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I am a (female) IT student working in an IT company. So far I enjoy work, I get along well with my colleagues and the office atmosphere is friendly.

Last week although, I overheard a conversation in our shared office between a senior colleague "Bob" who is going to be a manager soon and a younger colleague "Jim". They were talking about a professional conference both had attended and at one point Bob said to Jim: "You know, this girl who gave the machine learning talk, she was hot!", followed by laughter.

For several reasons I don't think this comment was professional nor adequately respectful by Bob and it keeps me worrying that a potentially negative (i.e. sexist) work culture might grow in our office. Those reasons are

  • Such a behavior can be career damaging: As a junior, giving a professional talk is a chance to prove some solid knowledge in your specific field in front of powerful people. Often, one of the intentions behind giving the talk is to build up a good reputation, being known as a person who could give professional advice, who could be hired or invited for another talk. If the first and most prevalent impression about the presenter is his or her appearance, chances getting lowered he or she might be associated as a potential hiring candidate in the first place (being known as "the machine learning girl" vs "the hot girl"). Sure, no one can just stop noticing someones appearance, but someones attractiveness should not be discussed at work.

  • Bob is a senior employee, he is soon going to be a manager. He is a role model for younger employees. If he keeps on talking about other professionals like this, juniors might pick up such a behavior. Especially when it's an easy way for common laughter.

  • Females could feel uncomfortable: (this is somewhat personal) I don't want to work in a company where I have to worry about looking 'distracting', or having colleagues discussing my attractiveness. I am going to give a talk at the company soon as well.

I need to address this issue in order to continue enjoying the work environment and especially to keep a good relationship to Bob. I want to speak to Bob personally, I don't plan to call him out to HR as this is a minor incident and most of all because I want to prove to myself that I can handle conflicts on my own. As far as I got to know Bob, he would at least listen to me.

So here's my question: How do I, a junior, discuss this issue respectfully with Bob, a senior, in a way that he understands the negative impact of his comment without coming off as "annoying" or "troublesome"?

To clarify, I don't think it's worrisome in general if a man calls a woman "hot". I wouldn't mind if Bob had told Jim about this after work in a bar or if Bob would've said this about his partner.

EDIT: The conversation was held in an office which is shared by 8 people (including me). The conversation was loud enough for everyone to hear. The woman they were talking about was not a colleague, but another professional at a conference. My problem is about the setting in which the comment was expressed (at work + about a conference participant). I work in Germany. Bob and Jim knew I heard the comment and they expected me to react as they were looking in my direction saying "Uh she didn't hear?". I suspect they knew their comment was not totally okay. At that time all I could say was "Such comments are annoying.". I don't think both understand why exactly I think this was "annoying" and now I don't think "annoying" is the word that expresses best my criticism about it and I think saying "annoying" might have been slightly rude. That's why I want to clarify it. I didn't mention it in the original post because I thought this was not that relevant, but your questions show that there was need for further information.

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You missed the perfect time spot to get involved when you overheard the conversation. At that point you could have easily expressed discontent with the behaviour of your colleagues. Most of them will not see this as a big issue (taken for itself), so you bringing it up after the fact might feel weird for them and paint you as the annoying feminist no matter how you approach it.

Option 1-1 Meeting

However, if Bob is generally open and he is your manager or becomes your manager, the best option to bring this up would be a one-on-one meeting. If you don't have such meetings regularly, maybe suggest to do them in general or at least have an initial one once Bob starts becoming your manager. You can then address the issue in general without citing specific instances. E.g. you might state that you overheard a few sexist remarks and that this bothers you and (if that fits) doesn't seem to be in line with the company policy to provide an open, diverse and inviting culture for everyone.

If Bob is not your manager and won't become your manager, you could bring this up with your current manager in the same fashion without explicitly mentioning people. If your manager (or Bob) promises to work on this, and nothing changes, you can then bring up names etc. A more soft approach in-between is the well-known stern look, when someone makes inappropriate jokes. Though this will typically only affect the behaviour when you are around.

