We are all aware of gender discrimination and sexual harassment at the workplace — they are, after all, easy to identify. However, there’s a form of sexism that is subtle yet just as oppressive. We’re talking about the everyday, sometimes unintentional kind of chauvinism called casual sexism.
Subliminal bias, being excluded from certain activities, and gender roles… it takes many forms in the workplace. Here are some common instances and how you can deal with them.
1. “Why aren’t you married yet?”
While marital status doesn’t make for acceptable table talk, our society thinks nothing of bringing it up in the most formal settings.
Pune-based digital marketer Malvika Rao* (32) faced the question during the final round of a job interview.
She narrates, “The interviewer and I were getting along until he suddenly asked me why I was single. I was taken aback. I calmly said, ‘sorry, that is extremely personal and I don’t see why this is relevant’.
“His face hardened. He then said I was the first candidate to have replied ‘so unprofessionally’. I politely pointed out that the question — not my response — was inappropriate. We didn’t talk much after that. Soon after, I got an email saying I was not a good fit.”
We all need to respond this way. When men aren’t quizzed about their single status, why should women put up with such questions?
2. “Is it that time of the month?”
It’s awful that men have no qualms about stating that an assertive woman must be on her period. And it’s worse when women themselves do it.
I have heard a female friend say this about an opinionated co-worker, and I am guilty of saying nothing to defend her. But now, I refuse to let a comment like that slide. Because period shaming is just another form of discrimination against women.
Although a lot of us do have mood swings during our period, that doesn’t mean we lose our rationality. When dealing with such attitudes, educate the person.
Without being snarky, explain that menstruation, albeit painful and hormone-altering, is just another bodily function. It is not going to cloud a woman’s logic, and instead of placing the blame on her, they should analyze their own behavior and actions instead; they probably did something to irk her.
Lastly, don’t forget to mention that just like we have PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome), men have IMS (Irritable Male Syndrome) every month. Yes, it’s a thing!
3. “So that’s how she got the promotion.”
Ever been in a situation where someone nudges and winks suggestively when a female employee gets promoted? Bet you have, particularly if she is charming, attractive or well-dressed.
Even if it is only insinuated, you should not participate in or tolerate such sexist allegations.
Bangalore writer Ishita Sharma* (25) agrees. “A senior writer at my company recently got a hefty pay raise. This girl is quite cute and fashionable. Some of her outfits even tend to be a little risqué.
“That said, she is very good at her job, and she completely deserved the raise. Anyway, there has been a lot of shade thrown at her ever since. Whenever I hear someone trashing her, I clearly tell them to check themselves, as she earned it the right way.”
It is entirely possible for a woman to get ahead at work without using her sexuality. Unless otherwise confirmed, it is misogynistic and unethical to assume that she is sleeping her way to the top.
Casual sexism may not be aggressive, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t insidious. It helps normalize sexism so that only means one thing: we have to call it out each time it happens.
However, it is important to keep calm so you can make your point lucidly. Sassy comebacks might make you seem rude and aggressive, even a feminazi.
So instead of confrontation, always try to start a dialogue. That is the only way we can say goodbye to “harmless” sexist jokes, conversations, and attitudes at the workplace, and make way for a more inclusive environment.
What forms of casual sexism have you encountered at work, and how did you deal with them? Do share your stories in the comments below.
(*names changed on request)