How to Deal with Sexism at the Workplace

This blog will explain you how sexism manifest itself in the workplace and share with you three main ways to overcome it.

It can be challenging to be a woman in the workplace, especially in male dominated environments.Workplace harassment and discrimination are still relavant and concerning issues nowadays, as demonstrated by the salience of the 2017 #MeToo Movement. A 2019 survey conducted by the Ifop revealed that six in ten women in Europe have experienced sexual harassment or violence at their workplace.

However, sexual harassment and sexism are two separate things. While sexual harassment has become more and more regarded as unacceptable and illegal, sexism belongs to a grey zone. Thus, to fight this discriminatory behavior, we first need to agree on a definition and specify how it manifests itself in the workplace.


What is sexism at the workplace?

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE):


“Sexism is linked to power in that those with power are typically treated with favour and those without power are typically discriminated against. Sexism is also related to stereotypes since discriminatory actions or attitudes are frequently based on false beliefs or generalisations about gender, and on considering gender as relevant where it is not.”


However, there are multiple sexist behaviors that women or in lower instances men, can encounter at their workplace or during their careers. The main ones are the following three:


(1) Benevolent sexism

Benevolent sexism consists of attitudes strengthening stereotypes and gender roles in ways that do not come across as hostile but rather positive and endearing. Examples of this behavior in the workplace include:

  • Comparing a female manager to a mother for keeping her team together. 
  • A male colleague that frequently checks on a female colleague's work despite having the same qualifications. 


(2) Hostile sexism

Hostile sexism is not as concealed as benevolent sexism. Indeed, it includes a set of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that are openly hostile to people due to their sex or gender. For example, this comprises men's misogynistic remarks describing women colleagues incapable of performing specific tasks because of their gender.

Research has shown that usually, these first two types of sexism go hand-in-hand. On the one hand, hostile sexism is used as punishment while on the other hand, benevolent sexism is a reward for women's behaviors. Therefore, when this situation occurs, an instance of ambivalent sexism can be observed.

(3) Casual sexism

Casual sexism or everyday sexism consists of a set of comments, actions, and behaviors that are apparently harmless. However, they weaken the agency of the victims of sexist remarks making them uncomfortable and highlighting how not inclusive and patriarchal their workplace is. An example of this type of sexism could look like a comment made to a woman to not react badly to a sexist joke made at the workplace. 


Ways to deal with sexism at the workplace

Having clarified what sexism looks like at the workplace, we suggest you some tools to deal with this discriminatory behavior.

(1) Don’t settle for double standards and permit yourself to be offended

Receiving sexist and discriminatory comments at the workplace is not normal, and your feelings should not be suppressed nor ignored. Indeed, studies have proven that silencing negative reactions can badly affect one's well-being. Once you have given yourself time to accept your emotions, start calling out the person or people who made sexist remarks or actions. 

This can include:

  • Asking your boss why he always tasks you with womanly tasks, such as bringing coffees.
  • Asking why your boss calls you by your first name while he refers to your male colleagues by their last name. 
  • Asking people who made sexist comments to repeat themselves so that they will either say the joke with more conviction or realize how inappropriate their comment was. 

Sometimes, calling the offenders out for their sexist behavior will bring light to the matter and force them to re-evaluate their actions. However, speaking up does not always guarantee the end of sexism in the workplace, but at least it would create a paper trail on which you can base a formal complaint if necessary.


(2) Gather allies at the workplace and counter subtle sexism

Given how widespread sexism at the workplace is, it is most likely that other women share similar experiences to yours in the office. Discussing this type of discrimination with other colleagues could help you put things in perspectives. 

However, gathering allies facing similar situations is especially pivotal to build power in numbers. This would mean that when another sexist joke is made, your allies will be most likely to defend you and vice versa. For instance, a way to counter a sexist remark toward a fellow woman could be to answer it by positively highlighting her accomplishments and skills. "United we stand, divided we fall" is not only a way of saying but it often reflects reality.


(3) Go to HR

HR is usually considered the last resort to lodge a formal complaint. Nonetheless, you could also consider consulting them to ask for advice. Not only could it help formulate a potential solution, but it would also make HR aware of this discriminatory situation. You could also point this out to your boss, especially while discussing your performance review, and even propose setting up a women's panel to encourage diversity and open dialogue at your workplace.

However, reporting instances of sexism to your boss or HR could sometimes be scary due to a fear of retaliation by your male co-workers or boss. There are ways to conceal your identity in these cases, such as a private conversation or filing an anonymous report.

This article was written by Giulia Aluffi

Giulia Aluffi is Italian and based in the Netherlands. She is currently a project manager for the MENA team at Womenpreneur Initiative. She is doing a Master in European Studies: International Relations at Maastricht University.

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