The situation

I am a male engineering researcher at a Canadian university. I recently had a conversation with one of my female colleagues who mentioned that she had a bad experience with one of our lab technicians. She didn't get into specifics, but mentioned that it involved sexism and that it made her somewhat leery of asking for that tech's help in the future. My reaction was, "Wow, that sucks. That's really not acceptable behaviour on his part."

I use this example to illustrate a point. I am aware that there is sexist behaviour that happens quite often in my field (engineering tends to be very male-dominated), but I usually only hear about it second-hand from female colleagues. To be clear, when I say sexist behaviour I don't mean criminal behaviour like sexual assault or harassment (although that does happen). Instead I mean incidents which, taken separately, probably wouldn't be considered a big deal but, taken together, are very demoralizing for my female colleagues.

Edit: Let's not debate whether or not the actions were/weren't sexist or did/didn't happen. I have not provided specific examples of what was said for this exact reason because normally they cause the answers to devolve into debate about what is the definition of sexism or "how far is too far".

My thoughts

Usually my response to hearing about this is, as above, "Wow, that sucks. They shouldn't have done that." But when I say this I wonder if it just sounds like empty platitudes. I don't think it is appropriate to confront the perpetrators, because it's none of my business (nobody is asking me to do this) and I don't have all the facts.

The question

So here is my question: in what ways can I support my female colleagues who experience repeated sexist behaviour in the workplace? (Other than not engaging in sexist behaviour myself, which I feel is a moot point). Specifically, how should I react to one of my colleagues telling me about this sort of thing? Again, assuming that I believe that the events did, in fact, happen and were, in fact, sexist.

Edit: Questions that I am not asking!

I am not asking what the company should do: this is debatable and would constitute a debate about proper company policy to protect workers. I am not asking what society can do: again, this is debatable and would constitute a debate about the true extent of the problem of sexism and what legislation/social action should be taken. I am not asking what my female colleagues should do: obviously if they feel threatened or face discrimination that makes it difficult to perform their duties they should communicate those problems to management.

I realize the answers to this question may be somewhat subjective. If you can back it up with personal experience that would be great.

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    VTC -- You will get a lot of opinions on this. Will probably be a HNQ too. – Neo Mar 17 '17 at 17:18
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    Vote To Close, and Hot New Question. What he's saying is that this question is a poor fit to the site, and fears that it will attract a lot of attention, while generating an unnecessary debate. – AndreiROM Mar 17 '17 at 17:35
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    There's a problem with the very broad subject presented. In Canada there are already laws, and workplace policies in place to protect women in the workplace, and indeed all employees, against sexism, discrimination, etc. You're not requesting advice on how to handle a particular situation, but on how to start a grassroots movement against a problem you perceive. That is out of scope. Furthermore, that's simply your perception. How objective are you being? We can't determine that, and the conversation will most likely degenerate into a very heated debate, which is not valuable on a Q&A site. – AndreiROM Mar 17 '17 at 17:40
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    As I mentioned, this is a Q&A site. If you were to ask about a more concrete problem then an objectively "correct" answer might be provided. For example, if you were to ask about how to deal with a particularly sexist coworker whom you've witnessed making poor comments, etc. then the community might advise you how to approach the situation. Or if you were to state incidents within your organization pointing to a systemic problem and ask for advice then users might advise you to get legal help, or contact a government agency. As it stands, however, there's not much to go on. – AndreiROM Mar 17 '17 at 17:52
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    OP, this is a good question that's worth asking. There are in fact simple things male allies can do to help female colleagues who are struggling with sexism. Acknowledging and supporting them is actually huge, it's enormously helpful just to hear that you're not crazy and your harsser is in fact behaving badly. Borrow some examples from hbr.org/2017/03/… and call out your male coworkers if/when they say anything uncool about the women in the office. – Mel Reams Mar 18 '17 at 5:04

If the behavior is so extreme that it amounts to a hostile workplace in the legal sense, you can of course involve HR. If it falls short of that, but is still disruptive to work, someone should speak with the offender's manager. The person whose work is being disrupted should be the one to do complain, and that's probably one of the women, not you.

But you asked about what you, specifically, can do to be supportive (and anyway, the situation may not be bad enough to involve management or HR). So this is about that.

I don't think it is appropriate to confront the perpetrators, because it's none of my business (nobody is asking me to do this) and I don't have all the facts.

If you're just going on hearsay, that's true (unless you're the guy's manager, in which case you have standing to investigate).

The exception to this would be if the perpetrator was a personal friend, in which case I would be perfectly comfortable calling them out on their BS.

Naw, man, you don't have to be a personal friend to call someone out if you witness them being rude or a jerk. Since you're talking about things that "taken separately, probably wouldn't be considered a big deal but, taken together, are very demoralizing for my female colleagues," don't make it into a big deal. Just address them separately, at the time they happen. What's on your side here is that most demoralizing sexist remarks are impolite, so you can address them the way you would address other rude things.

Say "Dude, not cool," or "What the hell, man?" or "Why would you say that?" or whatever form of "Wow, that sucks. You shouldn't have done that" you would use if he had cursed in front of a child, hawked a loogie onto the floor, or committed any other not-cool but not-cataclysmic misdeed. Your specific role here, as a man, is to foster a culture where it's not cool for men to act like that. Don't get into the big picture--that discussion is too easy to derail into a pointless argument. Focus on enforcing a social norm. I can tell you from personal experience that women will notice, and we will appreciate it.

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    This answer is good because it addresses the situation without overstepping one's involvement in the situation. – user30031 Mar 18 '17 at 17:34

Generally the best advice is to involve the appropriate authorities. Please avoid vigilantism and the like, especially if you don't know the entire context of the situation, and did not witness the interaction yourself.

If there's a concrete pattern of troubling behavior then advise your friend to immediately document it, and bring it to the attention of the appropriate authorities (the perpetrator's boss, or HR, for example).

If, however, the perpatrator is generally quite nice, but made a one time weird comment then your friend should immediately point it out:

Some people might take that the wrong way. I'd advise against joking like that in the future.

Your reaction, although chivalrous, is not very objective, and might backfire if you don't know exactly what you're getting into.

For example, it needs to be pointed out that some people are just very sensitive. There was a question on here about someone complaining that using the term "manhours" in the workplace is sexist. Most people would probably disagree.

Would you call someone out if that's the extent of the incident? Do you think that would cast a positive light on you? And is that the sort of workplace atmosphere you want to build? (people being afraid to open their mouths in case they are misunderstood and accused of sexism?)

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    Possibly not-picky, but the question about the term "manhours" wasn't really complaining as much as asking about the implications of the term. – user30031 Mar 18 '17 at 17:30

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