One of the more frustrating things about dealing with sexism at work is that we’re often told it’s “no longer an issue.” This can make it hard to recognize when we’re actually being treated unfairly. Which is why it’s essential to hear about other people’s experiences. That way, you have a reference point when similar things happen to you.
I recently asked several women to talk about instances in which they’ve had their authority undermined or intelligence questioned, and suspect that sexism played a role. Below are some of their answers, along with tips from recruiter and career coach Jazmine Reed-Clark about how to handle similar situations.
Being treated like an assistant, regardless of rank or experience
“I’m often asked to take notes or plan parties, despite being a senior member of my team.” – Lee, Account Executive, 36
“When I was at a press conference for a project I created and supervised, my boss told me to ask the other invitees, all men, if they wanted coffee. I ignored that directive.” – Kate, Prosecutor/Assistant District Attorney, 48
Even after rising through the ranks, many women report being asked to perform tasks that would normally be given to entry-level assistants or associates. While an occasional request might be harmless, Reed-Clark says that repeatedly asking someone to run menial errands or do work that’s not outlined in their job description is disrespectful.
She shared that when it happened to her at a former job, she raised the issue, “Especially being a woman of color, I was wondering, ‘Why am I always the one getting the coffee?”
If you’d like to turn down a request in a diplomatic way, she recommends saying something like, “I’m actually really focused on [another task that is in your job description]. Would [this person] be able to do that this time?” That way, you’re sharing your justification and a potential solution.
If you’re feeling bold, you could ratchet up your response to something more direct like, “To be honest, I’m often asked to do [X task], and I’d rather not because [reason].” However, she said that you should be aware that you could be met with judgment or pushback. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth speaking up, but it’s wise to be prepared for various reactions.
In her case, she believes that by speaking up, some viewed her as a “trouble maker”. Luckily, there was a silver lining: she was given the opportunity to create her own employee resource group and create diversity, equity, and inclusion programming.
She said one of the most powerful ways to help change unequal dynamics in the long term is to stand up for others when you see people taking advantage of them. She said she’s been in meetings where a woman was asked to do grunt work and a more senior woman came to her defense.
“If you see it, say something,” she said.
Being sexualized and objectified while working
“My work involves helping young adults with Asperger’s syndrome interact with others. One day, I happily told my colleague that I finally connected with a young man who normally didn’t want anything to do with us by finding a common interest in horror movies. A male colleague said, “Oh, he just thinks you’re hot.” It seriously made me doubt my competence.” – Ingrid, Habilitation Worker, 34
There’s a common misconception that women get rewarded for their looks, but in the workplace, the opposite can be true. University of Chicago professor Jaclyn Wong told CNN Money, “Once women get into managerial positions, positions of leadership, positions of power, beauty becomes a liability because our stereotypes around beauty are that they’re incompatible with capability,” Wong says. “So if you’re too beautiful, maybe you’re not that competent. Maybe you’re a ‘dumb blonde.’ That’s a lot more true for women than it is for men.”
Reed-Clark said that people have made comments like this to her. “I would get really upset because I actually worked really hard to get where I am.”
She believes that deciding how best to respond to people in these kinds of cases might come down to how receptive you think they’ll be. If you think that the person will be receptive to feedback, you could try to explain why you found their comment offensive. In a situation like the one quoted above, for instance, the habilitation worker could point out that she actually made a big effort to get to know the client, and that attributing her success to her looks just discounts all of her effort and expertise.
That said, not everyone is open to change, and Reed-Clark said that in retrospect, she could’ve saved herself grief by dismissing some people’s misogynistic views. “Not everything is worth your energy,” she said. “If you know it’s going to fall on deaf ears, conserve your energy.”
You might also consider documenting the incident and bringing it up with your supervisor or HR department so that there’s a record in case it becomes a pattern. Whatever you do, know that comments about people’s appearances are never appropriate in a workplace.
Having your authority and expertise constantly questioned
“I asked a junior colleague to do something and his reply was, “Did [male colleague] ask for this, or just you?” – Jane, Attorney, 34
“I work in IT. Besides the inappropriate nicknames like “honey” and “sweetheart,” the most annoying thing is that people question my knowledge. My former job was to answer technical questions and I was often asked if I was sure about the answer provided, twice in a row sometimes. Being asked if I’m sure tends to make me uneasy. I’d often double check with my colleagues. This is how I realized that they didn’t get asked the same questions.” – Soo, Technical Presales, 30
Reed-Clark empathizes with women whose authority is constantly questioned and suggests that if you want to gently push back on people who do this, you can ask a question to give them the opportunity to explain themselves, such as, “What about my suggestion feels wrong to you?” Or, “What data point do you believe I’m missing?”
If it’s happening repeatedly, you can be more direct and ask them, “Why do you only seem to ask me that? Would you ask [male colleague] the same question?” She said that the person will likely become flustered when confronted like this, so their answer may not be clear, but at least they’ll know that you’ve noticed a pattern.
She added that it is always wise to bring your facts and data. “One thing I’ve had to learn in my career is how to use data to tell a story, and then make my recommendations,” she said, pointing out that women often have to justify their cases more than men.
“It’s hard to find a balance between raging against the machine and being complicit so that you can get ahead,” she acknowledged. “I’m still trying to figure out that balance myself.”
In the meantime, people can at least share their stories with each other so they know they’re not alone.
Image: Bhupi/E+ via Getty Images