Ask A Therapist

Ask A Therapist: How Should I Deal With My Sexist Colleagues?

Photo by Charles Deluvio.
Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the cofounder of Harley Therapy Platform (Online Counselling), for advice on the things we worry about in private.
Have a question for a therapist? Submit yours for Sheri.
I work in an industry that's largely made up of men and the sexism is rampant. I have been told that the culture has improved a lot over the past 10 years but daily comments are made that make me uncomfortable. These are usually about how I'm "pretty", how they would not let their daughter do this job, being called "darling" while the men are called "boss" or "gov" and insinuations about fancying men twice my age. I know that they are not horrendous nor would most of them be disciplinary issues but they often make me feel uncomfortable and irritate me.
I'm on the graduate scheme and was warned that it would be "very male". I have just spent four years at university where I surrounded myself with friends like me: largely left-wing and feminist. Obviously I've experienced the standard leering men in dark clubs so I was prepared for sexism but it has still been a culture shock.
I have good managers who I know I could go to if something really bad happened. But I do not want to formally complain about the comments because it is so widespread that I couldn't single out a particular instance. I also do not want to talk informally because I do not want a reputation for being sensitive. I expect my concerns would be dismissed as "just the way it is". I know that I can make more difference long-term by taking it and then getting myself into a position to make a change.
However, it is starting to take a toll on my mental health. I am very self-critical about the way I respond to it, often by continuing to smile or just walking away in order to avoid confrontation. I also wonder if I am overly sensitive because I have come from such a liberal environment and I should stop moaning. 
I know I chose to pursue this career and am probably more sensitive than I should be but I would appreciate your advice on how to deal with the comments, both in the moment and afterwards.
Izzy, 23
It's understandable that you might have that sense of guilt about the way you respond to this. Not everyone would – a lot of it depends on our upbringing and the messages that we received but it's a perfectly valid feeling to have. Especially as when we sense something is untoward in the workplace, our intuition is often correct. As you say, it's probably something to do with a cultural position in the organisation. If it's something that's established, then it might have been shared or certainly practised by others. Sometimes these things can catch on and when that happens, often other people engage in it too, even though they would not in other circumstances.
Stamping that kind of thing out is hard because it's subtle. If it was more overt, there's probably a greater chance for it to be called out and action taken, but this kind of sexism is insidious.
There are options. You could weigh up whether it gets bad enough to report it and if it is, do so. Or if possible for you, you could move on (however beware that the problem might chase you into other working environments). And the third option, which is probably the most practical, is to work on adjusting your ways of thinking about it and your ways of responding to it. Because unfortunately, as much as we'd like to control the outside world, we often don't have enough power to change things, especially when you're new to an industry.
This can look like changing our perceptions of the given situation or changing what we do in response to it. I often find, for example, that when people are dealing with tricky situations, one of the more impactful ways of dealing with things is actually with humour. Drawing attention to something in a lighthearted way that shows that you do not approve of it and it's not working for you can be helpful. It isn't so punishing on the other person that they take offence and then it spirals into a standoff.
With regards to the mindset, it can often be helpful to look at it from the other person's perspective. Why are they making these comments and displaying these mannerisms? Is it because they want to fit in or show off? Are they kind of making up for a lack of self-esteem? Is it a work norm and they feel they have to behave in a similar way? And then within that you can potentially change your mindset by deciding how significant it is to you. Ask yourself, for example: Am I giving this more attention than it deserves? Can I brush it off? Can I dampen down its effect on me and its power over me? While that does not excuse the behaviour it can help you understand it.
Understanding your tolerance is key. How much can you tolerate? It's not like a typical boundary where you have to say "I won't do that for you" or something like that. It's more like how much of the commentary are you prepared to accept? What's your tolerance limit? How much before it starts to grate on you and therefore eat away at you? Although you can build yourself up and your capacity to do that, maybe it comes to a point that you know you need to say something. And as I mentioned before, humour is often a really good way of disarming someone. So if you can have a good rebuttal of sexist comments, for example, that can often defuse it quite quickly. But always remember where you can to keep a record of things in writing, in case you need to pursue something later.