Here's how to handle it when a co-worker dismisses sexism at work
Workplace sexism is a thing that happens, and it happens all the time. It’s insidious, and sometimes, your male friends and coworkers don’t always notice it until it becomes super obvious.
Misogyny at work can come in many forms: your boss dismissing your ideas when they come from you but accepting the same ideas from a male co-worker, women being asked to do menial tasks instead of men, or even straight-up being paid less for the same work. These instances are obvious and apparent, and most of us, sadly, seem to expect some degree of sexism, even though we know we don’t deserve it. Unfortunately, it’s just a sad truth that it happens all the time. Women have grown somewhat used to being treated a certain way at work, but hey — at least we have our peers to commiserate with. But what if we don’t?
It can be tough to stand up for ourselves when it comes to our bosses; after all, they control our employment and our happiness at work. There are so many ways to diplomatically, professionally address sexism at work, from taking it up with HR to addressing it directly with respect and tact (and probably a whole lot of tangled nerves). But what happens when your co-workers at the same level as you dismiss misogyny and workplace sexism? It can feel like they’re basically undermining not only your talent and work ethic, but your worth as an employee, as well.
I used to work in an office where our boss consistently favored male employees over female, where the women in the office knew their male counterparts were making thousands of dollars more a year for the same job, and where, frustratingly, some of the male members of the office were entirely aloof about the overt sexism they witnessed daily.
Now, there’s no expectation that someone else should fight our battles, but in this case, a trusted male co-worker and friend regularly dismissed his female friends’ totally valid complaints, and he did it in several ways. Here’s how to deal with these real-life scenarios.
Take the high road.
My co-worker once listened to a detailed, valid argument why our boss was totally sexist, then scoffed and said “sooo misogynistic” in a mocking voice. The women he was with just stared, and for all of us, it was the point where we realized that there’s a huge divide between the experiences of men and women at work. A lot of the time, men simply don’t believe it’s happening, because it doesn’t happen to them. He scoffed because for him, it wasn’t a reality, and our words and complaints just fed into the whole “crazy feminist” trope: that women who complain and claim sexism are simply playing the “woman card” and should just get over it.
In this instance, my friend took the high road and had a long talk with him about what he said, and how it made her feel. When a trusted friend at work dismisses your feelings, it’s not only inherently sexist, but it hurts a whole lot. If your friends don’t care, who will? An honest talk can hopefully make a difference.
Telling us to stay positive completely disregarded the problem by assuming it would just go away. It assumed that again, the problem was not sexism, but in some way the fault of the women for not “staying positive.” This attitude assumes that being honest about the issue (or “complaining”) is a weakness.
Staying positive won’t change the fact that your talent and work ethic are being undervalued by the person who has power to make or break your career. Staying positive won’t work against sexism; in fact, it just makes it so that women are less motivated to stand up for themselves. Rather than stay positive, we should stay proactive. In this case, we had to just totally disregard our male friend’s poor advice, and again, make it more than clear that a lack of positivity was not the problem. Without being aggressive, it’s important to state, clearly, that our feelings are valid, our experiences are true, and that our voices deserve to be heard.
Keep the conversation about sexism going with those who can do something about it.
One of the biggest reasons why a lot of men don’t understand workplace sexism is for the obvious reason that they just don’t experience it. They’re not attuned to it, so it goes right over their heads. In one instance that particularly stood out to me, a male co-worker straight-up mansplained to me, telling me our boss was just “difficult” and that he treats everyone with the same disrespectful attitude, which for the female workers was patently false. We could feel it and see it, and he just couldn’t.
He told us that we shouldn’t complain so much, that we should just do our jobs well and our boss would respect us, because that’s what he does, and it seems to work just fine. “But…” we tried to explain, “You just don’t understand.” And I told him of the many instances where his words and counsel were far more respected than when the women in the office attempted the same task. In our case, we took the effort to outline the concrete, undeniable differences between how men were perceived by the boss, and how women were, and the explaining perhaps made a difference. We could at least try.
The bottom line is that without conversation, we can’t hope to change the reality of sexism at work. Approaching a boss is always a hot-button topic, but we shouldn’t feel intimidated to broach the topic with our male peers. However, as Dumbledore once wisely noted, standing up to our friends is sometimes a lot harder than standing up to our enemies. But it’s sometimes necessary to initiate a dialogue about this all-important issue. After all, feminism and gender equality are not solely female problems. The sooner we all unite to change the status quo, the better the world will be, #HeForShe-style.
I also think it’s worth noting that this kind of behavior isn’t always typical for most offices; most men I’ve met are in tune with the plights of their female co-workers, and often provide support both emotionally and by interceding with the boss in favor of their friends’ situations. But just in case you’re dealing with something like this at work, I hope these tips and empathy help in some way! Keep fighting the good fight.