Sexism at work
How can all staff create cultural change
Although our biases can never be eliminated, we can learn to manage them. Here are some ideas on how to do that.
1. Become more self-aware
It is easy to ignore our own biases and be mindful of bias in others (‘I’m not biased, it’s my colleagues who have a problem’).
Complete the ‘Test yourself’ section of this handbook
Make sure you engage in unconscious bias training. Reflect on what you might do, or do not do, to enable this behaviour. Do you stay silent when someone cracks a sexist joke?
If you find yourself with a sharp negative reaction to anything, check for biases that might have triggered that response. Discuss with a peer, mentor or coach to get feedback.
2. Ask for feedback
Very often we share our opinions before we ask. Ask for feedback on how people receive the way you address them and your opinions.
If you have received feedback you think is sexist, incomplete or misleading, ask questions to clarify, such as the following.
- ‘Can you clarify what you mean when you say I am too “emotional?”’
- ‘What makes you think that?’
- ‘What particular incident(s) brought you to that conclusion?’
3. Build empathy
Putting yourself in other people’s shoes goes a long way. How would you feel if you were constantly interrupted in meetings?
You could even ask some appropriate questions about your colleagues’ experience of your workplace or certain events.
For example: rather than asking ‘do you have any feedback for me?’ which may produce a negative response, try asking general open-ended questions, such as one of the following.
- ‘What are your thoughts on… ?’
- ‘How did you feel about… ?’
It is important that we feel able to deal with sexist behaviour when it occurs and that we have the skills to self-advocate. We all have to foster a workplace culture where people feel comfortable to raise concerns without fear of judgement and reprisals.
You can contribute by communicating constructively in the following way.
Point it out. State your observation: ‘It seems that… ’
Check it out. Validate your understanding and check the intent:
‘Can you clarify… help me understand… ?’
Work it out. Find a solution: ‘Would you be willing to… ? Could we… ?’
For instances of sexual harassment that contravene organisational policies, the Belgian social enterprise JUMP recommends the following.
- Do not suffer in silence, speak up.
- Refer the issue to your line manager. If the perpetrator is your line manager go to your human resources manager or other person designated to deal with such challenges, such as a confidential counsellor.
- Find witnesses who can corroborate your experience.
- Create a paper trail:
- Keep a record of the incident noting any relevant details. State the facts such as who was involved, what happened, when and where.
- Ask for written testimonial from any witnesses. If you have experienced emotional or psychological distress which others can confirm, ask for their testimony too.
- Save all written communication of those involved.
- Save all medical certificates.
It must be noted that responsibility for violence such as sexual harassment lies solely with the perpetrator. The victim cannot be held responsible for their actions and should not be expected to self-advocate.
5. Do not be a bystander
We have to assume that not all sexist incidents take place out of sight. Bystander interventions are important to create a culture where sexist behaviour is flagged up as unacceptable. Support colleagues who you might feel are targets.
Challenge the situation and focus on why you are uncomfortable rather than the person who is the target.
For example: ‘I feel uncomfortable when you comment on Eloïse’s appearance in meetings.’
Avoid saying: ‘Don’t comment on Eloïse’s appearance in meetings it makes her feel uncomfortable.’ This makes Eloïse a target twice.
Remind the person who is behaving in a sexist way that this is against the policy of your organisation. It might be more appropriate to challenge the issue later, but the language should remain the same.