Sexism at Work

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Sexism at Work

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It doesn’t matter if it is the BBC, Westminster, the Police – every single day we see a new article in the media about sexism, sexual conduct or misogyny at work.

Consequently, the whole subject of sexism in the workplace is back on the agenda like never before and what we see, in some cases, is denial that there is a problem.

So, what are we talking about? It can manifest itself in so many ways (not an exhaustive list)

  • Inappropriate touching
  • Unwanted conduct
  • “Invasion of my personal space”
  • Deliberate abuse of power or position of authority
  • Treating women with a lack of respect
  • Offensive jokes, e-mails, sending inappropriate messages via social media.

Legislation refers to unwanted conduct …..”which has the effect or purpose of violating dignity….or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”

Often, when you discuss such issues with Companies, whilst there is a condemnation of any such action, their response falls into one of a number of categories.

It was only meant as a joke

Jokes are intended to be funny but there is a strong likelihood that someone, somewhere may take offence and if the joke is deliberately sexist, it is likely that the individual will be offended and may complain.

The other classic defence offered is – “it was only meant as a bit of banter”. Again, banter, if overtly sexist, is likely to cause offence.

Cynically, you could say that therefore, all jokes and banter should be banned in the workplace. No-one is actually saying that but the crucial word is “perception”. What one person perceives to be a funny joke or comment, is likely to be perceived by another person as offensive and they may be hurt or upset by the comment.

The joke might be about a woman – it may be racist, it may be about a person in a wheel chair or with a disability – it is quite likely that someone is going to be offended.

The offence can also be passive – i.e., the person who is offended was not involved in the conversation or being told the joke – they overheard it being told or a comment and were offended.

We don’t have any problems here….

Many Companies say we don’t have any issues with sexism – we all get on. That may well be the case and ideally everyone does get on but in small businesses, there can be quite a few people in a busy office and because it is a small environment, someone  may be offended by comments, banter etc., and feel awkward about raising such issues because they don’t want to rock the boat.

This happens in small Companies where maybe (and not wanting to be accused of stereo typing) the majority of the workforce is male and there may be a few women in the office. Recently, a client contacted me after a female employee had gone off with stress and anxiety and the cause was that she was upset by jokes about the fact that she was struggling with the menopause.

The Company was mortified because they had no idea that the employee was getting upset by the comments. Thankfully, the issue was resolved – lots of apologies offered and accepted but not all such cases have a satisfactory outcome and can end up in Tribunals.

True story – early 1990s – in a Regional office with a group of about 25 Engineers (all male), there were about 5 females in the office and the Regional Manager joked in front of the office about his new wall chart. Why all the excitement about a holiday planner…, he said it is the “period planner” – and everyone roared with laughter. Imagine that to-day?

We have policies and procedures in place to deal with sexism at work

Most Companies say we have policies and procedures for dealing with complaints of a sexist nature, sexual harassment, sexual bullying claims etc.

But, policies and procedures are just words and statements and arguably, anyone can write a policy about sexism at work. It is easy to make policy statements – “we will not tolerate any form of sexism or sexual harassment…..”

Yes, you need policies and procedures but the Company must stand by those words and ensure that the policy statements are embedded within the culture. There are probably hundreds of policies and procedures in Westminster but it doesn’t prevent new allegations coming out every day.

Policies and procedures are important but too many Companies believe that by writing the policy about sexism in the work, they have dealt with the problem. Yorkshire Cricket had policies and procedures about racism – mere words.

Why didn’t they say something?

It is easy with hindsight to say that if someone was upset and offended by comments, why didn’t they say something.

It takes courage to speak out and it can be even more difficult to speak out in small Companies, particularly if you are new to the business whilst it could be argued that in larger Companies, you have the opportunity to go to an HR function.

Look at the courage it took for men to speak out at the abuse they were suffering years ago in football clubs – once one person said something, others followed.

The point is that it takes courage to be the first to say something for fear of recrimination.

So, what does all this mean?

Issues and complaints have to be addressed and/or investigated without fear or favour and regardless of level in the organisation.

Unacceptable behaviour – this may mean, rightly or wrongly, that you have to make an example of someone to show you’re serious.

Don’t rely on policies and procedures – they’re just words – mean what they say.

 Finally, don’t bury issues under the carpet.

If you want advice on any of the issues raised, Adrian Berwick gives practical advice and support – either call 07885 714771 or e-mail

Visit the About Us page to find out more.

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