My question is about how to approach/tackle the issue of casual sexism in the office. I say casual because usually the comments made are in "good fun" and meant as a joke, and not meant as insult. However, I am not happy with the current situation.

Some of the comments that have occurred in my office recently are "meowing" when a female has said a negative or forceful statement, referring to female characteristics out of context i.e. "lady size" or "throw like a girl", and using "no means no" as a joke.

So far I have asked one of the two directors of the company to remind some of the male employees of what is and isn't appropriate in the workplace. During the discussion the director knew which employees in particular have been the source of the comments/jokes and I felt the director shared my opinion of such behaviour.

The main issue is that the second director, also male, has been one of the culprits of the sexist comments and jokes, and I feel that it is particularly his attitude that is allowing the behaviour to continue by the other employees. I did not mention this in the discussion because I do not want to be seen as bad mouthing the director.

Does anybody have advice as to a direct approach to stop this behaviour, without of course, coming across as complaining to the director responsible? I feel that the original discussion has not resulted in any action to stop this behaviour.

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    How would you feel the workplace culture is otherwise with respect to gender equality? Is there any hint of women not being judged on their merits when it comes to the work itself? Or is it just the jokes making you feel uncomfortable that is the issue? Some may disagree with me, but I think It's important whether such comments are made semi-ironically and in genuine good fun by people who actually have good 'equality awareness', or if they are symptomatic of deeper attitudes. – user45019 Sep 5 '16 at 6:43
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    Meowing(?!) at coworkers does not seem like "casual" sexism to me. Your other examples seem to have more to do with an inappropriate "frat" culture at the office, which typically has sexist connotations but is indeed casual in the sense that it's subtle and people often don't realise just how offensive they're being. But meowing? Are these people still in high school? – Lilienthal Sep 5 '16 at 6:44
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    Why not 'meow' at the guys when they mess up? wonder how they'd like it? – Kilisi Sep 5 '16 at 6:51
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    What country are you in ? – Radu Murzea Sep 5 '16 at 9:01
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    When somebody "meows" you should ask them if they spotted a mouse in the office. If the answer is "No" then the obvious second question is why they are meowing. Since I assume there is no sexism in the office, meowing seems to indicate some mental health issue, and I'd hope it's not too serious. – gnasher729 Sep 5 '16 at 12:36

The "gentle" approach

The very first thing I would suggest if you have not already done so, is to ask them to stop because it makes you uncomfortable. Do this to everyone who is involved, including to the second director, at the time it occurs. With luck it will end there.

The "hammer" approach

However, if this has no impact or has a negative impact, then you need to talk to the first director. Name names. I know that you don't want to come across as being a complainer, but if the second director is one of the culprits, then the first director needs to know this as well. If this person is unhappy with the sexist behaviour within the organisation, there there is really only one person who has the authority to have a quiet word with the second director.

The second director may not take kindly to having his "fun" prevented, but realistically unless you go to someone with the authority to change things, then things won't change. What I would strongly suggest you do is to document everything, in writing. This is very important to cover yourself if the second director becomes hostile.


Unless you actually ask the culprits to stop, then they'll naturally assume that you're okay with the sexist behaviour. Unfortunately, in some environments, breaking a "culture" can be met with resistance and escalate very quickly. I really hate to say this as a woman who works in a male dominated industry, but you have to ask yourself how much this bothers you. It doesn't sound like you have an HR department to fall back on, and the people involved can make life difficult for you.

But make sure you understand your rights, and your local anti-discrimination, sexual harassment and workplace bullying laws. If necessary use the words "harassment" and "bullying". They have very specific legal meanings and can often pull people up when they understand the implications.

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    "They have very specific legal meanings and can often pull people up when they understand the implications" For people in HR and managers who know their location's workplace harassment laws, sure. But I doubt that a manager who condones/participates in "meowing" (?!) at female colleagues is even aware of those. – Lilienthal Sep 5 '16 at 6:40
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    @Lilienthal I think most people understand what "harassment" means and the implications of legal risk, especially business owners. But this is why I suggested the OP understand their rights and laws. The meowing thing? Yeah, had that. It's meant to signify a woman complaining about something sounds like a cat fight. Very mature behaviour... – Jane S Sep 5 '16 at 6:45
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    It is worth noting that going to a director over banter is a severely career limiting move in some very big industries, and generally, unless you can count on the director being sympathethic to your concerns, I wouldn't risk it. – Magisch Sep 5 '16 at 7:54
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    I don't think its quite emphasised enough, though I see it. As much as that sucks (It does, big time) in many a office in male dominated industries raising a fuss over sexism will mean you get canned and blacklisted for rehire, and ineligible for references, on the first hint. I've seen this happen to friends of mine, which is why I commented in the first place. – Magisch Sep 5 '16 at 7:59
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    @JaneS Neither am I. :) I suppose in the EU or AU just mentioning harassment alone would be enough for HR. Workplace bullying laws tend to be more loosely yet comprehensively defined there. – Lilienthal Sep 5 '16 at 8:46

I like Jane's response, and I would like to add a third, less direct, approach to it.

