A snide comment muttered under a colleague’s breath. Something crass your boss said during a meeting. A rude remark an acquaintance assured you was a joke.
Insulting or ignorant statements crop up somewhat frequently in today’s professional environment—whether you’re male or female. But, they seem to become particularly prevalent as a female working in a male-dominated industry.
In fact, our own members have experienced this time and time again—whether it’s a quick comment said in passing or being blatantly asked if they’re actually the secretary.
So, needless to say, today’s “Dear Kat” question is one that hits close to home for all of us:
Dear Kat, As a female in a male-dominated industry, I’m often on the receiving end of some comments that are somewhat rude—and could even be perceived as sexist. Up until now, I’ve just done my best to ignore them. But, I’m curious if you have some better tips on how to handle these sorts of remarks.
As a professional, this can be a tricky issue to address. And, a great deal of how you handle it will depend on your specific circumstances, as well as your relationship with the person who said it. How you confront a colleague who repeatedly makes impolite remarks will likely be quite different from how you handle a superior who said something just once as a supposed joke, for example.
But, with that in mind, here are a few different approaches you can try when you’re faced with a rude or sexist remark (don’t worry, guys, you can apply this advice as well!):
1. Say Nothing
You’re probably familiar with this one already, as it can be the easiest strategy to lean on when you don’t quite feel courageous enough to stick up for yourself.
Most of the time, I’m an advocate for letting people know when they’ve made you uneasy or uncomfortable. But, staying mum can be your best bet in those instances when you believe someone didn’t mean to be offensive.
If that person didn’t intend to be derogatory or rude, addressing the issue with a direct conversation can often make things even more uncomfortable and result in a strained relationship—which, needless to say, isn’t your goal.
2. Speak to Others
Alright, let’s be clear here: Speaking to others does not equate to running around the office and whispering, “Can you believe what so and so said to me?!” to anybody who will listen. The purpose of this approach is not to spread unnecessary office gossip like wildfire, but is instead to get a handle on whether this is a repeated issue that others have experienced—or if it was just a one-time slipup.
For example, if a male said something obviously inappropriate that made you uncomfortable, you might want to check to see if other female employees have felt uneasy around him as well.
When doing this, it’s important that you speak with only a couple of people that you trust. Remember, you’re not trying to throw another person under the bus and make a big dramatic show of the encounter. You’re just attempting to diagnose whether this comment is a sign of a larger problem.
3. Speak Up
In an unfortunate case when someone has said something so blatantly offensive (whether repeatedly or not) that you can’t simply zip your lips or wait until later to address it, it’s best to speak up and let that person know that you don’t appreciate his or her comments.
The secret here is to keep your cool and speak your mind in a way that’s professional and respectful. The last thing you want is to end up in a heated, finger-pointing, “he said, she said” match. Instead keep it simple, polished, and matter of fact by stating something like:
“That comment is incredibly inappropriate, [Name]. Whether you meant it to be offensive or not, I’d appreciate if you kept those sorts of remarks to yourself.”
This is important for you to remember: You don’t need to apologize for anything. So, don’t start your confrontation off with any sort of qualifier like, “I’m sorry, I don’t want to stir the pot here” or “I’m sorry if I misunderstood you.” Someone said something that made you uneasy—and that’s nothing that you need to feel remorseful for.
4. Approach a Superior
In particularly severe circumstances, it might become necessary for you to loop in a superior on the issues you’re experiencing so that someone with higher authority can take the reins and address the problem.
I won’t deny that this can be uncomfortable. But, more likely than not, your manager will be understanding and supportive. So, simply take a deep breath and explain what’s been happening. If you have any concrete proof (such as an email where something was said), you’ll want to bring that along as well.
What if it’s your superior who’s making these crass remarks? Your best bet is to approach another leader within the organization or the human resources department in order to make your concerns known. It can feel counterintuitive and scary to make negative accusations about your own boss. But, remember, you’re entitled to a work environment where you feel safe and comfortable.
5. Move On
Once the situation has been handled appropriately, it’s important that you let it go and avoid continuing to obsess and gossip about it. If you proceed to talk about what was said, you’ll only feed the flames.
So, once you think things have been addressed and taken care of, do your best to move on. You and everybody else will be better off for it.
In an ideal world, none of us would have to deal with rude or sexist remarks—whether it’s in the workplace or outside of it. But, unfortunately, these uncomfortable comments can crop up now and then.
As with anything, it’s not always about what happened—it’s about how you react to it. So, keep these five strategies in mind, and you’ll be able to handle the situation with poise and professionalism.