How to Deal with Sexism in the Workplace

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Sexism exists everywhere, and it always will, because the genders are different and those differences affect how genders think and act towards each other.

What Constitutes Sexism?

Sexism is discrimination based on gender, and it comes in many forms.

It could be something simple, like my senior group project with four guys where they always wanted me to be the notetaker because I was a girl and I had the best handwriting. I think of these little comments and situations as casual sexism, because they usually stem from a lifetime of conditioning about gender stereotypes and are mostly unintentional. Luckily, simple situations usually have simple solutions: I handed the guys my laptop. Problem solved.

Or sexism can be serious, like in the case of the gender wage gap. For which I have no good advice because I believe a) in free markets and b) that the differences in pay between men and women are not caused by gender, but by other factors that correlate with gender. Like having children.

Sexual harrassment is part of sexism too, but Im not going to touch on it in this article. You can read other womens thoughts about it here.

As a woman, an important skill is knowing how to deal with career-limiting sexism in the workplace. Here are a few tips:

Find An Alternate Solution

When you experience casual sexism, there is usually nothing gained from pointing out that it is, in fact, sexism. It makes you look like a complainer. Instead, offer an alternate solution. For example, if you are always getting asked to complete a menial task, like scheduling lunches or meetings, suggest that the group rotates responsibility every month. Make it clear that the task is menial and the duty should be shared. If anything, people will respect that you are not their secretary.

Change Your Style to Match the Situation

It seems to bother people when I tell them they should change their style in professional settings, and that confuses me. We censor ourselves all the time in different types of situations, and I dont see how this is different. So if you are at a meeting with all men who are ignoring you, speak louder and make your ideas heard. If everyone is interrupting each other, start interrupting to get your voice heard. It sounds crazy, but you will be much more successful in meetings and other workplace interactions when you adopt the dominate communication style. Yes, its out of your comfort zone, but I promise it wont kill you.

At the same time, find a balance. Dont completely change who you are, because that doesnt work either. The key is to adapt by pushing your comfort zone outwards in every situation while still staying true to yourself.

Question If Gender Is Actually Important in the Situation

Everyone thinks that gender needs to balanced within organizations and groups. For example, women of all ages always try to convince me that young women should be working their way up the corporate ladders of Fortune 500 companies. We need more women CEOs! (Less than 2.5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.) But personally, I dont want to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I want to be CEO of my own company.

And realistically, this works better for women. I see older generations of women who are finally starting their own businesses because they spent years chipping away at the glass ceiling with toothpick and a baby on one arm. And I want a family too, so working my way up the ladder just to hit a glass ceiling is unappealing; Id rather skip it all together with freelancing or entrepreneurship, neither of which require sacrificing everything to borrow a sledgehammer.

So question why we must have 50/50 gender in every profession, organization, and school. Is it really important? Maybe genders are just attracted to different career paths because ones gender is a factor in determining ones strengths. Why arent we as a society okay with that?

Even the Playing Field a Little

Men disproportionately play chess, poker, and sports; so if you want to be seen as an equal with men, take up one of these hobbies. I chose (watching) sports, and the best way I learned to keep up with the teams and players every season is by joining fantasy leagues that my guy friends set up. Youd be surprised how easy and fun it is to pick up a hobby, and men dont care if you are any good or not, they just think its cool you showed up to play. (Plus it gives you something to build a working relationship off of, which is always good for your career.)

Whats even more surprising is how competing against guys in one aspect of your life will bleed over to all other aspects. I first learned this lesson when my father put me in ju-jitsu lessons at age 13 and I had to spar boys during every class. It sucked, but I got very strong and very good at fighting in a short amount of time.

Know When To Leave

Honestly, I dont think sexism (outside of sexual harassment) is a huge problem in the workplace, as long as women can learn to handle it. I dont expect that to be a popular opinion because Im overexposed to sexism by the nature of my profession and Ive developed a high tolerance towards the stuff that bothers other women. (Plus sexism probably doesnt affect my paycheck negatively anyway.)

But really, sexism is about drawing lines. Every person has their own line that they must draw, where on one side lie the things they will put up with and on the other lie the things they will not tolerate. Every time that line is crossed, that person has the choice to either deal or leave. And that person gets to pick the number of times they are willing to deal too.

So if sexism is out of control in your current workplace, by your standards, I would suggest leaving. And then stop working for companies that dont draw their line where you draw yours. Stop working with bosses and coworkers that dont draw their line where you draw yours. Find a company that aligns with your values, and you shouldnt have any more problems with sexism.

Author: Monica O’brien

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