How to handle sexism at work

January 08, 2023  •  Reading Time: 12 min.

Gender discrimination in the workplace can take many different forms and affect people in different positions. The work environment is special, because employees are in hierarchical environments what makes it difficult to resist sexism at work and respond to the boss or other employee in an appropriate way to defend yourself from double standards.

Basically, sex discrimination means that an employee, job applicant, or someone else is treated differently or less favorably, or even bullied, because of their sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Often, workers experience exclusion based on their gender, race, or ethnicity. Sexism exists in many forms.

The interplay of these factors can make the affected person feel uncomfortable, dislike going to work, and show a decline in performance. In the long run, discrimination can also lead to health and psychological consequences, such as depression, sleep disturbances or listlessness.

Discrimination has many facets. It manifests itself, for example, in lower pay, harsher evaluations, fewer promotions, or harassment.

Although the terms “sex” and “gender” have different meanings, they are often used interchangeably in employment discrimination laws.


Sexual harassment, sexist comment and gender equality

The workplace presents a special environment because the employer and employee are in a relationship of dependence. The employee needs the job, the money or the promotion and is therefore willing to go beyond his or her limits more often. It is not always easy to recognize discrimination as such, which is not only about physical abuse. Psychological behavior such as bullying, harassment or lack of promotion can also be discrimination.

If someone is not hired because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, it constitutes sexism. You may hear from many women that they are not given a new position in the company because they are women. This is despite the fact that they have just as good qualifications as their male colleagues.

Gender-stereotypical behavior can also be interpreted in a discriminatory way. For example, when men are praised for their leadership skills while women with the same qualities are labeled “aggressive.”

If an employee is paid less than people with the same job duties and qualifications because of their sexual orientation or gender, it is also discrimination. So is being insulted, called derogatory names, or made hostile remarks or other inappropriate comments. Sexist remarks belong also to subtle sexism and can cause mental health problems.

The pinnacle of discrimination is sexist behaviour, requests for sexual favors, or physical, sexual harassment. Research shows that discrimination and unconscious bias have negative repercussions, therefore combating sexism is very important for the mental health. In contrast, when everyone feels free and good, more is accomplished and the work life balance also improves.

Workplace sexism

Not all gender discrimination is intentional or explicit. It can still be discrimination if your employer does something that results in excluding or harming employees with a particular gender identity without intending to do so.

Often, a particular practice or policy, such as a hiring test or hiring requirement, says nothing about gender and may not have been put in place for the purpose of keeping women, transgender people, or non-binary people out of certain jobs, but ultimately has that effect. This type of practice or policy could still be considered discriminatory, and if you were denied a job-related opportunity, paid less, or fired because of it, you could have a discrimination claim.

You can defend yourself against discrimination in the workplace if it can be considered unlawful. If terms and conditions of employment, such as duties, working hours, dress code or vacation and sick days, are violated because of gender or gender identity, this is discrimination and you do not have to endure it.

Retaliation is also illegal, meaning an employer may not punish you for resisting sex discrimination. Accordingly, firing, reduction in hours, forced leave, or transfer is not permitted.

Retaliation can also be subtle, building up or getting worse over time. Examples include being ostracized by colleagues, no longer being invited to meetings, or being excluded from communications in which you were previously involved.


What rights do I have?

Feeling good at work and being productive takes more than good pay and nice colleagues. A work-life balance is very important for physical and mental health. You also have a right to a safe, non-discriminatory workplace where every employee is treated with respect and gender equality is important.

Talk about or speak out against workplace sexism, sexist comments, gender bias and benevolent sexism in the workplace, whether it happens to you or someone else. You can talk about workplace discrimination with whomever you want, including your co-workers and your supervisor. You also have the right to tell your employer that you think a company policy, practice, or manager is discriminating or discriminates. It is illegal for your employer to retaliate against you or punish you for talking to co-workers about discrimination.

If you experience or witness discriminatory behavior, you can report it. It is best to put your complaint in writing and address it to your boss or department head.

If you are a member of a union, your contract governs working conditions. If you feel you are being treated unfairly or your employer is not following the contract, talk to your union representative about filing a grievance.

What can I do against sexism in the workplace?

If you or someone you know has experienced or witnessed discrimination or sexism in the workplace in the form of jokes, derogatory comments, sexism at work or in the workplace, you can take the following actions:

Check your employer’s policies

Most employers will give you a handbook at the beginning of your employment. Read through it to find out what policies are in place to protect you. Look for policies on discrimination. Find out about your company’s grievance procedure, and pay attention to the deadlines.

If there is no information on how to report discrimination or file a complaint, ask for the Human Resources Department’s phone number. Often, employees find it difficult to take action against discrimination because they are afraid of consequences. However, firings, pay cuts or transfers are not permitted. So you can feel safe and do the right thing.

Write everything down

Write down in detail what happened and when it happened, including everything you said or did and any witnesses or people who may have been involved in the decisions, actions or incidents. Write down every example of discrimination you can remember. As new things happen, write them down to avoid forgetting details.

Women are often affected because many companies are dominated by men. If you notice that a woman is affected or that other women need help, you can also offer yourself as a witness and thus do something against sexism.

Take notes of any conversations or meetings you have had related to the discrimination, including with Human Resources, your supervisor, or the person who made the discriminatory decisions or comments. Note the time, date, and location of the meeting and who attended. If you wish to file a complaint, this may be helpful evidence.

