I work in a small, competitive male dominated firm London, England. Of the around 35 staff members, there are only 4 women of which I am one.

There is no 'sisterhood'.... in fact these women play into the guys' behaviour, e.g. sticking their asses in the air when at the water cooler, being openly suggestive... really seedy behaviour to the point that I don't know who is at fault - the women for encouraging it, the men for playing into it, or me for being uptight and sensitive!

Now the guys are starting on me, even though I am sitting in the corner minding my business. Things like smelling my hair, or trying to make another woman think I'm better looking than her or the reverse, stupid games really.

There is no point in getting HR involved because this is the industry reality, I work in finance. Much of this type of behaviour is justified as 'banter' and I will come across as the frigid, envious one!

How can I deal with this assertively and with class?

EDIT: I think contributors may be right when they say it could be the culture of the firm, not the industry. I have been looking to get into more reputable firms, and the fact that you think this is out the norm behaviour, confirms this.

Reading all the comments, becoming more and more apparent that this clearly wrong, and I have been foolish to accept it for the past year. I had no idea that other firms were not like this.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Lots of comments there that belong in a chatroom.
    – enderland
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 20:38
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    Did you speak to any of the other women about this?
    – T. Sar
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 14:36

6 Answers 6


There are two reasons why a man at work would behave like this towards you:

  • they genuinely desire you sexually and would have a relationship with you if you were willing
  • they want to embarrass you, remind you that you are different from the majority, and suggest that your main purpose in this world is "Someone to have a relationship with", not "a finance person to work with"

My approach was to pretend that I was unable to guess either of these underlying motives and was therefore genuinely puzzled by their actions. Rather like @gnasher's suggestion of "do you have a cold?" I would ask "why are you smelling my hair?" or "why did you move my chair?" or "I don't know why you would tell me that about Susan. Can you explain?" I actually found this pleasant because constantly correctly interpreting these things is tiring and upsetting. If there is even the slightest chance they have another motivation, this will actually be a useful conversation. And if they don't have another motivation (the 99% case) it leaves them at a loss for words. Without saying out loud either "I want to have sex with you" or "you don't belong here" how can they answer your question?

I was once in a meeting with two male engineers (I have both undergrad and PhD in chemical engineering) who said of a coworker "she is OTR so watch out." With my most innocent face, I said "OTR? What's that?" They blushed, stammered, said it didn't matter, sorry, shouldn't have said it that way, and generally got more polite. Later I found out what they meant (spoilered because it's not nice.)

OTR stands for On The Rag and suggests that a woman is grumpier than usual because she has her period. This is not only rude but inaccurate since some women are grumpier than usual right before their periods, PMS. But that is often the case with sexist behavior - it's wrong as well as rude.

Arguing provides a chance to push back and to label you as a problem. Asking, especially if you can do so sweetly or innocently, may leave them unable to answer but should shut the conversation down anyway.

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    Asking the lewd person to explain works wonders. If they refuse to explain, ask a colleague what it means while in front of them and say they wouldn't tell you what it means. Even if you do, feign innocence and naivete. It gets very uncomfortable for the lewd person to have to explain a wildly inappropriate comment.
    – dfundako
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 19:31
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    Your advice on how to respond is spot on, but your speculation about the motivations for the behavior is too narrow. There are other less malicious reasons for behaving in this manner. Hanlon's Razor comes to mind: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." - Wikiquote
    – Lumberjack
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 20:21
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    @Lumberjack I leave room for the possibility of nonmalicious motivations with this approach. For example, he might reply "something in here smells like berries and I was wondering if it was your hair, it smells so good, what is the name of that shampoo?" and while that's clumsy, it's not othering and nasty. That is a big advantage of the questioning strategy should it turn out your coworkers are just stupid and unaware. Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 20:30
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    @Lumberjack we're in complete agreement. That is what I was trying to point out with "I actually found this pleasant because constantly correctly interpreting these things is tiring and upsetting." - acting as though there is another reason for such actions can allow yourself the pleasant experience that there might be another reason, even if my cynical self is pretty darn sure there isn't. Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 20:51
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    It might be noted that even if it appears you understand what's going on, this still sends a clear signal you're not interested in "playing their game" (for want of a more fitting phrase). +1
    – jpmc26
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 22:17

As you correctly noted, other women are encouraging this, so there is little reason to think that the men think that this is unacceptable unless you let them know.

Be firm and clear. Also, the DEATH GLARE is usually very effective when accompanied with silence will send a very clear message.