Also, please note that depending on your country, company and peer culture, your colleagues might not see the remarks that you overheard as sexist or damaging but as valid compliments that do not detract from the person's professional value. This is an in-group issue. If the majority is male, they are all of the majority group and not affected by such comments, thus may not consider them in the same way as you.

Unofficial 1-1

If you want to talk with Bob directly, but there is no official framing like a regular one-on-one meeting, try to make it as private a meeting as possible. And start not with a specific reference to Bob's behaviour, but get into the general topic of sexist remarks at the work place and what you consider as such. This way you can test the waters and make it more about the general topic and how women feel in the industry / your team than his specific behaviour and he might be less defensive than if you directly jump into an accusation. If the conversation goes well, you can bring up the incident in the end and as an example of a borderline case, i.e. okay for you outside the company but not inside and question his view on that. But for the first discussion I'd not bring it up, but see if this topic remains an issue. In general, try to have an open discussion and provide your perspectives instead of telling Bob what is right and wrong. Moral insights are typically much stronger if you find them yourself.

Option Exit-Interview You wrote that you are a student. That might mean you have a part time contract that runs out after the semester or whatever time-span it covers. If that is the case, there might be an exit interview. Your arguments read like you are not only concerned about Bob and yourself, but about how women feel in this company in general. If you want to influence that, you can mention something in the exit interview. You likely don't want any consequences for anyone involved, so you should say - like you did above - that you in general felt very welcome and had a good time. But if the company wanted to improve their atmosphere for women, there are a few minor issues that irked you personally slightly and you felt could be addressed, e.g. by a clear policy regarding sexism and perhaps some evaluation and training what is and what isn't okay. It's up to the company then to decide whether they want to do that and what fits their culture (and local laws). You obviously shouldn't name someone or mention specific incidents. Be vague! And be prepared that nothing changes.

Lead by example

An alternative option that you can always combine with a direct approach is to be a good example. If your colleagues start a discussion referring to "that hot machine learning girl" jump in and add something addressing her professionally, like "I found [statement X] by Dr. Sarah Skynet pretty interesting, didn't it imply XZ?". That way you may pull the conversation back from a half-private jovial tone to the professional level. Make sure however, that you do not apply two different sets of rules - if you are fine with a jovial tone on other topics and your typical work atmosphere is intermingled with private, jokey comments, it will be way harder to justify this "exception".

You can combine this with the stern look or even a small comment that you find such sexual evaluations irritating before you direct the conversation elsewhere. Don't open up a big fight, but make your stance consistently clear.

Food for thought

In general, since you seem fine with the same remark done in a private setting, much of your problem seems to stem from a different way to distinguish "private" and "professional" setting. For many people, being in the office does not make everything you do happen in your professional capacity: If you walk over to a colleague to talk about the latest football game, that is a private conversation for fun, not a professional conversation - albeit, granted, it is done in a professional environment and easily can be overheard and attributed to you in your professional role. Still, maybe give this a thought and re-evaluate where the line between public/professional and private conversation is/should be and in how far you agree with your peers.

As long as these remarks are positive and there is no proof of reduction to appearance, i.e. devaluing females' professional capabilities, in many environments such behaviour will be considered okay or at most borderline. So don't assume you have everyone (else) on your side if you want to bring this up officially and pressure for a change.

Give and Take

Also note, that we all have different perspectives of what we'd like as a perfect work place and how our colleagues should behave. Rarely any work place will match everyone's perfect ideal. E.g. I don't "like" my colleague to eat his Indian food in the office, because it smells the wrong way, but hell do I enjoy to eat a pizza at my place once in a while (which some other colleagues find disturbing when they haven't had lunch yet). We all cope with each other. Telling people of your preferences is always fine! Insisting on them will in 90 percent mean you will loose something else, be it good-will, some of your freedoms, friendships etc. So, choose your battles wisely.

