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June 27, 2018

Tackling Sexism at Work – #MTtalk

Yolande Conradie

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"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

Two years ago, I was asked by an association for professional trainers and facilitators to speak about the challenges I had experienced as a female training professional.

I racked my brains for an example of a time or incident where I felt that I was treated differently or discriminated against because I'm a woman.

At first, I couldn't really remember anything, although I could give plenty of examples outside the workplace (and some of those made my blood boil). Maybe it's because of the market I work in. Maybe I hadn't picked up on occasions when I had been treated unequally.

I also felt a little under-qualified to talk about the challenges female trainers face, because I didn't face some of the typical challenges other women might have to deal with.

Also, I don't have children, and my husband often works abroad, so I only have myself to look after. I don't have any of the health or family carer issues faced by many working women.

"It's Just a Joke"

So, I decided to collect the opinions and experiences of other women in my line of work. I asked this question on social media: "What are some of the challenges you experience as a female training professional?"

Here are some of the responses I got, and that I used in my speech:

  • I don't get paid the same as a male counterpart.
  • When double heading with a man, participants assume that the man is the lead face.
  • Are men also called "darl," "doll" and "darling," or named by their hair color?
  • When working with a male audience, they test my credibility.
  • Men make jokes about easy women and easy sex; they call women's bodies "racks" and talk about our "eyes" when they mean something else. What do they think we are? And men reading this will probably think, "She's oversensitive. It's just a joke."
  • Being a woman is one thing, being black and a woman is quite another.
  • Alpha males feeling threatened and wanting to dominate you into submission.
  • Gender and race are not concepts that society has transcended yet.

I was the first speaker and scheduled to deliver my speech right after the opening address. Would you believe what happened?

During his opening remarks, the chairperson told an off-color joke about a "loose woman" and some of her "assets." Most of the men in the audience seemed to think it was hilarious. To make it worse, the deputy chairperson (also a man) chirped a sexist comment from his seat in the audience.

I was in disbelief. Had I heard right? Had the chairperson told a sexist, dirty joke to open an event to promote the equal treatment of women? I felt humiliated and disrespected, and I saw that some of my female participants were just as shocked.

Challenging Sexism

The way I saw the sexism in the workplace when I stood up to speak, was different from the way I saw it when I walked in the door.

I had just experienced first-hand how "professional" men, who loudly proclaimed their commitment to equality, didn't even realize that the way they spoke about women demonstrated blatant sexism.

Silence fell upon the room as I started by saying, "What bothers me isn't how men speak to me, but how they speak about women - whether we're present or not."

You could have heard a pin drop as I shared with the audience the responses I got from women in our industry.

During the networking event afterwards, the chairperson and his deputy actively avoided me. At one point though, when the chairperson turned around I was standing right behind him.

Facing him directly I asked, "Didn't you have anything more meaningful to open the meeting with, or did you choose not to use something more meaningful?" He's a learned man, and both of us knew the answer. It was a choice. After all, it was only a joke, right?

Tackling Sexism at Work

The chairperson was misguided and wrong in this instance, but I also consider him a generally good guy. He grew up in, worked in, and was part of a patriarchal society for so long that he didn't realize how deeply ingrained his sexist attitude was. Unfortunately, his behavior didn't stand out, because sexism and patriarchy in my part of the world are systemic and, sadly, acceptable.

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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