Letters to Kool Kanya: How do I deal with a sexist coworker tactfully?

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Letters to Kool Kanya: How do I deal with a sexist coworker tactfully?
5 min read

In Kool Kanya’s theme for November ﹘ Challenging Gender Roles ﹘ we unpack the stereotypes and biases that govern women in the workplace.

Dear Kool Kanya, 

I’m in a fix. I have a colleague who exhibits misogynistic behaviour towards me regularly, and it makes me feel angry and powerless.

On the face of it, it doesn’t look like sexism. He comes across as competitive and proactive, and because he’s a fresher, our boss assumes he’s enthusiastic. But he routinely talks over me in meetings, questions any changes and feedback I give him (even though I am at a higher position at work), and dismisses my decisions.

But despite it all, I feel scared to take it up with HR. 

His behaviour is appalling, but I feel that complaining about him might affect his position and career prospects because he’s a fresher. I know, it’s silly that I’m still bothered about how this affects him, but I’m scared that I will also be labelled difficult. 

I want to do away with this, but how do I do it without losing my standing in the company?

Love, A Confused Feminist

Dear Confused Feminist,

We’re really sorry you have to endure this. This is a classic example of hidden sexism and misogyny in the workplace.

But we want to assure you that you are not alone ﹘ countless women have challenged varied forms of gender inequality in the workplace and have come out stronger.

First off, your concern for your colleague is admirable. Not everyone would consider his lack of experience as a factor in this matter. But as thoughtful as that is, it is not always healthy. You need to tackle this in a way that helps both you and him (in that he understands and fixes his sexist behaviour).

Here’s some advice we’d like to give you to fight against gender inequality in the workplace:

1. Start a dialogue

Open communication is the first step to eradicate gender inequality and bias in the workplace.

Probably the last thing you want to do is speak directly to a sexist man who undermines you. But having a candid, informal conversation about your experience can show him some light. 

Explain to him how his behaviour reflects misogyny in the workplace and assert that it is not acceptable.

Make it clear that you are capable in your field, and while his suggestions are respected, you may not always implement them. He should be made aware of the fact that your feedback is coming from years of experience. However, ensure that you do this in a polite manner, else he might misconstrue it as an attack.

Letters to Kool Kanya: How do I deal with a sexist coworker tactfully?

2. Be assertive

One way to raise your voice against gender inequality is to deal with this kind of misogyny and hidden sexism in the workplace indirectly. 

Start by developing stern behaviour towards him. Express your disagreement with him in team meetings or when many people are around. Communicate with him only in the presence of others, as this will leave him no option but to work in collaboration with you.

If he questions your work publicly, make sure to retort confidently and ask counter-questions. If he speaks over you, interrupt him and continue speaking.

Call out his behaviour, especially in the presence of others. Do not try to fix him in the capacity of a friend, because he is not.

3. Speak to fellow female coworkers

Knowing you’re not alone in the fight against gender inequality can make this experience easier to deal with.

Reach out to some of your office buddies with your problem and gauge if anyone else has dealt with the same thing with this coworker, or have seen it happen.

It can open up a safe space for everyone to talk about how to raise their voice against gender inequality, which can be of help to you. Also knowing that the sexist coworker has done this to others will only make your case stronger. 

Letters to Kool Kanya: How do I deal with a sexist coworker tactfully?

4. Don’t be afraid to involve management

We know you’re afraid to take this issue up with management, but know that if you don’t speak up, your sexist coworker’s behaviour will only worsen with time, as he will have survived with zero consequences for practising hidden sexism in the workplace. 

If your coworker’s behaviour does not change despite the above-mentioned measures, involve your boss.

While you don’t want any action taken against him, it’s a good idea to keep them informed as they might have some practical suggestions on how to address this kind of misogyny in the workplace.

To make it easier on yourself, speak to your boss first, and bring in HR later. You do not want anyone questioning why you did not speak up in the first place.

Involving a third person ﹘ a neutral judge from outside the team ﹘ can expedite the process of your coworker unlearning his sexist behaviour. Do not worry about the consequences, especially when his actions have been problematic and are possibly putting your career at risk.

As women, we tend to fear what people think of us, even if we’re the ones in jeopardy. It’s time we had difficult conversations, made tough decisions, and challenged gender inequality in the workplace. It’s time we raised our power.

You’re invited! Join the Kool Kanya women-only career Community where you can network, ask questions, share your opinions, collaborate on projects, and discover new opportunities. Join now.

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