  • 1) Hi Frank, thank you for your thoughtful answer. This indeed helps me. I think the Unofficial 1-1 would fit best my needs, as Bob is a quite open person. I guess, making my concerns not sound like an accusation will be very important. I thought about explaining him the implications his comment might cause (the ones I explained in the post) and leaving any further actions to him (i.e. not telling him to "do this or that"). I'd like to politely raise the awareness for sexism as there is a lack for it, especially in IT. – TheCooocy Nov 17 at 22:25
  • 2) Lead by example: Yes, I could indeed try that, good thought. Although I don't think it changes anything in Bob's behaviour, as long as he doesn't understand the consequences of such comments. – TheCooocy Nov 17 at 22:30
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    3) Give and Take: Yes, we do have different perspectives. I talked to some female friends of mine, they also think this comment shouldn't be part of the work environment. I think this issue is bigger than different tastes in food. As I explained, it can have negative impact on a career and it can further lead to the acceptance of more severe behaviour. – TheCooocy Nov 17 at 22:37
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    @TheCooocy That the comment doesn't belong to the work environment is true. That your role is not to go around administering justice it's also true. What you are trying to attempt is professional suicide specially as student. I would heavily recommend against your proposed line of action. – eballes Nov 18 at 15:47
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How do I, a junior, discuss this issue respectfully with Bob, a senior, in a way that he understands the negative impact of his comment without coming off as "annoying" or "troublesome"?

Silently, in your head while giving him a pointed stare.

Nothing else will achieve your desired outcome of not appearing annoying, troublesome and an eavesdropper prepared to make waves over normalish if perhaps bad taste comments that don't even involve you.

It's bad to enter into conflict without a clear idea of what the outcome should be, and confidence that it will end positively for you long term. In this case I cannot see it.

You can formulate a strategy for the next one and initiate a confrontation straight away if you think it's important enough and likely to be an ongoing issue. In that case you'd be prepared while he wouldn't, always a good thing in a confrontation or dispute.

At the moment it's just one isolated incident a week past, and you missed your best opportunity to make your point.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mister Positive Nov 18 at 13:08
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    This. What OP is looking forward to do is professional suicide, specially for an intern. – eballes Nov 18 at 15:43
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I (male team lead and acting hiring manager) also find such comments annoying. The last few times somebody said something like this about a female colleague, i only said thing along the lines of: "I for my part appreciate her in the team since she seems smart and able to do the job" - most people got the message and kind of back - pedaled.

The rationale is that in that moment the other person probably is not even able to disagree about the female colleague being smart (since that would test the line to clear professionally relevant sexual bias), I say nothing negative about anybody, don't have a conversation if the word hot is appropriate, but implicitly remind the other person about their professional duty.

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I agree with the concerns you've mentioned and it's quite understandable that you'd want to address it. Ideally it wouldn't fall to you to do that, but c'est la vie...

One approach that's sometimes useful in addressing problematic behaviour is to frame it in terms of other people's perceptions, not the recipient's motivations:

Hi Bob, I wanted to talk to you about some comments you made to Jim last week. [summarise conversation] If I'm talking to my colleagues about work matters, at a conference or here in the office, I want to believe they're thinking about what I'm saying, not rating me on my appearance. Jim looks up to you - do you think that conversation is giving him the right message?

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    Thank you for your understanding and your suggestion, it is helpful. Phrasing my concern as a question could be a strategy. Also thank you for giving clarifying comments to other users, especially the part "calling a professional woman as "girls"" is making another important point. – TheCooocy Nov 17 at 22:10
  • @TheCooocy FWIW, this kind of conversation would be considered highly unprofessional in my workplace, and I'm disappointed that some of the comments here have drifted into outright gaslighting. – Geoffrey Brent Nov 18 at 23:19
  • I assume you mean the conversations under this post. Yes, I actually expected that, I know this culture. Although I disagree with many comments or answers here they help me getting an impression of all possible reactions of Bob/ my colleagues. :) – TheCooocy Nov 19 at 11:50
  • @TheCooocy I meant the "hot girl" conversation, but it definitely also applies to some of the responses/comments here. – Geoffrey Brent Nov 19 at 22:47
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    @Donald Yeah, I'm not suggesting using either of those words to the supervisor. People tend to get defensive when told their behaviour is inappropriate - even when it is - hence my suggestion to frame it in a way that focusses on consequences instead. – Geoffrey Brent Nov 20 at 11:57
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Short Answer

"you might state that you overheard a few sexist remarks and that this bothers you" - from the accepted answer by Frank Hopkins

Do not say this.

