How to deal with casual sexism in the office

Common behaviours can make women feel uncomfortable.

I recently discovered that our company is sexist. Megan is a senior member of our team, and I was conducting her quarterly performance review over lunch. As we discussed her progress, the business and our future, she offered some observations about the social climate of our team. I asked her to describe our company culture in one word. She chose “blokey”.

Blokey! A woman co-founded this company – me – and we have several women in leadership positions. I think of myself as a staunch feminist and I’m acutely aware of the dynamic between women and men in our office. I strive to nurture a culture of equality and respect. But as I listened to Megan describe her experiences, I realised I’d failed.

Megan’s complaints were not the type she would take to the Fair Work Commission. But as she detailed a series of small instances that, in aggregate, made her uncomfortable, I knew that we could do better. I suspect these behaviours are common to most Australian offices. Business leaders have come a long way in promoting equal pay and opportunity. Now it’s time we address some of the systemic, seemingly harmless, activities that create a culture of sexism.

When a joke is not on

Here are some of Megan’s concerns:

1. Jokes

Light-hearted sexist jokes sometimes aren’t called out. Several months ago at Friday afternoon drinks, I mentioned we were getting a dishwasher for the kitchen: “When does she start?” one of the men responded. It was a quick joke and the team members in earshot laughed. I grimaced, but laughed too. I felt awkward but, in the context of Friday drinks, I didn’t want to look as if I didn’t have a sense of humour. But the moment stuck with Megan: “You should have called out the joke as inappropriate,” she said. She was right.

2. Language

I often find myself feeling uncomfortable with the casual language in our office. Everyone is referred to as guys. It seems almost endearing to address emails “Hi guys”, no matter who we’re writing to.

Much worse is when people use crude expressions like, “We can’t drop our pants on price.” I can’t help the split-second visualisation of that person actually dropping their pants (which isn’t pretty). And my least favourite of all is being told person X needs to “grow some balls”, meaning to become more courageous. I’ve never been told to grow balls but when it’s said about someone else, I feel like an outsider.

3. Behaviour

Megan mentioned she thought some of the rituals in our office were geared towards men. For example, we regularly host tech meet-ups and puzzle over our inability to persuade more women to attend. She pointed out that we only ever put on pizza and beer; if we wanted more female attendees, we should cater for a wider audience.

She also thought that some women in our office and at partner organisations talk themselves down, and that it was our responsibility to prompt them to change. When a smart, experienced female product person constantly jokes in meetings that she doesn’t understand “techy stuff”, she is putting herself down in order to be liked. Megan thinks this sets a bad example for other younger women.

Learning to speak up

I find it very hard to put a stop to this kind of behaviour. When people talk about growing balls, a twang of discomfort shakes me inside. I want to say something but I’m scared I’d look overly sensitive.

When I was 21, I interned at a very blokey radio station in Auckland. A stripper turned up in the middle of the day to perform for the program director’s birthday. I was in the room next door, and seeing a naked woman twirling around the desks to music and cheers from the team made me feel sick. I knew it was wrong but didn’t want to speak up; that moment has stuck with me. It’s easy to ensure a company promotes women and puts policies in place that prevent discrimination. It’s harder to call out everyday comments and behaviours that, taken in isolation, could be interpreted as fun, but combine to create a culture where women are uncomfortable.

I should have said something about the stripper in our office; I knew it wasn’t right. Now I know that I should speak up every time. Australian culture is laid-back, and it’s hard to call out as inappropriate what others see as jovial behaviour. Megan and her peers are watching, and from now on I’ll make it my mission to create an environment of respect. I’ll question language and jokes that border on being inappropriate. I’ll risk being seen as uptight by some so as to be strong for Megan.

I’m certain it will be difficult. But as a business leader, it’s my responsibility to catalyse change.


CATEGORY: Australian Financial Review, Women in Business

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