Keep a can of air freshener at the desk, and spray it liberally if any more sniffing occurs.

I worked for some of the financial companies myself, and I'm rather surprised to hear about this because they took a very dim view of this.

Remain professional if you need to tell them to knock it off. State clearly that you think the behavior is unprofessional and give them a disapproving look. Ask them how they'd feel if someone talked to their sister/wife/mother like that.

Most of all, act disapproving, not upset. If you act upset, then they'll likely have some rather unsavory nicknames for you. If you act like the adult in the room, they're more likely to get back in line.

Full disclosure

I've worked in environments from construction to the big financial companies and I've seen this approach in action. It works.

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    The best example of this approach I ever saw came from the computer development industry. A female secretary at DEC had a big sign over desk reading "SEXUAL HARASSMENT WILL BE GRADED". Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 23:37
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    @A.I.Breveleri Unfortunately this tends to encourage rather than discourage overtly sexual comments. It gives an impression of wanting to play their game rather than "sod off, I'm busy."
    – Jane S
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 0:38
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    Not everyone can death glare. But for those who can, good answer.
    – gazzz0x2z
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 7:01
  • @gazzz0x2z, death glare can be learned.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 15:04
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    @gazzz0x2z I dunno, my eldest has been doing it since the age of 3. It's a terrible combination of her mother's withering gaze, and her father's killing stare. I swear, it could penetrate right through a steel door Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 15:18

I'm not usually one to suggest "going formal" but given the city and industry, and the apparent issue that nobody in the business will care if you are distressed by this business-wide problem (even if the overt behaviour became bearable I suspect they won't treat you fairly), that's what I would suggest here. It will have a chance of improving things, though it may not be easy on you either.

My impressions from the question

Before details, this is my impression from the question, which guide my view on it.

  1. I agree with others, this is probably your company (and perhaps some others) but not all or even most.
  2. You won't get anywhere by "asking nicely". It sounds too entrenched.
  3. The board/management will try to endorse it - if not doing it - or at best brush it off, or figure you as a troublemaker, because they don't want to rock the boat on all the people who make the business work. Its a small company so the examples are set from the top, and no surprise to them. If they cared, it would be different already.
  4. You will be unhappy or eventually pushed to leave anyway because of this behaviour, one way or another. If you try to persist in that atmosphere, they probably won't pay or promote women equally to men either (that's usually part and parcel of the same sexism described).
  5. Other people have been, and will continue to be, hurt by this, even if you don't see it directly.
  6. You are in a city, country, and industry, which sees the behaviour as abhorrent, and has strong legislation against workplace sexism/harassment and unfair employee treatment/unfair dismissal/constructive dismissal.
  7. You work in a thriving business sector, and also in a city which is an international centre for that sector.

A lot depends if you can claim benefit from common employee rights. Some you get from day 1, some you need to be there for a period of time, or in a specific kind of role/relationship. I suspect this kind of harassment/conduct is something you get protection from, from day 1. Research it, but I think all's good there.

Big picture of what I'd do

Stage 1:

