Subtly Sexist Things Happening at Your Office and What You Can Do About It

If you’ve been watching the hilarious animated series Tuca and Bertie on Netflix (and if you’re not, I highly recommend!), you’ll remember the episode where Bertie had to deal with sexism and harassment in the workplace. This episode was very personal for a lot of people, especially women, because dealing with it at work, especially when it’s subtle, can be complicated.

Sometimes the person doing it has been there for a long time and is a well-loved employee, so maybe the harassment is brushed off or not believed. Sometimes there aren’t processes in place to support you when it happens. And sometimes, it’s so subtle or ingrained in the company’s culture that it seems ‘normal’ to most of the people working there, so nothing changes.

Below are 9 signs of subtle sexism at the workplace* and also a few things you can do about it if you want to facilitate change.

Subtly Sexist Things Happening at Your Office…

  1. Your boss focuses on your ‘personality’ instead of your performance in your reviews. It can be important in some jobs to work well with others and be a team player. But your performance review is an overall look at what you’ve accomplished in a certain amount of time. If your manager is more focused on what others think of you and how you make others feel instead of your competency as an employee, that’s a red flag.
  2. Only asking women (or one specific woman) to provide decorations, food, candy, cards for special occasions, etc. This person becomes the ‘Office Mom’ against her will and might be expected to perform additional administrative/ janitorial duties while getting all the rest of her work done.
  3. Only men in management and sought-after positions, especially if there is an even mix of men and women who work there.
  4. Only bringing men on business trips or to special events like conferences, off-site meetings, etc.
  5. Management asking female employees if they are pregnant (I could write an entire article about why I feel no one except for a doctor should ask you if you’re pregnant. But to sum things up, if a woman is pregnant and wants you to know, she will tell you when she is ready, I promise!)
  6. Asking if you plan on getting married/ having kids in an interview or once you’ve started working there. In some places this is actually illegal to ask.
  7. You or someone else is being referenced as a ‘working mother.’ (barf)
  8. You’re told that what you or another woman wears is ‘distracting.’ It puts the responsibility on you, when the onus should be on the person letting themselves get distracted. If you’re wearing work-appropriate attire, people have no right to stare and tell you that your outfit is eliciting a reaction from them.
  9. Men do most of the talking in meetings, or there are no women in the meeting, especially if there is an even mix of men and women working there.

If you’re identifying any of these as things you see in your place of work and it upsets you, maybe you’re asking yourself if there’s something can you do? Below are a couple things you can implement as an employee.

What You Can Do About It

1. Straight up ask HR to update their harassment policy.

This won’t be applicable to all companies, but it’s great if you work for a smaller company that might not even have an HR person.

Send an email to a trusted supervisor asking if the policy can be updated to include all forms of harassment, as well as a laid-out description of exactly what steps are taken to handle it and prevent it. Then ask that an email be sent out notifying all employees of the new policy.

This lets people know that the subject is being taken seriously and is being updated to reflect the times. It should also be requested that this policy be provided to all new employees within their first week.

If you don’t have an HR person/ department, try to find a way to designate a few different people that should be reported to when harassment takes place. It can be much easier to report this to someone you know and trust, and it’s easier to do this if a company has both a male and female that you can go to.

2. Formulate a script.

Find professional ways to call out sexism when you see it. Examples:

  1. When a woman says something and gets interrupted, say something along the lines of “I’m sure X would like to finish what she was saying.”
  2. When a woman says something that’s ignored and then repeated by a man and heard, say something like “X just said that first and no one responded” while looking at the person running the meeting/ conversation.
  3. When a woman is being repeatedly ignored in a meeting, say something like “X has been trying to something to say about this.”

3. Advocate for the women who are good at their jobs.

It’s incredibly easy to fit into a conversation that X did a great job providing for the client or that X is the one person who really understands the in-and-outs of a certain project. Acknowledging the competence of other women is a small way to show solidarity and remind management of all the bad ass women who work there.

4. Simply ask questions.

Ask why only men go on business trips even though there are women qualified to attend.

Question why there are no women in management.

Ask them if they know it’s illegal in some places to ask if a woman is pregnant or planning on having kids soon.

Ask why your manager is focusing on your personality traits instead of your performance in your performance review,

Open the conversation for why someone references women as ‘working mothers’, but not men as a ‘working fathers.’

Question why an adult employee would allow himself to be inappropriately ‘distracted’ simply by the clothes a colleague is wearing.

Putting them on the spot to explain themselves might make them realize it’s inappropriate and rethink saying or doing it again. And acknowledging its inappropriateness will show them that it won’t be tolerated or ignored.

5. Suggest alternatives.

Instead of one woman constantly being tasked with planning and providing for an event, encourage everyone or multiple people to get involved.

Suggest that a different person each week be tasked with throwing away old food in the refrigerator or running the dishwasher.

6. Make sure you’re compensated for extra work/ input.

If you end up footing the bill for food, decorations, cards, etc, simply give the receipts to your manager, signaling that you expect to be rightfully compensated.

Ask if you will be compensated for your additional admin work or if it’s important enough to get done instead of the other work you are doing.

Do you have any experiences of subtle sexism in the workplace? Share in the comments if you feel comfortable.


*I’d like to acknowledge that this article is written by a cisgender, white female. This article is based on my own experiences and does not serve as an all-encompassing experience that will affect all women. Sexism is going to look different in all industries and types of companies, so be sure to cater these actions to what would be most appropriate for you. Additionally, not everyone can afford to potentially jeopardize their job by speaking up and the onus shouldn’t just be on women to improve a company’s culture/ eradicate harassment and sexism.