Sexism in the workplace is a complicated topic that can be very difficult for both men and women to deal with. Effective methods of coping and reacting depend very much on the situation and the individuals involved. But most importantly, people should understand that no one should have to deal with harassment or sexism in the workplace. In any situation, if a person feels threatened or harassed, they should go to management or their human resources department immediately.
While overt sexual harassment is a very real problem, many people have to deal with more indirect forms of discrimination which can be difficult to navigate. Specifically, many women are expected to tolerate sexist jokes, pet names, comments about appearances and expectations that they take on a disproportionate share of office domestic work and tasks. What can women or men do in these situations? Ideally, we would want people to call out sexist behaviour publicly, but many times, that approach can result in a backlash against the complainant from coworkers and supervisors.
I was attending an agriculture trade show that included many exhibitors demonstrating various types of equipment. My (female) colleague and I had a lengthy conversation with one exhibitor about recruitment and positions he was looking to fill, which was very positive and professional. And as we were walking away after exchanging business cards, he thought it would be appropriate to jokingly pull out a vacuum cleaner and ask us to show him how it is used.
With that in mind, and many other examples of this kind of indirect sexist behaviour, here are some tips to dealing with these situations:
- Don’t laugh at the joke. It is very tempting to laugh it off and tolerate a joke like this. Not laughing highlights the fact that the joke is not funny.
- Ask them to repeat it. Sometimes, when asked to repeat an inappropriate comment or joke, it highlights how inappropriate it really is.
- Ask for an explanation or turn it around. In this situation, asking why he would think I would know how to use a vacuum cleaner better than him would highlight how inappropriate the comment is, especially since he is manufacturing and selling agriculture equipment!
- Just state that it is an inappropriate comment.
Situations are can be quite different however when you are dealing with indirect sexism from colleagues and superiors. In all situations it is highly recommended that:
- You keep a log – especially if it is ongoing, to record all the details of what was said and when
- You ask to speak to the person privately to express your issue – if you are comfortable
- If it doesn’t stop after following all the above suggestions, it might be best to talk to your supervisor and/or human resources department.
Starting with suggestions 1 – 4 might be enough to stop unwanted comments and behaviour and if not, suggestions 5 – 7 may be required. Unfortunately, there is no simple, straight-forward answer to shutting down sexism in the workplace, and many situations require a different approach. However, it is always best to maintain coolness and professionalism at all times, even when faced with inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour!
Check out our “Gender Roles & Equality in the Agricultural Workplace” report for more data on this topic.