‘I Called Out Sexist Behaviour At Work And I’m Being Punished For It – What Do I Do Now?’

Is there ever a 'right' way to call out sexist behaviour from your colleagues?

Sexism at work

by Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob |

In a world of inspirational memes and #girlpost Instagram posts, it’s easy to forget that we all get stuck at work, or feel like we can’t find a way forward at times. Sue Unerman is the Chief Transformation Officer at MediaCom and Kathryn Jacob OBE is the Chief Executive at Pearl and Dean. Together they wrote The Glass Wall: Success Strategies For Women At Work And Businesses That Mean Business. Each week answer your work questions with pragmatic, honest advice that’s proven to work…

Q: I've recently experienced a situation where a male colleague tried to exclude me from working on a stereotypically male focussed product, in favour of involving my male colleagues. I may be being paranoid but I got the distinct feeling he was doing this because I was a woman. This is not the first time this has happened with this particular person/client, so I decided to call him out on it. He took huge offence and made feel awful for even suggesting that was the case, I then felt horrendously guilty and wished I had never said anything. Did I handle it wrong? Should I have just ignored it? What would you have done in this situation?

KJ: If this is a repeated pattern of behaviour, then of course you have to call it out otherwise nothing ever changes. Its obvious that he’d say that wasn’t what was happening because he’s unlikely to agree that he was being sexist. How you move on from this embarrassment is key because it will set the tone for the future.

SU: Yes, Kathryn is right. It would have been amazing if he’d accepted what he’d done, but that’s a bit like expecting a turkey to vote for Christmas isn’t it in a way? If he was aware of his pattern of behaviour, then he probably would not have done that in the first place. You were very brave to call him out. It is however very difficult to do this without evidence, it becomes his word and his perception of reality versus yours. In future, its worth making notes of exactly what he does and says, just write them down in a notebook, dated, then you have an accurate record that you can show if necessary. This might seem heavy handed, and I am not suggesting escalating the situation unnecessarily, but it will actually help you be objective about what has happened. Because there is a danger here that you are taking everything, understandably, very personally.

KJ: There is a gentle way that sometimes I use when faced with difficult situations that people might take personally. In your case how I would approach it would be to go to this man and say “If I didn’t know you better, and know how inclusive you want to be, it would be easy to feel that you are deliberately excluding me. I know that this cannot be the case, so I thought I should raise it as I know you always want the best talent working on projects, and I think I can make a good contribution to this one. How can I contribute to this one?” This gives him an “out” in that you haven’t directly confronted him but you have made him aware that you know his game. Unless people are faced with evidence all around them of their behaviour the instinct is to deny any bad intention and to try to turn it onto the person they see as their accuser. Sue, how would you handle the embarrassment issue?

SU: Embarrassment, a bit like guilt, is a wasted emotional effort often. There’s no upside to it. It won’t help you. So difficult as it is, try to either ignore it, or to push through it. Sharing your experience might help. One of the stories we recount in The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business, is about a woman who is in a highly embarrassing situation, and who deals with it by saying to as many of her colleagues as she can: “Did you hear what happened to me?”. She basically outs her own guilt, and of course, her colleagues actually reassure her. I heard the expression only today in fact that you really need to “get the fish out on the table”. The person meant, if you don’t get the fish out into the open, then it will rot, and get smelly and more difficult. So, get your fish of embarrassment out onto the table and get past it. The awkwardness that you are feeling is exactly your colleague’s intention. Do not let him win this victory. Hold your head high and get your own back by performing well at work instead.

KJ: If you do go in to some kind of retreat it will just confirm his bias and nothing will shake him out of his complacency. This is one of the Glass Walls in fact that holds women back. In time you will probably discover that your view of him is widely held, but that he’s managed to suppress other people. Don’t let him be a serial offender.

SU: And, although I know your feeling somewhat mortified, remember this is just an awkward moment, probably not something that will damage your working life in the long term. We have both had our moments of mortification haven’t we Kathryn?

KJ: Oh yes, too many to mention. The key thing is to be robust and resilient, never drop your standards and find your allies.

SU: Your allies will be out there, and not just other people who are junior to this man, but probably his colleagues and his superiors too. Stick to your principles and focus on the good work that you can do and this will pass

Sue and Kathryn’s book The Glass Wall, Success Strategies For Women At Work And Businesses That Mean Business is available from amazon.

Have you got a question you’d like Sue and Kathryn to answer? Email your questions to feedback@graziamagazine.co.uk. Please note, we will be unable to respond to every single question we receive, and will not be able to respond to any questions personally

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