While basic office pet peeves (font preferences, not cleaning out the fridge, meeting that could have been an email) can get on our nerves, there are some workplace issues that go beyond basic annoyance. Young professionals may not know what to do when a coworker makes sexually suggestive comments. Even seasoned executives can feel stuck when they’re treated like an intern. Our career development expert will share suggestions on how to navigate these incidents of subtle sexism.
Elizabeth McCoy is a Next Level Career Strategist and founder of Employment Preparations. As a career development expert, she has worked diligently to help women break the glass ceiling.
1. THE PARENT TRAP
People don’t factor fatherhood into men’s work the way motherhood is factored in women’s work. Look at the way Serena Williams was treated. It’s ridiculous and sexist. So how do we cope with the pressure on women to choose our family or our career?
Elizabeth’s Advice: It is hard to address something such as being seen as a liability because of childbirth when the problem lies in the bias of the individual who sees you as a liability. There really is nothing for you to address.
Continue to tend to your duties and collect your paycheck. Return to your home at the end of the day knowing you performed your job and do not carry the weight of their bias. When the bias goes beyond just doubting your abilities and devolves into discrimination for an employer, it’s time to take action. In most states, it is illegal to ask about pregnancies or potential pregnancies during an interview. Review a company’s maternity/paternity leave policies before applying and that may tell you everything you need to know.
2. THE ACCIDENTAL CC
Mistakes happen. Sometimes that mistake is being CC’d on a salary negotiation email. Sometimes it’s getting a coworker’s direct deposit stubs in your mailbox. Sometimes it’s overhearing your colleague gloat at a conference. What should you do when you find out your male coworker (same title, responsibilities, and length of tenure) makes more money than you?
Elizabeth’s advice: Whew! Talk about a shocker. You have two choices: address it or secure new employment (btw- you may be better off securing new employment). Contact HR to schedule a formal meeting. Come armed with your stats and accomplishments. Or, you can start your employment journey immediately and leverage those same stats with a different company that will appreciate you as an asset. Don’t stay where you are undervalued or unappreciated. Trust me, employers are well aware of your contributions and the appropriate salary.
3. THE ETERNAL INTERN
Here’s a tricky one. You’re at the top of your game: an executive or director or general boss. But somehow, no matter how high you climb, people (mostly men) still ask you to grab coffee or take notes or order everyone else’s lunch. How can we get out of this trap? Or should we just accept it along with our big check?
Elizabeth’s Advice: This is a tricky one. Consider how you show up in the space. If they attempt to “assign” you to entry-level tasks, remind them you are the one who calls the shots and makes the assignments. This can be as simple as a little jab. “You want me to get your coffee? Ok, as long as you can make me a sandwich first.” Better, yet, you can just say ‘no’ without an explanation. Continue to hold meetings, delegate assignments, conduct your reviews, etc. Sometimes people do things to see you sweat, but nonchalantly say no and move on. Trust me–saying no feels so good!
4. THE TOUCH
Women get touched by dozens of male coworkers over the years. This is more than a handshake or hug. Most of us have had an unsolicited palm on the small of our back when a man wants to walk behind us. Instead of simply saying “excuse me” and waiting for permission, a lot of men think it’s alright to hold your waist. What’s the best way to deal with this?
Elizabeth’s advice: First–you are not at work to be fondled without permission. So many uncomfortable continue in the workplace because the violators are backed up by male supervisors. When any touch happens that makes you uncomfortable, immediately set boundaries. If you’re comfortable, confront the person. Be sure to document the date, location, and interactions between the two of you. Inform HR. If it is possible, do not collaborate with this individual on projects or other tasks. Some will say you’re trying to hurt the man’s career but don’t pay attention to them. Your safety matters.
Subtle sexism is a microaggression that wears us down over time. It is important to remember that you earned the job. You deserve to be there. Having a great mentor or career coach can make a huge difference. Link up with other women. Someone out there understands.
Elizabeth’s final words: DOCUMENT! Always document situations and consult with HR. If they are not responsive, EEOC is next. Remember: you have the right to perform your job in a comfortable environment and others must respect that right. If you find that you need professional mental health assistance, please do so as these situations. Prolonged microaggressions can pose a serious threat to your well being. Check your EAP benefits first and utilize those free sessions. Don’t worry–you’ve got this!