How to call out sexism

"Often the person who calls out a sexist comment in the workplace is the one who ends up getting a stern talking to from ...

"Often the person who calls out a sexist comment in the workplace is the one who ends up getting a stern talking to from the boss."

Here’s a little story that I’m sure you’ll recognise: at a workplace/dinner party/family get-together, everything’s going well until Danno/Sazza/Uncle Ron decides to unload a joke/remark/”well loved truism” that is also screamingly sexist. So you decide to pull Danno/Sazza/Uncle Ron up on their troglodyte sexual politics, only to be met with “feminist killjoy”/”don’t be so uptight”/”whaddareya, a lesbian or something?”


Feel free to take a few minutes’ break to sigh or drop-punt a cardboard box across the room while you recover from any lingering fury the above scenario(s) might dredge up.



Yes, we’ve all been there: the choking feeling in the throat, the strangled laugh, the nod, the “Ha ha, yes...”, the fist forming in our pocket or under the cover of the tabletop. Because more often than not, women (and their allies in the fight against sexist dickheadery) who try to speak out against sexism suddenly become the bad guy. 


In extreme and infuriating cases, quite often the person who calls out a sexist comment in the workplace is the one who ends up getting a stern talking to from the boss.


Forbes recently ran a piece, The GirlsGuide To Calling Out Sexism Without Being Attacked, which is a headline that is surely as depressing as Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster was hilarious.


In the piece, Meghan Casserly discusses what happens to those who speak up against sexism, kicking off with the sorry tale of product manager Shanley Kane, who asked startup Geeklist why their ad featured sexist imagery, only to be howled down by the boys from both Geeklist and Kane’s own company. (You can read the whole bloodcurdling exchange here.)


Casserly and her interviewees wonder whether there is a way to speak up about sexism in the workplace without being branded “shrill or preachy”: “No hard feelings, no raised voices. When we call out sexism, she says, it’s  easy to be seen as shrill or preachy. ‘Crying sexism is essentially victimizing yourself,’ and in industries like tech, that’s never a good position to be in. Instead, stress that any discriminating language, boy-girl-black-white-rich-poor, is simply uncool. Doing so with a ‘tough’ demeanor so as not to ‘scare’ the men with your feminine ways might also be key.”


I’m the first to admit that this is tough territory for me. The thing is, some knobwrench who makes a “get back in the kitchen” gag will probably still think I’m a “feminazi” whether I roundhouse kick him to the temple or quietly say “Hey, dude, that’s really inappropriate”. If after over four decades of women’s liberation, activism, feminism and legislation blokes still think it’s hilarious to make sexist jokes and lewd comments about women, then you better believe my inclination is to get “shrill” about it.


Then again, I work from home, so any sod unfortunate enough to find their way into my study to offload a sexist remark will be in therapy for the next twenty five years. When you work in an office, or are at a dinner party with friends you’d prefer not to lose, a slightly more nuanced approach is required. 


Perhaps the key is humour (note: not “good humour”, as there is so little about sexism that deserves good humour that my frown is currently turning to concrete).


Call them “Ted Bullpit” or ask them if they were aware their time-machine had stranded them in 1953. Enquire as to whether “Check out the norgs on that one!!” has done wonders for their romantic life. If they insist on calling women “girls”, call them “boy” and talk to them in a baby voice about what they brought for playlunch today, then call for a round of Dead Lions for everyone except Mr Sexist over there. Instigate a “sexist dickhead” policy and frogmarch the offenders over to a large jar every time they unleash a whopper and watch as they deposit $15, then force them to listen to L7’s Shitlist for the rest of the day.


If all those ideas seem silly, just think for a moment how silly it is that people are still making sexist jokes after everything we’ve been through. And, in the end, would you rather speak up and be called a “bitch”, or stay silent and grit your teeth through another week’s worth of sexist gags?


I’m sure you can pick which one I’d choose.




  • Hear hear!

    Date and time
    June 07, 2012, 9:24AM
    • There are still people silly enough to make jokes at work? There's is no telling what someone will find offensive, and humour at work is not worth losing your job over. Just assume everyone will be offended by everything (because even if the intended recipient of the joke is amused, someone else wandering by might not be) and stick to discussing professional matters only, in as neutral terms as possible. Boring and soul destroying? Yep, but it pays the bills.