  • Keep good records - you'll need them against the inevitable claims you did everything wrong(!). I cannot emphasise enough, these records will make your case if you follow through, list everything - daily or even 'in the loo' if needed - even if you brushed it off at the time. At some point, someone or other will suggest you're exaggerating or it was your fault, and notes written at the time are the classic way to prove it's not.
  • In particular, get anything you can that shows you do a good job (pay rises, reviews, even informal comments you can show as evidence: "On 23 April 2018 manager X said he trusted me to get the job done, more than anyone else in the team"). Those will be useful if its later claimed you make trouble, which is a common defence in harassment cases, known as "victim blaming". Do this up front.
  • Have enough evidence - specific incidents and examples of who did what, and exactly when - to show its serious, real, not a "few bad apples", and endemic in the culture. Put this in writing, as a bulleted list. The incidents can include apparent minor incidents that only seem serious in light of the bigger pattern. Record exact words as best you can remember them. Note with it, who knew, who didn't take it seriously (and in what way), who was scornful or went along with it, who was hostile, who was dismissive, and what happened. This will show a harassment culture neatly.
  • (Legal warning on voice recording: Phone recording might be illegal in some circumstances. Then again so is harrassment. Consider if you want to record things that way at all. If you do, then ensure its just to help you avoid mistakes when you remember their exact words, as that will be seen as reasonable if questioned. Do all you can to keep within the law. If you do, then don't threaten people with recordings, disclose them in the company, or show them, if avoidable. But faced with covert recording or lies, and claims that are outrageous later on, you might need the reassurance that your memory is correct. Generally in the UK in past cases, peoples' covert recordings showing they're telling the truth and others are lying, are taken into account as not being unreasonable. Other countries are more strict on it.)
  • Ask for a meeting with your team leader, with HR (Or whoever acts as their HR director) present, and raise it. Don't explain in advance, just say "there is a problem, can I have a word... I'd rather show you when we meet. I'd like X to be involved as well.". When you meet, ask them how they feel your work performance is. Get their explicit comment that it's okay or good. Then say you are glad, but there's a problem going on. Then let them read the list. (The reason for asking how you're doing first is, once they say you are doing well, and you record their exact words, they can't deny it so easily later and you'll be believed more if they do try it on).
  • Require them to take it seriously, and have the goal that (1) you want a confirmed date/timescale by which it will no longer be an issue, and (2) you want it made clear that such conduct is completely unacceptable and will be treated with gravity as a disciplinary matter.
  • Whether they agree, or try to argue its minor/overstated, or think you are fussing over nothing, push it as hard as you can and get what promises you can.
  • Take a written note of things to mention, with you, and refer to it. For example, make clear that (1) you don't want any action to be "about you", but about employee conduct generally, and get their agreement on that, too, (2) you would like them to treat it as a formal HR complaint/workplace issue, (3) being moved is not an acceptable answer, you want to continue in your present work and career, and its not acceptable that you get moved just because nobody else wants to address harassment, (4) its their problem, not yours, to establish a professional environment. (5) You would like a response in writing and a followup meeting in 4 weeks to discuss progress. (6) You would like a copy of their notes of the meeting by tomorrow, to be sure that they have the same recollection you do. [Not only it's harder to lie that way , it also tends to encourage very good and honest note taking and seriousness since they know you will check what's on their records while fresh, and it'll be "on the record", you'll be back if its wrong!]
  • During (or immediately after) the meeting,make copious notes of what was said, exact words or actions that suggest it wasn't taken seriously or was doubted or excused as okay, any action agreed, their attitude, if they gave you the brushoff or pressured you to agree it wasn't that big a deal, etc. Write a note to them thanking them and setting out what you felt was said and agreed (for the record), including what you have asked them to do, and what they said they would do.
  • Then wait and see what happens. Continue keeping notes on any happenings, especially any negative jibes or fallout from raising harassment, and any inaction Have your followup meeting.
  • If happy, then problem is solved.

Stage 2:

  • If not happy in 4-8 weeks after your followup meeting, then we repeat the same once more, but this time more serious and going as high as you can (that's the minimum you need to do, to show you tried to deal with it internally)
  • Follow the company's procedure for handling workplace misconduct. If there isn't one, request a meeting and put your concern in writing to give to them at it. Seek a meeting with the highest up person you can. If asked, "I have a concern and I'd like to raise it with X." Don't be put off to talk to someone lower down - aim for the CEO/senior director him/herself. If you say its serious, and don't say much about what it's about, and just keep saying you want a meeting, then eventually a Very Senior Person will agree to meet you to discuss it, because people don't make that kind of request lightly and they know it.
  • If needed, you could consider ask Citizens Advice or someone, if there's a way someone used to harassment situations could come with you to the meeting. Tricky to organise but carries weight - and much more likely to be taken seriously. Also they're an independent witness to the meeting, who knows the law and won't be pushed around so easily, and can do the talking for you.
  • Have enough evidence - specific incidents and examples of who did what, and exactly when - to show its serious, real, not a "few bad apples", and endemic in the culture. Put this in writing, in a bulletted list. The incidents can include apparent minor incidents that only seem serious in light of the bigger pattern. Make clear that you have approached your team leader and nothing significant has changed (that's important. Let them read the list. Tell them what happened when you tried to sort it out and why its not worked. Tell them you've approached them because its serious, way inappropriate, could damage the firms reputation if others are harmed or an incident happens, and nobody else seems to be able to resolve it.
  • Require them to take it seriously, and again have the same goal that (1) you want a confirmed date/timescale by which it will no longer be an issue, and (2) you want it made clear, company-wide, and this time from the highest authority - the CEO not just HR or "informal word" - that such conduct is completely unacceptable and will be treated with gravity as a disciplinary matter in each case, including potential dismissal.
  • Again, copious notes, followup letter noting the meeting, followup in 2 months if offered/needed, and see what happens.