If you really do say something, talk about your feelings and how you took offense from an off-hand comment. They're your feelings. No one can argue against them. But do not label that behavior.

Only label the issue if you bring it to HR or if this becomes a legal issue. But otherwise, if you're just looking for a friendly apology from the person in question, don't use that label with him.

Longer Answer

Calling the remark "sexist" adds a degree of shaming that is likely to antagonize the person in question.

If the first and most prevalent impression about the presenter is his or her appearance, chances getting lowered he or she might be associated as a potential hiring candidate in the first place

You've reframed this issue as something more than it really is.

This woman isn't interviewing for a job at your company, nor does she even work for your company.

As a junior, giving a professional talk is a chance to prove...

And no, even if she was young, that makes her at the very least a senior engineer, not a junior one.

After all, not everyone gets invited to speak at professional conferences. And with the topic of machine learning, it isn't that uncommon to have young people be senior subject-matter experts on that topic.

...that has nothing to do with her professional competence." – Geoffrey Brent

"Remember the short bald guy. His head was so shiny!" or "He was so hot!" or "His voice was monotone." or "He was so creepy!"

My point being, as a public speaker at a conference, it would be nice if everybody remembered your presentation and discussed its content, but it doesn't always work that way.

With that said, I do agree that saying that "she was so hot" was inappropriate, and saying it like that in an open office space environment where six of you work does make it worse than trying to say the same thing privately.

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    Yes, I don't know her. But I can relate to her and if I was in her place I would feel disrespectfully treated. Again, given the setting (at work + a conference talk). Now, this didn't happen to me, but I want to make it clear to Bob how much his comment irritated me and especially that I don't want such comments to become common practice , as this might involve comments about me at some point. It didn't seem that they saw her as someone more qualified as they called her "a girl". – TheCooocy Nov 17 at 23:47
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    In one thing I think you are right, as she was speaking there, maybe she was more qualified than they are, but this wasn't reflected in the way the spoke about her. I find there a lack of respect, if they would have additionally mentioned any of her qualifications or her expertise or would have discussed some content of her talk maybe I wouldn't mind that they find her hot on addition. The thing is that for them, it seemed like there was nothing about her but to be hot. – TheCooocy Nov 17 at 23:50
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    If an underling talked that way about a CEO, it would still be inappropriate. The message it sends in that situation is "I'm uncomfortable with a woman having higher status than me, so I'm going to undercut her by calling her 'girl' and focusing on stuff that has nothing to do with her professional competence." – Geoffrey Brent Nov 18 at 0:51
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    @TheCooocy In some cultures, calling someone "a girl" is not offensive or belittling at all. In other cultures, it implies that the subject is inferior. Cultural context really matters here. – forest Nov 18 at 4:14
  • Please note that the OP wasn't complaining about the "girl" label. She even implied that the speaker would have liked to be known as the "machine learning girl", which makes sense to me. While I don't know many young women CEOs who refer to themselves as girls (except for the self-made Billionaire Kylie Jenner), I do think a number of young female engineers on the US west coast do refer to themselves as girls. In other words, they refer to themselves as girls (just like the OP did), they'll dress like girls at work (sometimes even wearing the "girlpower" t-shirt), speak like girls, etc. – Stephan Branczyk Nov 18 at 23:50
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Everyone feels individually. If in a society like Germany someone calls someone of the opposite or even same gender hot (and nothing more) then you can discuss endlessly how sexist or only stupid or even harmless that was.
This is not meant as a judgment what is wrong or right. But you should see that depending on the people around you and also the particular situation that we don't know in detail, you could find acceptance or make them wonder. You should take into account and evaluate how you may feel after this discussion with Bob.