You could initiate a discussion about general "rules of conduct" for the office, without specifically aiming at sexism. There are already unwritten rules about handling conflict, how to dress, about eating at the desk, not stealing food from the fridge etc. Without HR, these rules are not written down anywhere. It does not need to be that formal, but everybody should be involved in the creation of this code of conduct and it should be written down. I doubt that in an open discussion, when it comes to sexism, the offenders would vote for allowing it. They probably don't think such a rule would even affect them, because they are not sexist, right? The code of conduct must include steps that should be taken when someone breaks a rule. When everybody is involved in the creation, people are more likely to accept those steps later on. The first consequences can be minor or fun. Nobody wants his colleague to get a written warning for a single "small penis" joke. The rules should state what happens after repeated offenses.

With a written code of conduct, it's easier for everybody to point out misbehavior like you described. Just point at the table that has the rules on it in the office and smile. Since this all happens in the open, there is no hiding from it or sweet-talking. Everybody agreed to them long before and is more likely to accept them. This is even more effective than rules laid out by an HR department.

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  • I think a "refresh" of general codes of conduct in the office would be a good starting point for this. And it might also help any others who may have similar issues. – Viv Sep 6 '16 at 0:18

Mewing is unquestionably stupid and out of line. There's nothing wrong with the rest of your examples IMHO so I'll focus on that.

Unfortunately you need to ruffle some feathers to get this going. You made a mistake by not naming the offending director (who I'll refer to as B) when you first spoke to the other one (henceforth A), and this is something you have to fix now. In all likelihood, A privately knows of B's idiotic behaviour but may not feel compelled to act because it wasn't made known to him by you.

Mr A,

I write to inform you that any actions you may have taken following our meeting on the topic of harassment have had no effect. I also feel compelled to let you know that one of the culprits is B, who, being in a position of authority, sets the example for everyone else.

To restate the source of my grievance, 'mewoing' at female employees is not acceptable under any circumstances.

As the Director of this company you understand better than me why this is undesirable from all points of view: Obvious legal issues notwithstanding (we're not in the 50's any more), potential damage to morale, external image, and our reputation, is too great to ignore.

I have every confidence that B, being a reasonable person, will adjust accordingly once reminded of the gravity of the situation. There's no reason to think he won't once the dangers are made clear to him by someone of authority such as yourself. It is my hope that the rest will continue to follow his revised example.

Yours truly,

The fish rots from the head so I'm focusing on B, leaving the rest of the gang as an afterthought. Again, the rest of your examples are not serious enough to even merit a complaint (others may disagree) so I wouldn't even mention them while drafting such a letter. This is your nuclear option and should be reserved for special cases of idiocy (wow... mewoing?).

The letter will put them in mind of legal issues. They will think about firing you, and then think about the ramifications of doing so (you can raise a hell of a stink for it) and will probably decide against it.

I hope this helps you or anyone who happens to read it. Good luck.

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  • Thank you for your response, I agree that perhaps specifically naming the Director "B" might be required (as much as I don't want to). – Viv Sep 6 '16 at 0:17
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    While I like this wording, keep in mind that this would be a very heavy handed form of escalation. Depending on the situation you'd want to create this kind of detailed paper trail but I think in most cases a private conversation with A would be more appropriate. – Lilienthal Sep 6 '16 at 8:41
  • @Lilienthal Putting myself in A's shoes I would be furious if B did this in my company. He should bloody well know better. My anger is reflected in the way I've worded this, hence the heavy-handedness. – rath Sep 6 '16 at 10:53
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    Entirely fair, but these days people seem quick to rise to indignation when a more measured response would be more appropriate. It's easy to forget that behaviours that we'd consider reprehensible are legitimately Not A Big Deal to others. Assuming malicious intent can be counter-productive when ignorance is the problem. This is the kind of mail you keep in your drafts for at least a day before sending. – Lilienthal Sep 6 '16 at 11:46
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    @Lilienthal I agree completely. I actually thought it was a bit harsh before I went to sleep yesterday. My issue with the director is not his being malicious or ignorant, rather that he's placing the company in jeopardy. Since he's the "head" of the fish and not just any other employee, I thought a rude shock was more appropriate. But yes, it is a bit harsh – rath Sep 6 '16 at 14:34

From your comment:

The general culture is acceptable and probably not going to change, but some of the comments are taking it too far.

In that case, you might want to take the surgical approach - rather than making a general comment / report about behaviour (which could be met with denial, or the implication that it's your problem) - wait until something is said that's clearly way out of line, e.g. (again, from your comment):

specifically making an angry/high pitched cat meow like a cat fighting another cat... when two female colleagues were speaking

(something that most would understand is over the line) and then call it out there and then. @RyanfaeScotland's suggested approach could work:

give them a death stare and ask 'What the hell are you doing? I'm trying to have a conversation here and you're screaming out cat noises? Seriously, what are you doing?' and just hold the stare for a while, don't reply to whatever he says and just turn away in disgust and continue your conversation.

