Saturday, August 7, 2010

How to respond when senior coworkers are sexist jerks

This week the feminist blogosphere has been buzzing about a Slate advice columnist's response to the following letter from a woman working in a law firm for the summer:
I am a female law student who is employed for the summer (and potentially for the school year) at a small firm that I'm really enjoying. The law office shares a floor of an office building with a bigger law firm, and my cubicle is "on the border." All of the attorneys at both firms are male, but at the other firm, the men are far from politically correct. I have two issues: First, one of the attorneys, "Jerry," often makes comments to me about my appearance. These range from annoying but harmless ("Nice tan") to creepy ("I like that skirt," in a lecherous tone). I have tried to ignore him or subtly indicate his comments aren't welcome, but neither approach has worked. I'm tempted to speak to one of my firm's partners, but I fear it would make me look like a little girl running to a man to fight my battles. I'm also considering documenting all his comments until I have enough for a sexual harassment suit so I can make his firm pay for the legal education I used to nail it. Second, I overhear a lot of conversations I find highly offensive. The men are fond of using homosexuality-based insults, calling one another or opponents "fag" and "homo." The work environment is becoming so unpleasant that I wonder how long I can stand it. What should I do?
The response is basically to (a) confront Jerry directly, (b) chill out about the homophobic bigots next door, and (c) not to be so eager to sue, it won't win her a lot of points. Jezebel has a good summary of responses to this column, including why this advice is not really so great, especially since it lacks the broader context of entrenched sexism in some law firms.

But what DO you do when coworkers, especially those above you on the office hierarchy, say bigoted or offensive things? It's a tough dilemma for many in the workplace, as calling out unacceptable behavior can decrease your own political / social capital. I find this particularly challenging, since I want to live my values and advance progressive causes, but find myself uncomfortable saying anything that makes waves. One Jezebel commenter had some advice that I particularly liked:
Here's what I did in a similar situation: I went to the partner that I felt would be the most receptive. I started the discussion with how much I liked my job and the firm, and how I hoped to work there for many years to come. I talked about being a team player and wanting the best for the firm (bosses eat that shit up). Then, I mentioned overhearing some of the male attorneys saying inappropriate things in front of the clerks and secretaries, and how bad it would be for all of us if these women sued the firm. Because I was looking out for the firm. -SheelaNaGig
So, being strategic with how you deliver the message can help. I haven't read the whole thing, but this free manual from The Southern Poverty Law center on responding to everyday bigotry has a lot of good ideas. It even gives sample conversations, which I think is really helpful (nothing like a script to make you feel more confident!) Do you have any strategies for confronting workplace sexism / racism / homophobia?


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  2. I have so far lived the 'sheltered life' in academia. Wait... that is far from true. A professor on my hall would predictably stare at my breasts or butt as I was walking down the hall to the point where my male colleagues would ask... Did he just check you out? I totally understand where the law student is coming from. I constantly thought about reporting him, but as a tenured faculty member... the accusations would have had to be more severe than 'His behavior makes me so uncomfortable that when I hear him whistling in the hall (he always did this as well) I would duck into the nearest door even if it was getting in the way of time sensitive labwork.'

    I support women beginning to make some waves about sexist behavior, because how otherwise will we ever teach people that we will not tolerate such degrading behavior.

  3. I think it's helpful to remember that you're probably not the only one in your office or department who feels hurt by this kind of language or behavior. Even if no one feels comfortable speaking up, you are likely to have a lot of silent support if you stand up to harassing behavior and bigoted language.

  4. I think she should definitely document the harassment, and not just to sue. If she does talk to her firm it might come in handy, or (more likely) it might just make those conversations easier to know that she's got a solid body of evidence behind her.

    Kind of like a provisional patent that you never intend to open, but that you want to be solid in case the full patent ever does go to court.

    I don't know about other people, but I'm easily talked down from being upset by people who say "it wasn't that often" or "it wasn't that bad, now was it?" I don't want to respond angrily that it _was,_ but if I have the shit documented I don't have to get angry because I can calmly show evidence (if I need to).

  5. Being a singular and attractive woman in typical man's field (contracting &contruction) and currently the only woman there, dating a co-worker (we keep it private; completely unattatched at the workplace) ;; i'm nice to everyone &am friends with most the men; my suprovisor has taken me under his wing &treats me as the daughter he never had. anyway, despite the fact i act strictly boyishly by nature, &i'm kind and open to everyone, i still feel undercurrents of sexualism from some of the men. I confront anyone i need to and don't let their thoughts influence my self esteem.


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