I, a woman, once wanted to buy a water softener. You know, once of those big barrel looking appliances that takes all the crud out of your water so when you wash your hair, it comes out looking like a Pantene commercial.
When I called the company that sells water softeners to ask about prices, they said they’d come out and give me a quote, but only if my husband was there, too.
“Because he needs to help make that decision.”
Those were their actual words.
Yes, I am married and yes, from time to time, I let my husband make decisions (please denote sarcasm). But it was I who wanted to inquire about the water softener. My husband didn’t really have an opinion on whether or not we should get one. (He felt his hair was soft enough as it was.)
But I was told I couldn’t know prices until my husband was available to meet with them, too.
I told the female representative, who claimed this policy was not her own but rather a higher-up’s decision, to pass on the message that her company’s policies were outdated, sexist and downright offensive. And strictly from a business standpoint, in an era where women make the majority of purchasing decisions for households, this antiquated rule was going to lose them a fair amount of sales. Including mine.
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Sexism and Rape Culture
Sexism exists everywhere. From the advertisements that use women as sex objects to convince you to buy something to the movies and television shows that sometimes portray women as ancillary characters to their much more capable male counterparts. It also exists in real life—every time a woman’s body and clothing is used as a way to define her (as in, “She can’t be smart—look what she’s wearing!”), or every time a woman is minimized for her sex (“Here, let a man carry that for you.”). This SmartCompany article about sexism in the workplace offers up some excellent examples of how this can manifest in the office.
Sexism is part of what contributes to rape culture, or the normalization and trivialization of violence against women. One study found that men who tell sexist jokes do so because they feel the need to prove their masculinity, which just so happens to be one of the warning signs of a possible abusive partner. (Worried about your upcoming blind date? Read “Dating Despite Rape Culture” to learn more about setting healthy boundaries.)
Of course, men can feel objectified as well, though women are far more often on the receiving end of this. In a piece on Medium titled, “Can a Woman Be Sexist? Can a Black Person Be Racist?” the author, Oolong, brings to light this point: “Someone complaining of sexism when feminists exclude men from safe spaces or debates, or of racism when people involved in race politics ask white people to pipe down about it, is missing the point that people other than white men are excluded from conversations and positions of power routinely, often unconsciously.”
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Even if the jokester isn’t abusive, sexist remarks and jokes that use women as the punchline are, at very least, offensive and annoying. So they question then is, how do you respond?
To answer this, I went directly to the experts: women themselves. I put out a poll on social media and asked women how they responded to sexist remarks. The consensus was clear—women aren’t letting sexist remarks slide any longer. Here are just a few responses:
“In grad school not long ago, I had a male student interrupt me and say ‘Girl, I don't—' and before he could finish I raised my voice and looked him in his face and said, ‘I am NOT a girl. I'm a woman. I'm older than you, AND I was not done speaking so you can shut your mouth until I'm finished.’
He turned bright red and shut up, but no one in that class ever dared interrupt me, again. So, I would say I speak up when it happens.”
“I don’t let it go, but I don’t get defensive either. If a guy calls me ‘sweetie,’ I respond in kind with ‘honeybun’ or similar.”
“I’m from the South and grew up where ‘sweetie,’ ‘darling,’ and ‘honey’ were in common use. Same with touching people you didn’t know. So, for me it’s context—if it’s an elderly person, especially with a Southern accent, in a social setting, I smile and move on. If it’s someone my age or younger, I will gently say something along the lines of, ‘Please don’t touch me without asking me first,’ or ‘My name is Becky.’
If it’s a business setting, then I will be more direct—here I’ll either say, ‘You don’t have my consent to touch me,’ or ask if they would call a male colleague ‘sweetie,’ touch them on the arm or shoulder, and the like. The answer is almost always no. I then ask them to treat me like they would any other colleague.”
“I had a CLEAR agent at the airport ask my husband if he could touch MY hand to place it in the scanner correctly. I said, sternly, ‘Excuse me, this is my hand. You ask me if you can touch it. It has nothing to do with him.’ The man pushed back and said, ‘Well, he’s your husband and I need his permission.’ … Our voices were raised and people were looking. He finally stopped arguing and asked me if he could touch my hand. I said yes and we moved on. I will always make a scene about this if I have to.”
A Quick Guide to Responding to Sexism
Sexism deserves attention, but if you’re not comfortable confronting sexist remarks, simply ignoring them and walking away is effective, too. However, if so emboldened, this is another route to take when you hear sexist remarks.
- Look the person in the eye.
- Be direct in your response. “Perhaps you weren’t aware, but commenting on what I’m wearing as it relates to my job is sexist and offensive,” or, “I appreciate your offer to help me carry this, but I’m actually quite capable of doing so myself and if I need assistance, I’ll ask.”
- Change the topic. After calling out sexism, change the conversation to both prevent the situation from escalating while also not expending any more energy on the sexist remark.
When You’re Not Comfortable Speaking Out
Depending on the situation, you may not want to be as blunt as some of the above women did. It also may be difficult to find your voice in the moment—how many of us have thought of the perfect comeback right after the offender walked away?
Let’s say the sexist remarks happens in a boardroom. By your boss. Or from a judge in a courtroom. It’s perfectly OK to not feel comfortable interjecting in the moment (though, that would be a bold choice). For a boss, you may consider stopping in his office later and requesting to talk about it, explaining that you know your boss doesn’t want to condone sexism in the workplace and you thought that comment might have been interpreted as such. You may feel more comfortable sending this via an email, or going through your HR person for support.
For another person in a position of power, such as a judge, you can file a written complaint—ask for a complaint form from the court. If you have an attorney, you can ask them if there’s a possibility of seeing a different judge. You can also contact your local legislators or state coalitions and complain. In any case, it’s worth speaking up and sharing your concerns when sexism happens—it’s the only way to change it.
Is your new partner downplaying their sarcastic sexism as “just a joke”? This could be a bad relationship red flag. Read about the other 24 of red flags here.
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