How to Effectively Confront Sexism in the Workplace


Stamping out sexism within a company is a responsibility that falls on every member of the workforce, not just the victim (although more often than not it is they who carry the burden). Instead, it is up to everyone, from the CEO down to the two-week intern, to recognize, confront, and eradicate sexism in the workplace.

Yet, identifying sexism is not always that easy, particularly for people of an older generation who may try to pass off certain comments or actions as a bit of “harmless fun.” Companies that foster a culture of toxic masculinity may also struggle to recognize gender-based discrimination.

Overt Sexism vs. Casual Sexism

Overt sexism—This includes sexual harassment, unwanted sexual advances, and bias based on gender (being overlooked for certain projects or promotions due to gender or receiving unequal pay for the same work). Overt sexism is unquestionably wrong and damaging, but because there is no ambiguity, it can theoretically be identified and dealt with more efficiently.

Of course, that is often easier said than done, especially when the overt sexism is coming from a person or group of people in higher authority.

Casual sexism—This presents itself in much subtler forms and therefore often goes unnoticed, even many times by the victims themselves. However, actions and comments from colleagues or superiors that leave individuals feeling alienated based on their gender—be it a “harmless” sexist joke, mansplaining, or male-centric activities that exclude women, even unintentionally—can be just as damaging as overt sexism and are more difficult to recognize and confront.

In fact, a study by the University of Melbourne found that the more common forms of “casual,” less intimidating forms of workplace sexism “appeared as detrimental for women’s occupational well-being” as the less common, more intimidating incidents of overt harassment.

How to Deal with Workplace Sexism

While this primarily speaks to victims of workplace sexism, it is equally applicable to colleagues and senior management who have either ignored or are simply unaware that sexism exists within the company.

First and foremost, allow yourself to be offended. Being the target of sexist comments, no matter how “lighthearted,” should not be tolerated even if they have been in the past. Don’t let yourself be the latest person to suffer in silence. “Feeling angry, hurt, or frustrated is completely normal and your feelings don’t need to be ignored or suppressed,” writes Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College at Columbia University, in an article for Forbes. “Rather than trying to ignore my reaction to benevolent sexism, I try to keep in mind that people who should know better often don’t. And, then, I consider how I can help educate them.”

Don’t settle for double standards. If a boss or colleague speaks to male members of staff in a different tone than to the company’s females, then you are well within your rights to say something. Perhaps the person refers to the men by surname and engages in banter while the women are spoken to in pleasantries and a more formal manner. Speaking up and explaining that you notice the discrepancies often makes the culprit take notice of something they were previously unaware of. As Beilock said, it’s people who should know better but often don’t. If their reaction is unaccommodating and they take offense to your objection, then monitor any changes in dynamics; if it leads to further sexism and alienation, make a formal complaint if necessary.

Call out sexist comments, no matter how benign. The reason “casual” sexism is allowed to continue is that the perpetrators don’t often view it as harmful and the victims can be made to feel as though they are being petty in calling it out. However, that is how sexist cultures and gender-based discrimination flourish, even on a subconscious level. Speaking out and addressing it constructively by explaining how such comments are not appreciated and have a damaging effect on morale will make most people realize the error of their ways. It doesn’t even need to be brought up in the moment either. If you need some time to gather your thoughts to address the issue more constructively, do just that. When it comes time to express your concerns, try to do so with smaller groups, as this can allow your message to be received more effectively.

Find allies in the workplace. Chances are, if you are feeling the effects of sexism in the workplace, you are not alone. Speak to people you think may be feeling marginalized within the company and see if they share your concerns. Not only does having allies make victims of sexism feel like they are not alone, but it can also create a “power in numbers” situation.

HR does not have to be the final step. Many people view going to HR to make a formal complaint as a last resort—a step many people prefer to avoid. However, HR is there for the best interests and wellbeing of company employees, so speaking to a member of the department you trust for advice is never a bad idea. They will then be aware of the context if or when it comes time to make an official complaint.

In Instances of Overt Sexism

While the advice outlined above generally pertains to instances of “casual” sexism, many of the steps can be applied to overt sexism. If you or one of your colleagues is being subjected to sexual harassment or discrimination, go straight to HR or a trusted senior figure within the company and file an official report. This is not an easy process to instigate, and it falls on the victim to take action, but it is usually the only course of action to prevent such terrible behavior from continuing.