Sexism in the workplace – confront it, you might be surprised


2012/07/05 by admin

Willard Foxton

We’ve all had it happen.

You’re in an all male environment, and someone says or does something foolish, everyday, and yet deeply sexist. A colleague says “Phwoar, Julie from Marketing – I’d give her one” or jokes about how your irritated boss “Must be on her period, eh”?

Most sexism is like this – awkward comments that are not necessarily meant to cause insult or discomfort, spoken by otherwise decent male coworkers. They tend to spill out more when men are on their own. If a sexist comment falls in a forest when no-one is around, does it hurt women? Should you make a scene?

They key thing to bear in mind is these comments are harmful – maybe even moreso in all male environments, because they perpetuate a stereotype and promote the idea that this is an acceptable way to think. It fixes ideas of women’s views, preferences and abilities – and if treating women like this behind closed doors isn’t misogyny, I’m not sure what is.  If you find yourself in a situation like this, what should you do?

While we’d all like to believe that we would confront anyone who said something sexist the truth is that it rarely happens. For instance, in this study, 68% of people said that they would refuse to answer sexually harassing questions in a job interview, and 28% said they would openly confront the interviewer. But when the interview actually happened, everyone answered the offensive questions, and not one confronted the interviewer.

It’s no wonder so few are willing to confront sexism in the workplace. People want to avoid being seen as complainers or want to fit in and be “one of the lads”. Most of us assume our objections will make the work environment tense and uncomfortable. You just roll your eyes and ignore them.

But you should confront the perpetrator of a sexist comment. It probably won’t be as uncomfortable as you think. So it’s worth asking, how do men actually respond when they are confronted about sexism in this day and age?

The answer: they seem to be surprisingly nice about it – indeed, most men recoil when confronted with their own sexism. In a recent study, male participants were teamed with a partner (who was actually an accomplice in the experiment). Their assignment was to read a set of moral or ethical dilemmas and discuss together how to deal with each situation, including one in which a nurse discovers that a hospital patient has been given tainted blood.

During their discussion, the partner confronted the partner either for sexism (having assumed the nurse in the story was female, which every male participant did) or in a gender-neutral way (disagreeing with the male’s suggested solution to the dilemma). As expected, men had much stronger reactions to being told that their remark was sexist than they did to mere disagreement. But the reactions weren’t what you might expect.

The men accused of sexism smiled and laughed more, appeared more surprised, gestured more often and with greater energy, and were more likely to try to justify or apologize for their remark. But they didn’t actually react with hostility – in fact, they reported liking the partner in both conditions equally well, and were generally pleasant across the board. Once confronted, perpetrators of offensive remarks are motivated to smooth the awkwardness of the situation.

It turns out that when it comes to offensive remarks, offenders are also susceptible to the same social pressure you are when you wince at the comment and fail to complain. The truth is, sexism has become a huge taboo – men who make insensitive sexist comments usually want to avoid being seen as sexists.

Of course, the study may be unrepresentative – it’s not directly applicable to male on male interaction. And you might work with a full blown racist, sexist homophobe who’ll demand a fight in the pub car park.

Aside from just being the right thing to do pledging to confront it makes you think about it, which in of itself makes you less sexist. And ladies love a man with a broken nose.

See? We’re all guilty of doing it inadvertently, from time to time – I know I occasionally fail on this score. Perhaps the best reason to confront sexism is that confronting it openly as men is one of the few most positive things we can do to get rid of it – from ourselves & others.

2 thoughts on “Sexism in the workplace – confront it, you might be surprised

  1. […] Sexism in the workplace – confront it, you might be surprised ( […]

  2. […] Sexism in the workplace – confront it, you might be surprised ( […]

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