Everyday Sexism at Work

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‘My Colleague Is Always Belittling Me. What Can I Say to Him?’

It’s easy to see that violent or sexually inappropriate behaviour is bullying but constant belittling and criticism can make for a very unpleasant working environment and need to be addressed.

Reactions need as far as possible to be proportionate to the problem so every case is different.

I once smiled at a male colleague (who was speaking insultingly about women) and asked ‘Why do women make you feel so uncomfortable?’ as I left the room. He looked shocked but managed a tense little laugh. Since I was smiling and leaving at the same time we never had to finish that conversation, no doubt a bonus for both of us 🙂 . It wasn’t phenomenally clever, it was just simple, direct and not too confrontational and the man concerned was intelligent enough to know what this meant. We had to work together when planning courses and marking (including meetings in his office with just the two of us) but I found that if I challenged him with a smile but a direct little jab, ‘Gee you do like women, don’t you?’ or ‘Sorry we’re not in the 18th century now, shall we continue?’ enabled us to work together.

My colleague simply didn’t know how to deal with women in a professional context so he resorted to inappropriate comments and put-downs. When given the firm alternative to focus on work he did, however, do so. We managed to work together very effectively but he will never like the idea of female lecturers 🙂 .

The more serious the bullying the stronger your words / behaviour need to be but it is sometimes possible to recalibrate a work situation before things escalate.

Oscar Wilde commented that the smile is a civilised snarl. Dogs snarl as a warning. There is no reason why your calm politely worded comments can’t give a clear message, particularly if they are accompanied by eye contact.

If you’re having to deal with more serious bullying, sexist or otherwise, you need to get help from colleagues, Personnel, or indeed the police if you face assault. Situations where people are bullied in the home are much more complex (just because it’s illegal doesn’t make it easy to deal with) but children’s charities and domestic abuse charities offer telephone helplines.

The good news is that people are talking about bullying (be it in the workplace or the home) more than they used to and there is more help available but we do all need to take a calm but firm stand when we encounter bullying personally or if we see someone else subjected to it.