#MTtalk Review: Tackling Sexism at Work » Mind Tools Blog
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#MTtalk Review: Tackling Sexism at Work

June 27, 2018


“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
– Desmond Tutu (1931- ), South African cleric and human rights activist

“Undercover” Sexism

Many countries have legislation against gender discrimination, and many organizations have codes of conduct that are intended to prevent sexist or discriminatory behavior. Yet, still it continues. Sexism in the workplace blights lives, and damages company reputations and effectiveness – but we can do something about it!

I was recently invited to speak at a workshop on diversity and equality, at a prominent mining company. Where I live, mining is a male-dominated industry.

The purpose of the training was to raise awareness about unconscious bias regarding sexism and racism. Our audience consisted of men and women of all races who were in supervisory or managerial positions.

One of my co-presenters, who is very experienced in the field of diversity, wanted to gauge people’s attitudes toward sexism and gender equality. She opened the discussion with an interesting exercise.

The men had to complete the sentence, “If I were a woman, I would…” and the women had to complete the sentence, “If I were a man, I would….” All of the delegates had to write down their answers anonymously on a slip of paper and hand it to the presenter.

Women Should “Go Home and Raise Children”

After her presentation, she read everyone’s responses. It was shocking to hear some of the raw, sexist attitudes many of the men had revealed. Here is just a taste of what they wrote:

  • “If I were a woman, I would go home and raise children.”
  • “If I were a woman, I wouldn’t backchat men.”
  • “If I were a woman, I would cook and clean for my husband.”

Some of the men found it hilarious, while all of the women and a few men listened in stony-faced silence.

Thankfully, there were also two or three men (out of 17) who thought differently. One of them said, “If I were a woman, I would be disappointed in how men treated women.”

It made me sad to hear all 10 women in the audience asking for “respect” in some way. Here’s what some of them had written:

  • “If I were a man, I would respect women and not talk about them as objects of pleasure. I would listen to their ideas.”
  • “If I were a man, I would respect female colleagues as much as male colleagues.”
  • “If I were a man, I would call out other men who talk about women disrespectfully.”

I found it interesting that none of the men seemed overtly sexist in their interactions with women during the training, yet they displayed deeply sexist attitudes in an anonymous exercise.

It begs the question: has sexism just gone undercover? Perhaps it has, but there is also an empowered generation of workers, managers and leaders who are determined not to put up with it, and determined to root it out.

Tackling Sexism At Work

During our #MTtalk Twitter chat last week, we talked about tackling sexism at work. Here are the questions we asked and some of the responses:

Q1. What does sexism look like?

@PG_pmp: When a group of people are gender biased and they underestimate the opposite gender for any task or activities.

@Dwyka_Consult: When you voice your opinion strongly, and a man asks you if it’s “that time of the month.” Or they say it behind your back after you’ve left the room. Sexism is ugly.

Q2. Why does sexism matter?

@SaifuRizvi: Sexism matters because it leads to emotional, financial, mental, and physical loss for one gender.

@TheCraigKaye: If any -ism is accepted in a workplace it becomes corrosive! With sexism, its acceptance over decades has resulted in male-dominated executive boards who hire male senior figures to work in their businesses!

Q3. What impact does sexism have in the workplace?

People suffer, but organizations also have much to lose if they allow sexism to carry on.

@eng_kyat: Any type of injustice in the workplace will have negative effects on its employees.

@Mphete_Kwetli: It doesn’t consider everybody’s best interests, and it doesn’t have a place in workplace. It kills the morale of the team, hampers collaboration between dynamic minds. Not enough new ideas.

Q4. How do experiences of sexism differ between genders, ethnicities, ages, and levels of seniority, and what impact does this have day to day?

@MicheleDD_MT: Sexism is about power… who has it, and who has less. Who dictates what is right and appropriate, who has a voice, who is included, and who gets the rewards. Sexism exists in layers and intersects across differences.

@MissionHired: The list is exhausting! The differences tend to end up including those listed, gender + age, gender + ethnicity, etc. That impacts us because we are terrible at acknowledging intersectionality, which ends up dividing us when it should be bringing us together.

Q5. How have attitudes to sexism changed in your workplace/sector during your career, and how is that helpful/unhelpful to you or your people?

@Pineapple_Poll: Attitudes to sexism have improved as there is, to be fair, more awareness and I now feel empowered to speak up on behalf of myself or others. Unfortunately we are also seeing evidence of a backlash against those who speak up.

@Yolande_MT: Unfortunately, some women exploit sexism. They blame sexism for not being promoted when it’s really about being incompetent. These instances make the battle against sexism harder because it taints women’s credibility.

Q6. What support mechanisms are in the workplace to tackle incidents of sexism?

@KobusNeethInst: The company culture should be such that it’s not conducive to sexism or any kind of discrimination. All staff should also be properly sensitised to what sexism looks and sounds like.

@JKatzaman: Zero-tolerance policies against sexism must be clear, well-publicized and be enforced.

Q7. What can you do if policies and values that talk about tackling sexism aren’t followed through to action?

Many people commented on companies having policies, but that they’re often not enforced to the extent that they should be.

@Midgie_MT: I would encourage people to speak out. Speak to their manager and HR about the inconsistencies to see how things might be addressed.

@BrainBlenderTec: You can complain but there is a slippery slope: AI HR systems can find and link anonymous posts and check accounts on platforms which will be checked against for future employment.

Q8 (for women). With the topic of tackling sexism in mind, please complete the following sentence: If I were a man, I would…

@JoynicoleM: If I were a man, I’d teach my children to honor humanity and individuality; to respect people and view them beyond their clothing, makeup, gender, size, race, or role. I’d treat people the way I want to be treated, even if I was not honored in that manner in the past.

Q8 (for men). With the topic of tackling sexism in mind, please complete the following sentence: If I were a woman, I would…

@KobusNeethInst: If I were a woman, I would want men to stand up against other men who make sexist comments.

Q9. How do you manage a team whose values and beliefs about sexism differ widely?

@carriemaslen: All employees need to understand and follow the acceptable code of conduct, no matter their personal beliefs.

@MicheleDD_MT: Address comments as they arise. Don’t ignore them. Ignoring behavior is condoning it. Use individual instances as an opportunity to educate.

Q10. What behaviors could leaders model to their team members, to help to eliminate sexism?

@sittingpretty61: Language which is gender neutral and policies about paid leave that welcome people to be accountable for time off but recognize everyone needs to attend to family issues sooner or later. Provide opportunities of inclusion and make use of innovative working practices!

@align_talent: Practicing empathy is so hard for some, but we must keep trying to encourage it. It may be our only hope.

To read all of the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat, here.

Coming Up

An ideal workplace is one that meets our mental and emotional needs, as well as our physical needs. Your office might be fine, but is it a space that you love? In our poll this week, we’d like to know what you’d most like to have if you could design your own office. Privacy? Sunlight? Click here to see all the options and to cast your vote.


In the meantime, here are some resources that will help you to learn more about tackling sexism at work:

The Five Factors Holding Women Back at Work
Dealing With Discrimination
How to Be Assertive
Beyond Bias
Managing Your Emotions at Work
Avoiding Unconscious Bias at Work
The Foursquare Protocol
Bad Behavior at Work

Members of the Mind Tools Club can also access the full versions of the following articles:

Creating a Healthy Workplace
Managing Over-Confident People
Avoiding Discrimination
Making the Most of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
Managing Arrogant People
Egos at Work
Why the Rules Are There

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