So I recommend to underperform rather than overreact.
It's a week ago. Perhaps Bob doesn't even know any more what he said. Instead of starting a discussion out of the blue (after a week) I recommend to find a hook to address this past situation.

If your talk will be in the next days, perhaps you are talking to Bob about it (the talk) or you see chance to initiate doing so. Then it is an option to incidentally say with a sense of humor something like

Oh and by the way it would be cool if you couldn't call me hot during/after my talk

and see what happens.
You also could address this situation with a colleague who was present when Bob made his statement and see what they respond.

  • Thanks, this is another possible action I was thinking about – TheCooocy Nov 19 at 11:43
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Advice #1: Pick your battles.

As an IT student in an IT company, your priority should be to learn skills related to your profession as much as you can, get good references for real jobs in the future, get good stuff to put in the resume.

You aren't planning to stay in that company for years, are you? I mean, you said you're an IT student. So, long-term stuff in that company is really of no interest to you.

With that in mind, you will get better references if you stick to the above points.

Advice #2: Think about how it looks from the other side.

If a man overheard two women talking about another man, and saying that "he's hot", would he be offended? Probably not, not about himself and not about the other man.

Would he think that there was some disrespect toward the other man in that situation and/or conversation? Probably not. If anything, it would be taken as a compliment, and nobody would raise any ruckus about it.

So, when he hears a woman getting offended about that, and in a case where it's not even about her, the first thing in his mind will be: "Oh God, she's making this into a big issue where there was no issue in the first place; what will she do if some day there is a real issue, call the police? sue us all?"

Sure, in certain places you can cause enough trouble for them to actually apologize and watch their words in the future... and they'll hate you for it, where originally there would be no bad feelings at all. Do you really want that?

Save it for when the situation is serious.

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    The "if a woman did it to a guy" argument ignores an awful lot of context. Barring very unusual circumstances, a man working in IT doesn't have to worry that colleagues might treat him as a sex object and not take him seriously as a professional. A woman in IT has plenty of reason to worry about that scenario. points at the entire history of IT – Geoffrey Brent Nov 18 at 22:56
  • @GeoffreyBrent , exactly that – TheCooocy Nov 19 at 11:44
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As a fellow female working in IT I have found that groups with mostly men have a different social dynamic than mixed groups. This in itself is not a bad thing and you need to consider it when evaluating the situation. But it also is no excuse for making someone feel bad.

So the first thing is to answer the question whether it is impacting you and your emotional well being.

That seems to be the case here.

After this you need to find out what exactly makes you feel bad.

This doesn't seem to be that clear in your question, but this is important as you can only change specific things, one at a time.

Bob is a senior employee, he is soon going to be a manager. He is a role model for younger employees. If he keeps on talking about other professionals like this, juniors might pick up such a behavior. Especially when it's an easy way for common laughter.

This isn't about some hypothetical future employees and situations. This is about you and Bob, now. You are feeling bad now, right?

Females could feel uncomfortable: (this is somewhat personal)

This isn't about some other females that may or may not feel bad about this. This is about you and about what you want for yourself.

I don't want to work in a company where I have to worry about looking 'distracting', or having colleagues discussing my attractiveness. I am going to give a talk at the company soon as well.

Here it is important to find out why you feel that way. Why do you worry about this. Were there instances besides this 'She is hot' thing that made you think that way? If yes, document everything before your next move. You want to be as specific as possible.

If it is only that one comment - at least, consider stupidity or miscommunication. It is easy to project ones fears onto someone else (whether it is your fears or the fears of those guys towards you) so make sure this isn't the case before acting.

Next you need to decide what you want to achieve.

If it is a specific behaviour you want to stop, a talk might help.

If your goal is to be accepted and valued for your knowledge, you need to earn their trust through actions that prove your knowledge like your talk. You can't control what others think about you but you can get to know them better. It is a lot harder to reduce someone to their looks if you know them better and actually have seen what they can do.

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