Stage 3:

  • If it doesn't become okay, you should now have enough evidence to really come out well if you seek external help.
  • Get legal advice (legal aid, employment helpline etc) and reluctantly ask them to write setting out that you have tried, the conduct in the firm is still unacceptable, and what should happen.
  • Prepare to find other work, or find other work first.
  • Take company to an employment tribunal. If your documents and notes are correct, you sound like you would have a very good chance of success - recompense for yourself and changing the firm for others. This kind of conduct will be seen as abhorrent and to be punished/deterred, and excuses like "its just how we are" or "she just didn't like the pressure" will not be accepted.
  • If you can't get legal aid, do it yourself. Tribunals are helpful to people in that situation and you're far from the only one mistreated. Trust yourself, it's likely to work out and you will feel good for doing so.
  • If you changed jobs already, or left, make clear you didn't want to do so but were forced by the working conditions and lack of real care about illegal harassment/distress.
  • Note also that they may be regulated by a Financial regulator. Ask that regulator as well (they'll have a helpline) if they can do anything since it's a financial business, or if its just an employment matter.
  • It is important to be aware that tribunals can consider several kinds of issue: (1) workplace harassment; (2) breach of contract (safe working conditions including emotionally safe are required); (3) unfair dismissal (they make up reasons why you were or should be fired or demoted); and (4) constructive dismissal (they don't fire you but they make your job impossible or less rewarding, or reduce your role, or no longer promote you or give you as good a bonus/payrise as normal, in the hope you'll leave or "take a hint"). All of these are illegal, and would be seen as wrongdoing.


I almost never advise a litigious approach. But in this case, if it's as bad as you say, and you can cope with doing so, it may be a direction to plan to go. Its worth preparing for "just in case" regardless. It won't be easy, and only you can judge. But

  1. Even if you don't go to a tribunal eventually, this has the best chance of causing change.
  2. It sounds like you might be in a situation where this is appropriate to gear up for.
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    +1 While most people won't go with this approach due to the amount of work it requires and the risk it carries, it's great to have an answer that describes how this approach works for those who are willing to take that path.
    – Peter
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 11:54
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    This sounds like the hard path but people doing this kind of thing is the only way that this kind of behaviour will get eradicated from society in general. Whatever you choose to do, good luck.
    – WhatEvil
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 12:40

The other answers provide possible methods of dealing with this without taking it further, but I think it's worth pointing out that no matter what your industry, this is not OK.

This is not reasonable behaviour, this is harassment and you should not be expected to put up with/deal with this.

The HR department or your line manager is where you should go with this and they should deal with it.

Whether they actually deal appropriately with it is another matter and for a separate post. Please remember that this is not something that you should have to brush off or find an alternative method of coping with.

  • 1
    The UK has harassment laws: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harassment_in_the_United_Kingdom and this sure looks like harassment to me. Pass this to your manager or HR department. If they don't do something about it, talk to a solicitor. This may well end in burning your bridges, but quite honestly this isn't a place you want to stay anyway, so it's no great loss.
    – dgnuff
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 21:58

Coming from a male dominated industry and having to deal with, 'banter' I get your situation.

I always find challenging one person publicly will work, but you can do this indirectly.

If someone says, X is better looking than you, or tries to smell your hair challenge them by saying, 'excuse me' (do this with an assertive tone) then put the enthuses on this by saying, do you think that's acceptable.

This one person in this situation will back down, either that or will have to start an argument with you.

Argument - don't retaliate, once he has started this just take the, 'i'm not arguing with you about this, if you have a problem I suggest you speak to the manager, however I feel it's unacceptable for you to act like this.' approach.

continued banter - (i.e. calm down, I was only joking..) Carry on with the assertive tone, but he's got the point so lead with something like, 'I am calm, I just don't appreciate X) then move swiftly on with your work.

Backs down - If he backs down carry on as normal :)

The reality is, if you don't challenge the situation it will continue to get worse and people will think this is normal behaviour and is acceptable.


If someone sniffs your hair, then ask them loudly if they have a cold. If someone thinks they need to compare your looks with the looks of another woman, then ask him why he thinks he is a an expert in anything. Good to have a look at their dress style, hair style etc. first and having some more ammunition "why do you think you are an expert on anything, with a mustache like that one".

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    This looks to me, and maybe also to them, like taking part in their game. Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 10:08

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