I'm a software developer with a respectable work history. I'm confident in the quality of my work, though I know I'm not perfect and not above criticism or correction. I have been discriminated by a colleague before and it was very noticeable, other people in the team could tell he was more critical of me and disrespectful.

I've been in other situations where I couldn't really tell if that was the case though. I remember a colleague who was very difficult to work with in general, but sometimes I felt like there was a different slant to how he interacted with me. I never said anything because I had no proof and couldn't pinpoint exactly what made me feel that way, so I couldn't put it in words.

I know there are a lot of difficult people in my area, but due to conversations with other women, I also know sexism and misogyny are sadly widespread - pretty much all women I talked to who were in this area for 10+ years, had a story like the first, where people could tell something was wrong.

So I've been thinking, in a situation like the second, where it's hard to tell, what steps can I take to know if a colleague is just difficult, or sexist?

  • 6
    To what end do you want to determine it? Ultimately it's very hard to narrow down that "yes, the person singled you out and it's entirely down to your sex" (or really any singular characteristic) without it being rather painfully obvious.
    – Aida Paul
    Dec 15, 2023 at 17:48
  • 2
    @AidaPaul If that is the case, I would like to report it to my superior. Being mistreated makes work difficult and overbearing.
    – Tuma
    Dec 15, 2023 at 17:58
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    If you are being mistreated, why does it matter what's the cause, if it's sexism or "that's just them"? Report it and let the higher ups figure out why
    – Aida Paul
    Dec 15, 2023 at 18:06
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    Like I said, it's a widespread issue. Ignoring it's true source erases the nature of the issue, stifles discussion, and delays or fully impedes that the issue be addressed. In my opinion, being hush hush about it is counterproductive to our evolution as a society.
    – Tuma
    Dec 15, 2023 at 18:08
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    I don't think I've said to be hush hush but to go and report it. Ultimately that's how then on the upper side you can spot a patter happening, that while all employes may have some complains about them, it's this one whose entire 100% of complains comes from women, and women only. But that's not an investigation you can do yourself
    – Aida Paul
    Dec 15, 2023 at 18:10

2 Answers 2


Unless they come out with something that's blatantly sexist, as an individual you can't really know exactly why they're acting like this towards you. If they act this way towards multiple women in the company then you might see a clear pattern - but if it's just you then there could be all kinds of other reasons why they're acting like this towards you.

But ultimately, it doesn't really matter. If they're being overly critical or disrespectful towards you (for whatever reason), then that's the thing that needs to be addressed. And when you speak to your manager/HR/whoever, avoid making accusations of sexism unless you have something concrete to back them up - just focus on the facts of what they've been doing, rather than speculative about motives.

  • 3
    Broadly, I agree - bad behavior is the problem at this level, and the motivation is an issue for the boss. I think OP is also asking, though, when does criticism become overly critical? If OP can't put the "different slant" "into words," how does OP decide whether or how to bring it up to their boss?
    – user121330
    Dec 16, 2023 at 9:35

You can't know if it's sexism, ageism, due to speech mannerism, region of birth, college you attended, etc... anything would be pure speculation, and it's really just a distraction.

If you feel treated unfairly -- emphasis on feel -- or if you feel your well-being or behavior are affected -- emphasis on feel -- then you need to focus on yourself and identify which micro-behaviors make you feel this way, then find a way to either change them or accept them.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
-- Reinhold Niebuhr

As an outsider it's hard to know whether you believe things can change, and what the best way to enact that change is:

  • It could be talking things out with this colleague: they may, after all, not realize themselves that they treat you differently, or believe it is for your own good.
  • It could be raising the issue with a colleague you trust, perhaps a senior figure in the company, or with your manager. They may help you either change or accept things.
  • I would not advise pulling in HR just yet, not before trying other avenues first, as it's the "ultimate" hammer and may significantly degrade your relationship with not only this colleague but also others -- as unfair as that may feel.

The one thing I can advise you about is how to talk about it. You should avoid accusing, and putting anyone on the defensive, and therefore the best way to frame the discussion is to talk about the one thing you know for certain: how you feel.

A framework for this is SBI: Situation, Behavior, Impact. When raising the issue, no matter who the interlocutor is, present the 3 points, in order.

  • Situation: recall one specific situation. Don't be vague.
  • Behavior: describe the specific behavior which you found problematic. Yes, it means identifying it first, as precisely as possible.
  • Impact: describe the impact on you. How it makes you feel.

If there are other situations, and other behaviors, rinse and repeat. Always be specific, or as specific as you can.

From then on, you've presented the problem, it's time for an open discussion with whoever you are talking to about potential solutions. They may suggest you are oversensitive. They may be right... and you may want to work on yourself. Or you may find this advice insensitive and unhelpful. Talk it out with them if possible. Keep an open mind. Relationship solutions are often middle of the road kind of things.

If you still don't feel well after this discussion, mull it over and pick another time, or another person. Even if it doesn't immediately solve your issue, hopefully it will give you material to reflect on, be it clues, better way to present the problems, more specific actions or feelings, etc... and progressively you'll work it out.

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