Fighting back against sexism

Advice on how to deal with office sexism
Advice on how to deal with office sexism

Kabsik ParkThe other day I went to court for a more senior colleague, John. There were several other lawyers that day, all male, all over 45. I am a 27 year old woman. I already felt a little bit out of place when I arrived. When I introduced myself, one of them said “You are much prettier than John.”

I don’t know if I am being oversensitive here, but I don’t see why I need to put up with this sort of treatment in the 21st century, and it certainly threw me off while I was trying to mentally prepare myself to make my submissions to the judge! I was wearing my robes and standing in a court room! Also, this is not an isolated incident; there have been many other stories to tell in the years since I graduated law school.

Groan. No, you are not being overly sensitive, PrettyPeeved. Why do some men still think sexism is okay? It’s not fair that you are beating yourself up about the inappropriate behaviour of some Neanderthal. That kind of behaviour, especially in the presence of others, undermines your credibility. You go from lawyer to Barbie doll.

Let’s get serious and a little more precise about what I mean by sexism. You will notice that I did not call this harassment, which in my view, requires a higher bar of harmful, repeated and sustained behaviour targeted at a particular victim. By contrast to harassment, I define sexism as discriminatory behaviour based on a woman’s gender. The two may differ only by degrees. Sexism can take the form of stereotyping, chauvinistic comments or even systemic forms of exclusion based on gender. How often does that sort of thing happen in a professional work environment? Well, as it turns out, it happens a lot.

Context is everything. If you’re judging the Miss Universe pageant, you are entirely within your right to comment on someone’s thighs. But you might not want to tell your assistant that she is looking “very firm these days,” a comment I personally witnessed. In a courtroom, among colleagues, physical appearance is off limits. Obviously, if you have a long-standing relationship with someone at work, that will dictate the kinds of conversations that are fair game. And it works both ways. Women do not have carte blanche to sexualize others at the office. (On a side note, beware of alcohol at office parties.)

Early in my career, the male associates in one workplace ranked the female associates by declining order of hotness, which I suppose is bad enough. I must confess that my burning curiosity to find out my “ranking” far surpassed any righteous indignation that I may have felt towards the idiocy of my male colleagues. I have always been vain. Now that I am closer to my dotage, I tend to take a much dimmer view of such behaviour. I’ve also learned two key things: knuckleheads come in all ages; and not all men are created equal. When I worked with an all-female peer group, a male colleague who was under 30 suggested that we have a wet t-shirt contest. We were furious and took this to our much more highly evolved male boss, who called the offender and gave him an earful.

So what is the best way to handle this kind of behaviour? Be direct. Escalation is one avenue but it may not be possible or applicable. I say nip it in the…bud. Use stealth by ignoring the remark and pointedly asking about the business at hand. Alternatively, go for the jugular and state firmly that you find that kind of comment inappropriate and offensive and don’t care to have a debate about it when he invariably protests. You could always use the Tina Fay method and tell him he’s pretty too but you would strongly recommend a nice supporting bra for his man boobs. A good zinger has a way of shifting the balance of power.

PrettyPeeved, you have a right to be annoyed and even outraged. You are entitled to be treated like the competent professional that you are. It is not appropriate for a peer or colleague to comment about your appearance in the context that you describe. It’s not cute or harmless or even a compliment. It’s unprofessional, sinister and repugnant to the spirit, if not the letter, of professional rules of ethics for lawyers.

Sandra Rosier is a former Supreme Court of Canada clerk who has worked at large firms in Toronto and Boston. Having come to her senses, Sandra currently works as a tax advisor at a Toronto-based organization. Have a question for Sandra? Email us.

Image by Kabsik Park (modified)