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.