Good News: It Pays to Speak Up About Sexist Remarks

Picture this. You’re at work and your colleague Bill jokes about how Mary is sure to sign that new client because her legs look awesome in that new skirt suit. Not out of the ordinary. The adult version, one could say, of a t-shirt that reads “I’m Too Pretty To Do Homework.” What do you do? Do you laugh at Bill’s comment? Do you roll your eyes and walk away? Or do you confront him?

A lot of women claim that they would confront people over sexist comments, but when put in the situation, many of them don’t follow through. As Heidi Grant Halvorson wrote on Forbes Woman:

While we’d all like to believe that we would confront anyone who said something sexist (or otherwise bigoted) to us personally, the truth is that it rarely happens. For instance, in one study, 68% of women said that they would refuse to answer sexually harassing questions in a job interview, and 28% said they would openly confront the interviewer.  But when the interview actually happened, all of the women answered the offensive questions, and not one confronted the interviewer.

Women face a lot of sexist comments in the workplace. They range from sexually degrading to assumptions about what women like or don’t like based on their gender. In the Forbes Woman article, Halvorson wrote:

A lot of the sexism that women encounter in the workplace [are] comments that are not necessarily meant to cause insult or discomfort, uttered by otherwise decent enough male coworkers who you generally like.  But they are harmful nonetheless, because they perpetuate stereotypic views of women’s preferences and abilities.

That is the bad news. The good news, however, is that confronting men about their sexist comments actually makes them treat you better. According to a study from Loyola University Chicago that was mentioned in the Forbes Woman article, men who are confronted for sexism are actually nicer to and report liking the woman who confronted them more than those who are not confronted.  The men who were confronted also reduced their use of sexist language.

For some people, it takes a lot of guts to speak up and call someone out. This study demonstrates that it may not be as bad as you think. However, an article by Anna North on Jezebel notes that while the results of this study are encouraging, there are plenty of situations where people do not react well to being called out:

Many have learned through harsh experience that starting a conversation about sexism opens them up to social stigma, hurt feelings, and unpredictable consequences, and it’s going to take more than one study to convince them otherwise.

What approach do you take in your own life? Do you call people out when they make remarks that are sexist, racist or otherwise prejudiced or do you remain silent? Are you more likely to speak up in some situations than in others?

Related stories:

“Miss Representation” Shows How Media Mistreats Women

Virginia Tech Sued for Gender Discrimination

JC Penney Pulls “I’m Too Pretty to Do Homework” T-Shirt After Social Media Uproar

Photo credit: casey west on flickr


Scott Vonwolf
Scott haakon5 years ago

This sword cuts both ways. How many women make sexist comments about men? Yep just as many. Both houses need cleaning.

The Other Robert O
Robert O6 years ago

I thought Bill was making a joke about the foolishness of horny menfolk. Should I be insulted?

Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin6 years ago

I can not keep quiet. It is physically impossible for me to do so. Lots of people have found out that I'm not a little girl they can do or say whatever to!

Lilithe Magdalene

@ Abbe - unless it is your fetish, I don't think you would sit around while a woman or group of women ridiculed the size of your penis. We should be able to just be ridiculed? Ah, more male privilege in it's not so pretty form showing up again.

I hear Carmen - I know what I would want to do, and I am aware of the "deer in the headlights" freeze that can often happen when actually confronted with a sexually abusive situation, whether it is merely verbal, or deeply violently physical. I see all of it as being on a spectrum of sexual violence towards women, and it amazes me how few men understand how it is fro women. Even men I know who live in neo-tantric communities perpetuate this kind of invasive behavior. I have as of late, learned to confront them about it, but generally after the fact, and even when they say they understand and won't do it anymore - they still have done it.

@Linda R - if I even work in an office, I'll be sure to come work in yours!

@Nessie - I am sorry you had to put up with that. I just finished watching the Mad Men first four seasons, and I am appalled.

William Y.
William Y6 years ago

As to the above poll, been there, done that.

Tierney G.
Tierney G6 years ago

I did it. It happened in a grocery store I go to . There was a young checker (male )working and I was waiting in a long line. he (the checker) had just opened a new register. He saw me in line waiting but a young blonde appeared and he immediately called her over and totally ignored the fact that I and several others had been waiting longer and first.
Well I was angry and so went to the manager and reported him. he was fired.
That was powerful!!

Cynthia Blais
cynthia l6 years ago

it depends, consider the source. Some people just don't realize they have made an offending remark so enlighten them. Others know they have and those will turn the table and you are now "not a tem player" or fridgid lol. I have to consider will HR back me up (usually not)

Brenda Gilbert
Brenda Gilbert6 years ago

There is always a way to respond to this kind of remark - sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise offensive - that will make the person reflect rather than react or defend. It isn't always easy to find that way but it's somehting we could all work at in order, step by step, to make our world a better place for us all.

Carmen n.
Carmen n6 years ago

I've often fantasized about how I would behave in a certain situation only to surprise myself by acting in another, as when I was raped, for instance. I had always thought I would fight back and at least prevent penetration, but, no, I just lay there like a wet ziti and let him do his thing.

Wanting to act in a certain way is no guarantee that action will follow intention. For that to happen, it helps to repeatedly role play, the kind of role playing they do in a dojo... actually, it is necessary, not just helpful...

Oh, and the quick-poll question might be more useful stated thusly: "Would you WANT to confront a colleague who...." It's meaningless the way it's stated, especially when you've already stated in the article that 100% of the women initially polled ended up SURPRISING themselves by failing to follow through with their stated intention... BECAUSE of their conditioning by the Patriarchy!

Carole H.
Carole H6 years ago

I think it is up to individual women to use common sense on when to speak out and when not - I do not mean by this to condone sexist remarks but think women as individuals will tolerate different degrees of sexist remark depending on who says what, where and when. I do agree however that not correcting (I prefer that to confronting) overtly sexist remarks does run the danger of allowing negative gender stereotypes to persist.