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How to Handle Sexism in the Workplace

When it comes to workplaces across the globe, sexual harassment is completely unacceptable and is a punishable offence. The approach towards sexual harassment is very black and white. You are wrong if you do it, and right if you don’t. However, sexism in the workplace unfortunately falls in the proverbial gray area, where the level of acceptance and tolerance can vary from person to person. The objectivity of sexual harassment instances is lost and at times, workplace sexism becomes a subjective case where even something as weak as ‘I didn’t mean it like that’ becomes a valid and acceptable excuse.

Defining workplace sexism can be very difficult because of the ‘gray area’ mentioned previously. However, in the broadest possible sense,

Sexism in The Workplace can be Classified into Overt Sexism and Casual Sexism.

Overt Sexism

This is by far the most threatening and malevolent form of sexism in the workplace. The kind that makes its way into global news broadcasts and not just satirical BuzzFeed sketches on Youtube. The Tinder lawsuit and Hollywood’s perennial gender wage gap are a few famous examples of overt sexism in the workplace. Unwanted sexual advances and borderline harassment are not just minor irritants, they cause harm to women’s state of mental well being and lead to an erosion in the sense of safety and comfort that women feel while working. Because it can cause damage at a deeper level, overt sexism is considered to be the most harmful type of sexism in the workplace.

Casual Sexism

This type of sexism in the workplace manifests itself in so many ways that 50 shades of gray are not enough to classify everything that falls under this umbrella term. Casual sexism is also called latent sexism sometimes. The reason behind that is the fact that some types of sexism are so deeply ingrained in our psyche that they can even pass away unnoticed. A lot of ‘harmless’ sexist jokes and ‘mansplaining’ fall under the casual sexism category.

Unfortunately, a recent study has shown that for women, every kind of sexism in the workplace has a detrimental impact. So it becomes even more important for them to sniff out and challenge even most latent of sexist behaviour. Here are four ways with which women can deal with sexism in their workplace.

1. Reject double standards

If your boss acts very formal with all your male co-workers and calls them by their last name, while referring to you by your first name and acting very mushy around you; speak up. Being chivalrous is not the same as being creepy. By ignoring or overlooking such behaviour, women can unknowingly enable the sexist boss. Asking for the reason behind such selective behaviour brings the situation into perspective and forces the offenders to carry out a public consideration of their actions. Sometimes, people’s sexist behaviour can just be caused by them being insensitive. A slight nudge towards introspection can lead to a quick solution of the problem. In case it doesn’t work, a paper trail of sorts will be created which can be used to lodge a formal complaint at a later stage if necessary.

The responsibility to confront double standards also lies with an observer who happens to be in a managerial role. Sometimes, sexism can become ingrained in an office’s culture and it’s the manager’s responsibility to stop it from happening.

2. Make workplace alliances

If an office has multiple women employees, chances are that they might have also faced some kind of sexist behaviour at times. Speaking with them about their experiences is a great idea. Figuring out how they feel is very important when it comes to assessing the company’s culture. If a lot of women at the workplace feel resigned, alienated and left out, it’s definitely worth discussing with the company’s HR department.

Speaking to other women also helps in providing an objective listener and a person who is more than likely to show some empathy, rather than sympathy or even worse, apathy. If a woman doesn’t talk to anyone else, she can easily feel like she is being over-sensitive in a frat-house type work environment. Building an alliance also brings a ‘strength in numbers’ type of emotion among the women in the office, leading to a better sense of security and self confidence. On many occasions, when one woman speaks out against some version of sexism in the workplace, others might join in and say that they have encountered the same situation at an earlier time, giving an outlet for women who were petrified to speak out initially.

3. Approach human resources

The HR department of your office isn’t just the last resort or an ‘in case of emergency, break glass’ scenario. That department is also there to provide advice, consultation and counselling. If there is a long term issue of sexism, it will actually help to bring it up with the HR head during quarterly meetings among all office departments. However, don’t just state the problem, offering a tentative solution to the problem can also be extremely helpful in ensuring a swift action to remedy the situation.

4. As far as overt sexism goes, just rise against it

It might be sensible to take a slightly diplomatic approach when it comes to getting rid of casual sexism from the workplace. If a mere nod towards introspection can fix something, there is no need to escalate the issue and jeopardize someone’s career. However, any and all instances of overt sexism and sexual harassment must immediately be reported to the HR department and a request for the strictest of actions must be made. Overt sexism can devolve into an ugly monster and needs to be nipped in the bud.

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