...or just reporting that one specific event to HR/your manager and making sure they deal with it. (You might want to report things to HR even if you are clear you've dealt with it yourself - just to establish a record if things do have to be taken further).

Even if this has to be repeated, this will hopefully establish clearly that it's not you that's the problem.

The trick is to ignore behaviours that could be excusable - some of the other things you mentioned might or might not be acceptable in many workplaces depending on context. Possibly, you want to come across as someone who is capable of fun and not afraid to join in the culture, but also not afraid to call things out when they are way over the line.

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A lot of people handle this issue by growing a thicker skin and engaging in banter. Good natured ribbing of this type is usually not malicious and it means they like you and consider you tough enough to handle it.

I have almost always been a minority at workplaces and just let most things slide unless I wanted to make a point for some reason. The same people who were making comments on my ethnicity at work would be the first to stand up for me if someone else tried, it was almost embarrassing. You can tell when it's malicious or not, or at least I could. Rising to bait just get's you hooked and run along.

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    Discussion of this answer has been moved to chat. Please continue it there, not here. – Monica Cellio Sep 5 '16 at 18:41
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    Thanks for your input, I understand where you are coming from and I agree that sometimes just ignoring them is the best tactic. I think that there is a limit though and that the frequency of such comments/behaviour has increased lately. – Viv Sep 6 '16 at 0:27
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    There is always a point where the joke is not funny anymore, it's just a potentially career limiting move to get too uptight over things like that, Good luck to you :) – Kilisi Sep 6 '16 at 0:37

My way of handling this has several steps. First, for the ones that are clearly not meant as anything except a joke and which you do not personally find upsetting, laugh out loud. Make a self-deprecating joke if you can. This is important as a first step because then when you object to certain other phrases, people are not going to be afraid to talk in front of you.

The next step could be to make a mild joke back at them that is exactly as insulting to their maleness as what they said is to your femaleness. They comment on your bust size, you comment on their "small hands". Do it with a smile and if they say anything respond with, "It was just a joke, can't you take a joke?"

Or just make a statement that will remind them that you are a woman and that what they are saying might not be appropriate without coming straight out and telling them to shut up. I came across my team speculating on my bra size once and they didn't know I had entered the room. So the first thing they heard from me was "You are all wrong." and then I smiled at them and walked into my office without another word. Nobody got punished, nobody got reported to HR. Nobody brought up the topic in my hearing again either. Use this technique only for stuff you find mildly annoying or as a first step towards getting them to stop the bad stuff if you want to be nice enough to give them a chance to get the point before you fire back stronger.

For the really egregious stuff, hit back hard. Someone meows at me, I would say something like, "We are trying to adult here, can you take that out to the playground?" It helps to accompany this with a disgusted stare and then look away from them and return to the original conversation immediately as if they are so childish that it isn't even worth your time to wait for their reaction. Someone makes a joke about "no means no" and I look at them very seriously and say in a very flat tone of voice, "I was raped and I don't find that very funny." Of course I can pull this off more easily because I was raped so it takes no acting skill at all. The idea is to make them feel as uncomfortable about what they said as you do. And for them to realize that you will stand up for yourself when they go over the line.

What you don't do is let it slide for one person that you like but not for another that you don't like. (Exception is that you can let it slide for people significantly higher in the work hierarchy than you are, everybody understands that confronting the CEO in public may not be a good choice.) People get uncomfortable when they can't figure out where you will draw the line specifically for them. Yes I know that people you are flirting with seem less upsetting when they make sexist jokes, but trust me, if you let it slide for the guy you want to date and not the creepy guy you don't want to date, it will backfire on you.

I have also seen some particularly religious women be able to tell people gently that something offended them and would they please not do that in front of them and have it work because they were well-known to be a fundamentalist Christian (or other religion, but it is Fundamentalist Christian women I have seen be able to pull this off.) before the objection. Again, this doesn't work if you only object to some people and not others. In this case, I have observed that the more quietly they asked that the behavior not happen around them, the more people took it seriously as a religious objection and complied.

Another thing that tends to be ineffective and career-harming is to complain to HR. It is far better to handle it yourself with humor and little push back.

Every single woman I have known at work has been harassed. It comes with the territory unfortunately. The ones able to get past that and succeed had thicker skins, a sense of humor, and were able to to turn the really bad stuff off without formally complaining. The ones who complained to HR tended to get escalations of the bad behavior or found that no one wanted to work with them or had people actively try to sabotage them.

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    Every single woman I have known at work has been harassed. It comes with the territory unfortunately. Alas this is true :( I've worked in environments where it was so entrenched in the corporate culture that to fight it would have so much of an uproar, it was easier just to try to ignore it. These were usually small organisations, where there were no more than two or three women in the entire company. – Jane S Sep 7 '16 at 0:05

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