take them seriously
    Speaking up about sexism takes a lot of courage. The person has most likely already gone through several incidents of sexist behaviour before deciding to say something. Therefore, if someone calls you out on sexist behaviour, take them seriously.
  2. Listen
    Your first step might be to dismiss the notion that you might be sexist. But I beg you to listen to the person. You might not be aware of your behaviour. It might also be a misunderstanding. Speaking about both sides, the sending and receiving end, will help you understand each other better and might ultimately lead to a better work relationship.
  3. Ask for continued feedback
    Show your willingness to improve and ask the other person to specifically call you out immediately if they experience sexist behaviour again. This will make yourself more aware of your actions and it will also increase the trust of the other person in you.

What are your thoughts on workplace sexism? Did you make similar experiences and how did you react? Have you ever spoken up for someone else? How did that feel? What advise would you give someone experiencing this kind of discrimination?

PS: I am not a native English speaker. If you find weird sentences, you can keep them as a souvenir 😉

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