How to deal with casual sexism at work

What does ‘everyday sexism’ look like and how should you respond to it?

Do you know what ‘casual’ sexism looks like at work and how to tackle the issue?

Overt displays of sexism may be easier to spot in a workplace: the lopsided gender make-up of your workforce that suggests biased hiring, which can also be seen in promotion pathways and a lack of representation in leadership teams or company boards.

All of that, unfortunately, can persist despite sweeping labour laws or positive efforts in the form of diversity and inclusive policies or initiatives. This was found even in multinational companies, reported Bloomberg. The media organisation analysed data on job ads in the US and Mexico, where gender discrimination are illegal, and found that some companies publicly advertised a gender preference for job postings. These ads affected both male and female candidates, though they noticed that ads targeted at men offered higher salaries than a similar role for women.

This carries on to performance appraisals and promotions, where both women and men are at risk of being penalised for carrying their duties as working mums and dads. While working mums face issues like pregnancy discrimination or barriers when returning to work, dads are subtly denied their parental leaves, despite clear written policies on entitlements.

Which brings us to this point: If clearly sexist practices are tough to stamp out in the corporate world, how do you even stand a chance against everyday or casual sexism?

Read more: Do you know what everyday sexism looks like in the workplace?

What does casual sexism look like?

A first step involves identifying sexist behaviours and practices at work and acknowledging that it is a problem. It won’t be easy and even the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) admitted that it can get tricky.

“In practice, it can be difficult to agree on what constitutes sexism and to create an environment where everybody feels free to voice concerns,” they wrote in a report. “This can be a particular challenge in multicultural and hierarchical environments.”

To help leaders along, EIGE quoted the Council of Europe’s recommendation on combating sexism. The council suggested that sexism at work involves:

  • Derogatory comments
  • Objectification
  • Sexist humour or jokes
  • ‘Overfamiliar’ remarks
  • Silencing or ignoring people
  • Gratuitous comments about dress and physical appearance
  • Sexist body language
  • Lack of respect

Read more: Does ‘bar banter’ count as workplace harassment?

And if you think sexist behaviours can’t exist in a remote work environment, think again. Georgette Tan, president at United Women Singapore (UWS), a non-profit organisation working to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment, said ‘unsavoury’ comments can easily get passed on video meetings.

“Those passing comments [and] flippant remarks during meetings, whether it’s during an in-person meeting, or even on Zoom calls nowadays,” Tan told HRD. “These things should not be endured [or] tolerated.”

It’s especially a letdown when you experience casually sexist remarks and you’re part of a global organisation, attending conference calls with co-workers hailing from different countries and cultures. She added that the argument in defence of those remarks, that it’s somehow ‘acceptable’ in the offender’s culture is also passé.

“It’s not something that [should be] allowed just because he or she is from another culture,” she said. “If we are working with a forward-looking, progressive organisation that actually cares for the welfare of their employees, this should be table stakes already.”

Read more: Can you coach leaders to be ‘cross-culturally capable’?

How to deal with a sexist co-worker

What if it’s not ‘table stakes’ at your company, and your colleague does make an offensive remark in your presence? Tan believes it’s crucial to call out the behaviour. You should be “empowered” to step up and say directly to the person, “you know what, this is not acceptable. I find it offensive. Please don’t do it again”.

“Employees at all levels need to feel that they have the ability to respond in a polite and constructive way,” she said.

In an ideal scenario, the offender will back down, apologise, and reflect on their behaviour – even avoid re-offending as they become consciously aware of what is and isn’t acceptable to say. However, if the behaviour persists, Tan believes there should be protocols in place to tackle such scenarios.

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