      Date and time
      June 07, 2012, 9:25AM
      • There might be some work-places that exist in some kind of time-warp and still have these jokes made, but I've never worked in one. From what I've seen, modern sexism in the workplace is much better hidden these days. So although I've witnessed things like giving people different opportunities based on gender and excluding women from networking events because 'ya know, they just don't get footy', I've never heard a sexist joke at work.

        Date and time
        June 07, 2012, 12:05PM
      • I've come across both the obvious "joke" and the insidious comment, in my opinion the latter is worse. People are quick to recognise sexist jokes, and even if they don't speak out, you'll often catch an eye roll or a subtle head shake. On the other hand, when some knobwrench (thanks for the new one, Clem!) makes an insidious comment like, "well, you wouldn't expect a woman to understand that sort of wiring", or "women work out of choice, it's only men that are forced to", it's terrifying to watch how quickly they find agreement.

        I'll try to point out the comment and respond to it, but then comes the predictable, "Awwww. I don't mean it in a SEXIST way! I just mean that, like, on AVERAGE, women tend to be less/more *insert stereotype here* and you can't deny that - it's just a fact!"

        The offender usually tries to back up his offensive comment with vague reference to "science", the works of an author he hasn't read, or a theory he doesn't understand. And usually, he'll get away with it, because it's considered more polite to simply drop the matter than it is to pursue it.

        You see, pointing out how stupid someone's reasoning is, or the flaws in their research or logic would be rude. Whereas, obviously, insulting a person's entire gender on the basis of pseudoscience and social stereotyping is considered entirely acceptable.

        Red Pony
        Date and time
        June 07, 2012, 4:51PM
    • "If they insist on calling women “girls”, call them “boy” "

      Really? *sigh*

      Date and time
      June 07, 2012, 9:33AM
      • Like the writer said, Tired - your time machine is waiting. If you can't figure out how to be funny without insulting people, you're probably not really funny at all, so don't bother.

        Date and time
        June 07, 2012, 9:57AM
      • A previous feminist friend had called me out on using the identifier "girl" ("I am a woman!") which I didn't really understand. More recent feminist friend said it didn't bother her in the slightest. Just like it doesn't bother me to be referred to as a "boy" (which happens all the time whether referring to me or to men more broadly such as conversations about "cute boys").

        I can see that that in a lot of contexts it can be used in a derogatory sense to indicate lack of maturity and consequently to assert dominance - but it's really context sensitive. I would suggest that for most people it is simply a gender identifier and nothing more.

        A lot of the articles here that refer to mysogynist behaviour fail to adequately address context and suggest offence needs to be taken in response to certain actions/phrases when perhaps it often does not. I guess sometimes it is easier to "maintain the rage" (which is legitimate while not always practical) than to stop and think.

        Date and time
        June 07, 2012, 11:27AM
    • If someone says something that you find offensive, the mature approach is to politely tell them that you do not appreciate the joke, comment or actions. You cannot control the way in which people think of you, you can however control the manner in which you allow them to interact with you. Personally I find racism to be a bigger problem in Australia then sexism.

      Date and time
      June 07, 2012, 9:37AM
      • That's because you're a male, Paul. When you spend your life being told you belong married with kids and not in the workplace unless you are going to be there for decoration, then you'll realise how big a problem sexism is.

        Date and time
        June 07, 2012, 10:05AM
      • So do I.

        I haven't experienced outrageous sexism in a long time, when someone does say something, s/he are usually howled down in roars of laughter.

        But outrageous blatant racism seems to be OK. And if you speak up, you're being aggressive. A woman at work once told me how Jews run the World Bank and the Holocaust was a myth - tell that to my great-grandparents, lady. Another comment was how much Africans smelled. Anyone who wasn't European - for she was Greek and so no irony in her comments about refugees or immigrants - wasn't allowed to be in OUR country.

        And that included Aboriginals.

        the digger
        Date and time
        June 07, 2012, 10:25AM

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