Report concerns or complaints about discrimination to Human Resources or your supervisor

An internal complaint can stir up the peace in the workplace. However, you need to address the topic to feel comfortable again and have a chance at a normal work-life balance where you don’t go home hurt after hours because another inappropriate comment was made or you were excluded.

When filing a grievance, it is important to do so with someone who has enough authority in the company to make a difference.

What can happen when you fight for gender equality?

First of all, you must always remember that your own career is paramount and you should not be discriminated against based on your personal life. Working in multicultural and hierarchical environments can sometimes be difficult because you are in a dependent relationship and you don’t always have the courage to take action against discrimination or fight for gender equality. But if you do file a complaint or take legal action, there are several types of remedies you can seek.

Some have to do with money, others are more about changing your employer’s behavior. Not everyone can get all of these things. Every case is different, but here are some common examples of things you can ask for and may get if you win your lawsuit or reach a settlement agreement.

  • Compensation for lost wages and other economic losses if the discrimination caused you to lose work or income (for example, if you had to take a leave of absence, lost work hours, were fired and had no income for a while, or lost your workplace and couldn’t find a new one that paid you equally well).
  • Compensation for expenses related to medical or health treatment you needed or will need in the future because of discrimination or retaliation.
  • Compensation for mental anguish, such as anxiety, stress, pain and suffering, sleep deprivation, damage to your reputation, and loss of enjoyment of life because of discrimination.
  • Reinstatement: if you were fired or laid off because of the discrimination or retaliation, you may be able to get your job back.
  • Punitive damages: If you sue in court and prove that the employer acted in bad faith or “recklessly disregarded” your rights, you may be able to get the court or jury to order the employer to pay punitive damages.

How to confront sexism in the workplace?

Gender bias can show up in many different ways in the workplace – from gratuitous comments, to explicit sexism and harassment. For women of color, trans women, and queer women, these instances of sexism are exacerbated by systemic racism, homophobia and other biases that still occur in far too many workplaces, even in an inclusive workplace. In many industries, male employees dominate and women then make up less than half of the crew. It is more common for a sexist remark to be made or for overt sexism with sexist behaviours to occur.

Notice the discrimination

If you notice discriminatory or sexist behavior, you should question what is causing it. Especially in male-dominated workplaces, creating space for women may require a major culture change. If your cubicles were an all-boys club until a few years ago, your boss’s sexism may not be intentional, but simply naturalized through the years in an outdated company culture.

However, that doesn’t mean you just have to deal with the situation silently. On the contrary. It is often helpful to address disruptive comments or inappropriate behavior to let the other person know that he/she has crossed a line. Sometimes this happens not on purpose, but out of the situation.

If the problem persists, play hardball

If the problem persists and you’re not being taken seriously, it’s time to signal to your supervisor how serious you are. Explain that you are no longer comfortable in the work environment and why, and explain what changes you would like to see and why you don’t want to deal with this situation anymore. In some cases, the discrimination comes from the boss, in which case it makes more sense to approach other supervisors or the HR department.

Get loud

If you notice discriminatory behavior, don’t ignore it. Get loud and voice concerns! When an idea, suggestion or proposal of yours goes unnoticed, whether intentionally or not, it can be quite disheartening. And when the same idea is taken up and restated by a male colleague, only to be met with applause, it’s discriminatory.

Naming the problem or wrong behavior on point can help one woman involved, who may be reluctant to fight back themselves for fear of exaggerating, standing alone, or fear of consequences. So stand up for those around you. There is hope that others will do the same for you. When women band together and raise their voices, they are more likely to be heard than when a woman tries to fight back alone.

This is true not only for the group of female employees, but for everyone. Get loud until you are heard!

The problem of casual sexism, subtle sexism and how combating sexism at work


“Because you are a woman”

When roles in a family are still distributed according to traditional structures, it is often the woman who gets the short end of the stick career-wise and stays home with the kids. If the mother starts working again, there can also be discriminatory behavior on the part of the employer.

Excluding women from projects or management positions because it is suspected that she has responsibilities in her personal life in addition to her job is discriminatory. At the very least, employers should give the woman the opportunity to decide for or against the new task or position herself.

Nowadays, it doesn’t always concern only women. The conservative family relationships are loosened and there are also many men who stay at home and have to deal with similar problems.

The private life should not be decisive to exclude a person from the beginning. If someone has the qualifications for a certain position, task, or career, the person should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not it is compatible with their private life in terms of time.

“No offense. Don’t get me wrong.”

Often these are safe phrases followed by obvious, insidious sexist remarks. It’s easiest to brush away these remarks. But unfortunately, they don’t stop. So take them seriously. It’s an insult. When someone starts a sentence with “don’t get me wrong,” it is often followed by content that can only be perceived in the way it was intended.

The best way to respond to a discriminatory statement would then be with a counter question like, “Would you have said/asked the same thing to a male colleague?”

Inappropriate names

What is normal among friends has no place at work. Nicknames by supervisors or male colleagues can signify a lack of respect and subtle sexism and make male coworkers feel like they are above women. This, not infrequently results in sexist behaviour.

You could express your dislike of these labels in an honest, face-to-face conversation, rather than reacting in public.

Men want to be men

What usually happens in a meeting room until everyone is assembled? The air is filled with banter, sometimes sexist jokes. Overt sexism isn’t funny, though, and not everyone shares the same sense of humor. Sexist jokes and comments can also be hurtful and have a negative impact on the mood of the room and the person involved.

Through unconscious bias, a joke or a comment can have fatal consequences at the wrong moment. You should therefore always pay attention to what you say in a conversation and who is in the room.

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