The Best Way to Tackle Sexism at Work Without Alienating Your Male Colleagues

There's more than one way to change your office culture.
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Kara Eschbach
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There's more than one way to change your office culture.
Art Credit: AMC

Art Credit: AMC

I realize that I’m a little behind the times on Mad Men, but now that the series finale has come and gone, I’ve decided to get caught up on my on-again, off-again TV affair with Don Draper and crew.

As much as there is to love about Mad Men, by far my favorite characters are the women, and I’ve appreciated the poignant way that the show explores the changing roles of women in the workforce. I love that Peggy, smart and outspoken, breaks her way into writing copy and navigating workplace politics. And while I might cringe at her tactics, Joan’s gutsy moves to gain a seat at the table—even when she’s aware that she’s there because of her looks—are refreshingly honest.

In one of the last episodes of the series, Peggy and Joan encounter sexism that reaches a new level of cringeworthy. In a marketing meeting with two male colleagues, the ladies field inappropriate comments about panty hose and brassieres straight-faced, determined to be taken seriously by their male counterparts. The goal is to have a successful business meeting, but the obstacles they faced, while not surprising, are pretty shocking. The experience pushes an exasperated Joan to her limit: “I want to burn this place down,” she exclaims.

What woman watched that and didn’t want to say “Hear, hear!”? We all know that that sort of thing didn’t end in 1971. To cite a recent example, a girlfriend of mine who works in a mostly male office was bending over to pick something up from the floor when her male coworker passed by and said, “Now isn’t that a sight.” Or the tales I've heard from friends on the trading floors of financial firms about crude and derogatory jokes they felt they had to laugh at to be “one of the guys” and get their year-end bonus. Or a former colleague who, at her old job, caught a coworker watching porn—and he wasn’t even reprimanded after being reported. At moments like these, “burning the place down” has never seemed more appealing.

It made me think of the #howtospotafeminist flap earlier this month. The hashtag, created by talk show host Doc Thompson while soliciting comments before his show The Morning Blaze, started a firestorm around feminism, its many permutations, and its stereotypes. Thompson’s supporters seemed to think that being a feminist means playing a victim, burning your bra, and not shaving; feminists pointed out that what they actually want is equality. Usually I ignore Twitter trolling controversies, but the number of people who chimed in to support Thompson’s specious characterization—and presumably countless more fans silently listening to the radio show—gives me pause. How many guys in the workforce are actually thinking, “Ugh, there goes Sarah complaining about how unfair things are again”—and are probably not that upset by any of the inappropriate situations aimed at my friends?

Most of us don’t get paid to spend time on Twitter fighting against misguided ideas of female equality. Hell, most of us don’t even want to pipe up and say that feminists might be right about some things, lest we brand ourselves the “office crusaders.” So what does the average woman who just wants to be treated like a professional actually do?

One solution that gets press is legal action. In 2009, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which essentially increased the amount of time employees can sue an employer for discrimination after they have left the organization. Was the passage of this law a victory for women’s employment equality? Sure, I guess, in that if you want to sue for unfair discrimination, the hurdles have been lowered.

But let’s be real—who wants to sue her employer? Legal action is always the least desirable option because it forces the woman to take a huge risk for her career and reputation, not to mention the cost of a lawyer’s representation and the time to file a suit. Most women just want to do their jobs well, get paid what they deserve (i.e. the same as a man would be paid for doing the same job), and live their lives, not become crusaders for equality.

So what can we do? Well, we could just let the sexism slide, hoping things get better and acknowledging that there’s no silver bullet. Or we could attempt something completely wild and crazy: We could try to foster a bit of respect between the sexes.

This doesn’t mean that we have to give a lecture every time guys don’t treat us like ladies. To be honest, I think a lot of mildly off-color humor is pretty funny, and I don’t want to have to pretend to be offended every time someone forgets to open a door for me (for the record, I think it’s very nice if someone does, but I don’t even notice if they don’t). But how about not putting up with those derogatory remarks toward women and expressing our displeasure with a bit of charm and humor? Back when I worked in finance, as one of four women on my team of twenty-three, I remember seeing a male coworker make a—shall we say—graphic hand gesture, thinking only the guys saw him. He pretty quickly realized that I had seen it, and I gave him a clear “Come on, really?” look. He immediately apologized and even looked sheepish.

I don’t think that was pulling the “I’m a girl” card—that was pulling the “have some class” card. Sure, there will be plenty of people who are immature and won’t take that well. But it’s rare that you’ll have an entire office full of them (although it certainly happens). If you want to work well with people, I’ve learned that it’s worth trying to keep interactions friendly. In the face of inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment in the office, I can either keep a positive tone while saying “Hey, that’s not cool,” or I can be harsh and angry. It’s a suboptimal position to be in either way, and sexism is never OK, but I’m not convinced that strident and bitter responses are always the most effective. 

Of course there’s also a point when the sexism in your workplace can become so extreme as to make the office a damaging environment for you to be in or make you want to simply stop dealing with it. In those cases, I highly recommend seeking other job options.

But barring these extremes, I try to keep the real goal in mind—that we want to be able to work with men. This shouldn’t require that women become men, or that we embrace base humor at our expense, or that we have to be shameless flirts to get ahead. Yes, sometimes that means some people will have to file lawsuits, but all of us can work to eventually eradicate sexual bias. Even the small actions we take in our daily lives can chisel away at a widespread problem.

We can all stand up to everyday sexism by asking for a little respect and extending it in return. If we're willing to combat sexual harassment one person and one comment at a time, then perhaps we can postpone a Joan-style burning. Those of us who, like Peggy, will ultimately choose to continue working alongside men can still have hope.