How to Counter Casual Sexism in Conversations

As a vocal feminist I have a few male friends who like to mess with me, playing the overt misogynist to get a laugh out of me.

“Oh, it looks like you need a man to help you lift that,” they say, bicep unsubtly flexing. “Well, you know, women drivers,” they’ll say in a cartoonishly deep voice when they witness me err driving.

That’s fine. It’s self-aware. It’s joking.

I’m much more worried about casual sexism that pops up in conversations. Everything from seemingly benign (venting about work: ”My boss is such a bitch.”) to the overt (asking what a rape survivor was wearing when attacked).

Often, folks don’t even notice they’re doing it. Sometimes they don’t even see a problem.

But sexist comments like these reveal underlying attitudes about women many people still have. Even in 2016, for instance, we still hold women in power to higher ethical standards than men and demand they smile and be kind, while men often get away with being more authoritarian.

Taken to its extreme, casual sexism is a part of the same spectrum that justifies violence against women because it normalizes attitudes that portray women as less than. (Consider the deplorable excuse, “She was asking for it.”)

In honor of Domestic Violence Month, here’s how to shut down random sexism in conversations.

1. Use humor.

Humor can both silence and empower women. If you can stomach it, a light touch is sometimes all you need to shut down a sexist comment.

Researcher Amy Billingsley writes about how feminists can leverage humor as a type of “Trojan Horse” that shocks people to change their minds. They can also use jokes to show the absurdity of the sexism at hand.

Take this ridiculous example from Twitter, when some guy wrote, ”It’s #TitsoutTuesday girls give me some entertainment before the game starts!!”

Folks don’t expect you to answer misogyny with silliness. Surprise them.

2. Give them another way of looking at things.

If the situation doesn’t call for humor, you can address sexism with a dose of perspective.

Allya Khan at Everyday Feminism gives a good example on how she responded to a remark about her not wanting kids.

As Khan writes, “‘I feel like it’s human nature to want to produce something,’ he said. ‘At the end of your life, you know you made an impact.’ The impact he was referring to was a baby.

“I could have chosen to respond in a number of ways. For that conversation, however, I felt comfortable presenting another way of conceptualizing ‘production.’ I calmly talked about other ways in which I could “produce” something, through meaningful work, fostering positive relationships and friendships, and by cultivating a life of meaning for myself.”

Khan also suggests phrases like, “That’s not my experience,” or “I’ve heard some say differently,” might be helpful.

3. As casually as the sexism, call it out.

Tech writer Rachel Balik tells Forbes of a time her friend was passing by a pair of male colleagues and overheard something misogynistic. She calmly turned to them, and said, “Inappropriate.”

One asked, “Really?” She said, “Yes,” and they both went on their ways.

As Forbe’s Meghan Casserly notes, too often folks dismiss women who pinpoint sexism as shrill or overdramatic. While this dismissal also reeks of sexism, a measured, low-key response may stop someone in their tracks.

Website developer Ashley Bischoff also stressed the power of speaking with offenders privately. This can make them less defensive.

4. Tell them what you think.

Sexism is corrosive, especially if you hear it all the time. As much as others aren’t censoring their bigoted comments, you don’t have to censor yourself either.

Make them think a moment. Maybe turn the tables, ask if they’d say the same thing about a man.

Or do as Laura Rutherford-Morrison of Bustle suggests, ask them to repeat what they said. Maybe actually hearing themselves talk is enough. Your silence afterward says multitudes.

5. Ask questions.

A useful response to casual sexism like mansplaining is asking questions. If someone’s trying to tell you about a topic you know a lot about already, you can ask detailed questions of them that show you are informed. Hyper-earnesty may throw them off. Or conversely, you can play really, really dumb and see if they catch on.

Less confrontatively, you can also ask why people think they do. Getting to the root of the sexism might help them see the error of their assumptions.

Finally, remember that if you don’t want to engage on a sexist comment, you don’t have to. You are not responsible for people’s assumptions. You can change the topic, move on or end a conversation at any time.

But if you decide to, consider the words of Republican National Committee Chief of Staff Katie Walsh: “Don’t overthink it. Don’t wonder, well if I say that, what will they think of me, because I’m a woman? Trust yourself and say what you believe.”

Photo Credit: The Home of the Fixers on Flickr


Emily J
Emily J4 months ago

Thanks for sharing, sexism is never okay whether directed at women or men! I just read Girl Up and Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates, I recommend them to anyone interested in the topic!

Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Hometuition S.
Hometuition S2 years ago

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Elaine W.
Elaine W2 years ago

Some interesting ideas. Thanks.

Tania N.
Tania N2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Marc P.
Marc P2 years ago

Marija K.: First, I am not "butthurt." I'm an adult. You see, grown ups don't get 'butthurt.' And while I disagree with your statement, "Men cannot have personal experiences of women's issues, obviously." if it WAS true, then women cannot have personal experiences of men's issues, obviously." Yet people like to CONSTANTLY claim otherwise. And MOST of your posts are actually predicated on your interpretations of men's personal experiences!

Brett Cloud
Brett Cloud2 years ago


Patrice Z.
Patrice Z2 years ago

Thanks for the article. Important ideas to consider.

Michelle Brummer
Michelle Brummer2 years ago

Love the twitter humor responses.

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.