Sexism and retaliation

In a post in Forbes about sexism in the workplace, the author, Meghan Casserly, discusses the question of how (or whether, even) women can speak up about it at work without retaliation.

She did her homework and asked women to respond, and the story was quite interesting because of the colour of those responses. She found two women who had successfully raised it as an issue, and, not wanting to give up yet, is carrying the conversation on in Twitter and Facebook.

What bothers me, though, is that the article has missed the point about sexism in the workplace: sexism is designed to remind others that there are two groups, and that one is not as good to be in as the other one – to use a really blunt pencil. The article, however, uses a very common ‘female’ way of interrogating meaning: it assumed that the actual words the women used to call out sexism were some kind of magic medicine, which needed the correct dosage applied at the right time and the right place.

For example, the reason that the first successful caller-outer had not received backlash was because she had been really informal about it, and had used a light touch. She had just said “inappropriate” in passing, without making a big deal out of it, and it work. In other words, the right medicine at the right dose.

The second successful caller-outer said her successful technique was to speak to the two sexist-comment-makers one-on-one, privately – that way, they did not lose face. The right medicine, administered in private.

The problem with this whole way of conceiving the solution to sexism in the workplace is that it ignores the element that is central to sexism: the maintenance of power. The variable not controlled in any of the interactions described was whether the woman who did the calling-out had power over the person being sexist. In other words, what man is going to tell his female boss – or even someone a bit higher up in the social pecking order of the office – to get lost?

Sure, it seemed to solve the problem for those two women, but another woman in an identical setting saying “inappropriate”, no matter how quietly, could be inviting serious retaliation.

For example:

Male supervisor in restaurant: I want all of you fillies out on the floor now, or you’re sacked.
Woman waitress (to his disappearing back): Inappropriate.


Male supervisor in restaurant: I want all of you fillies out on the floor now, or you’re sacked.
Woman waitress: Inappropriate.
Male supervisor: What did you just say to me?
Woman waitress: Inappropriate.
Male supervisor: How could it be inappropriate for me to tell you to get out on the floor?
Woman waitress: It’s inappropriate language, because we’re women, not ‘fillies’.
Male supervisor: What? Look, I don’t have time for this. Do you work here or not?


2 thoughts on “Sexism and retaliation

  1. There was a question posited on Quora recently concerning whether or not a +40 female would be a suitable hire for a start-up. I shared the following observation – which I believe is apropos to the topic at hand.I am the COO of a start-up, and this company is not my first rodeo – You always hire the best talent available at the time you are hiring – Age/Gender are NOT differentiation – skill-set, adaptability, experience, energy, wisdom, curiosity – now those are areas where the wheat is separated from the chaff. Companies which don't have a diverse workforce are only hurting themselves. All the best,Christopher@burgessct

  2. Thanks for the insight, Christopher. When I was studying entrepreneurship, it was astonishing how many of the (mostly young) men would openly admit to disregarding job applicants based on gender and race, citing ‘cultural fit’ or whatever the excuse was at the time.

    The problem I used to have with it was pragmatic (the problem I have now is more philosophical!): how can you possibly know that the person’s ‘difference’ is going to cost your business money, rather than make money?

    For example, a 40+ woman, one would presume, has had her children and won’t be making bothersome maternity leave requests, has done her postgrad study or at least is mature enough for it to not overwhelm her, owns her own home etc.Sounds pretty stable to me!

    But notice that I included a whole lot of assumptions to counter the other assumptions that put her out of the running. Where does it end?

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