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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

6 Ways to Shut Down Sexist Comments at Work

skeptical woman

Have you heard that women are “bad at computers”? Have you heard it at work? What, are you offended? Don’t get hysterical, sweetheart.

Yeah, we hate that, too.

The best way to deflect, call out, and combat those small little sexist comments in the workplace is to have a plan—and maybe to practice a little in your mirror.

Obviously, we can’t solve sexism in one article, but the principle here is harm reduction—if you have better tools to deal with 50% of the sexist comments in your life, you live a better life.

Here are six ideas.

1. Practice Your Bemused and Dismissive Reaction

Imagine you are babysitting. A 10-year-old boy shouts, “I SAW BOOBIES!!!”

Is that sexist, exactly? I mean, it’s certainly gendered. And it’s immature. Hilariously immature. But you don’t feel threatened by it—and you certainly don’t feel the need to make an argument (while also feeling helpless—the effing worst!).

Instead, you look at this kid like he’s ridiculous. You maybe laugh a little bit—while rolling your eyes. You might say, “That’s not appropriate,” or just “Yeah, that’s nice, buddy.”

Some comments deserve to be reported to HR. But sometimes that’s not a great option. Sometimes the person making the comments deserves a playful—and yet condescending!—mocking.

“Did you just say a meeting? Tone it down, buddy.” Look at some other people on the team like, “Get a load of this guy.” Lock him out. He’s ridiculous. Move on. You’re the adult here.

Related: How to Be a Feminist in the Workplace

2. Volley Back the Usual, Predictable Attacks

Are you pretty sure someone is about to call you “emotional”? (Quoth Rachel Maddow: “My ‘passion’ on this issue is actually me making a factual argument.”)

Or perhaps someone seems this close to calling you “hysterical” or “shrill.” “You sound hysterical” is a bomb that can only be used once in an argument. If a man says, “You’re getting hysterical,” you can’t actually respond, “You too!”

So go there. Go there first. “Max, you’re getting emotional. Let’s get back to the issue–whether we should go with Vendor X or Vendor Y.”

Sexist dudes love it when you call them “emotional”!

This isn’t just a rhetorical trick—entitlement, egoism, and an irrational desire to dominate your team members are all emotions. Men who call you “emotional” are often quite emotional themselves. Bigotry itself comes from a place of deep emotion.

Related: When Men Are Too Emotional to Have a Rational Argument

3. Point Out When Someone Calls You “Sweetheart”

Sometimes, a sexist encounter isn’t a drawn-out argument—it’s just a throwaway comment. “Nice work, sweetheart.”

Again, act like these old, sexist ways are an exotic foreign culture with which you are unfamiliar.

A head-on option: “Ha, do you call all the junior developers ‘sweetheart’? I want to name that row of desks over there ‘sweetheart alley.’ Ha, George and Iftikhar probably won’t appreciate that.”

Or: “Sweetheart? It’s a good thing I’m not a sweetheart, or nothing would be getting done in my department!”

Another option: “Ha, sweetheart. That’s funny, it’s like me calling you Ulysses S. Grant, or a tree.”

4. Call it Out Directly–But From a Place of Being on the Same Team

The above techniques may not be a great idea with your boss (although some higher-ups who are deliberately needling you will actually respect you more if you push back).

Sometimes, the right move is to directly call out a sexist comment, but from the
perspective of being on the speaker’s side, and wanting to do good business.

For instance:

“Ooh, it kind of sounds like you’re calling our women customers dumb—it’s a good thing the rest of the team wasn’t around!”

He replies: “What, are you offended?”

“It does hurt my feelings!” (I can imagine myself making an exaggerated sad face here—you know, joking-not-joking.) “But I’m glad you didn’t say that in front of the team! Kind of a morale-killer. Maybe instead we should say something like...”

5. Pretend You Don’t Get it–and Make Them Explain

Calling a sexist man “hysterical” provides a certain patriarchy-quashing frisson, but, again—you really can’t say that to your boss.

In that case, respond to your boss’ sexist comments with feigned confusion.

“Wait, what are you saying about women and driving?” Get your pen ready as though you’re about to take notes on an important business point your boss was making.

“It was just a joke. You know, women drivers....”

[Blank, expectant look]

“You know, women can’t drive. Just a joke.”

“Oh, okay. I’ve never heard that.” Just stare, pen poised, ready for the boss to get back on track.

6. Blame it on Generational Differences (Oh, Burn!)

If your male boss is making the comments, he’s probably kind of older, right? Say your boss implies that women are bad at math.

You say:

“Wait, what are you saying?” Make sure your voice is totally neutral–you might as well be asking, “What does this ancient hieroglyph mean?”

“Don’t get all feminist on me. I was just saying that being good at math is mostly a guy thing. You know.”

Give a confused look, and then shrug. “Ha, at my school we all had to take calculus to even think about getting into college. Must be a generational thing.” Say it really cheerfully–you just kind of called your boss old.

You’re cool, he’s cool. You respect generational differences—it’s all part of the beautiful tapestry of diversity. If he keeps at it, ask him some questions about what college was like “back then.” If he says his math classes were all guys, respond with amazement, as though he is telling you about riding a horse and buggy to school. You’re not offended–you’re enthralled by his stories about the olden days. If he tries to push your buttons, respond with, “Wow, that’s so interesting! Things have changed so much!”

Of course, most real-life interactions along these lines are notably shorter. So just keep this in your arsenal: [Shrug] “Must be a generational thing.”

Like I said, none of these are going to smash the patriarchy with the sheer force of verbal repartee. And these strategies aren’t sufficient for sexual harassment, which is a crime–they are intended for occasional, low-level comments that make your workplace unpleasant, but aren’t necessarily enough to go to HR about. (HR departments can vary wildly in how much they want to help you and how much they want to protect the company by making the problem “go away.”) And if comments like this are happening all the time, you might consider keeping records of your hostile work environment so you’re ready should you decide to talk to HR or an attorney.

That said, an occasional riposte for fairness and equality can really save your day, and even make your workplace a little better for the other women around you.