How to Positively Address Sexist Comments at Work

Though women in the workforce have progressed in many ways, everything still isn’t exactly fair or equal. While the pay gap, office housework, and being passed over for promotions are all starting to improve, words do have power. Sexist comments, whether they be overt or subtle, continue to plague professional women.

Whether a coworker is making fun of another successful, professional women, or has said a derogatory comment directly to you, handling sexist comments at work while also maintaining a sense of professionalism can be difficult. This week, GovFem is here to help you figure out ways to address sexist, hurtful comments, in a mature, respectful way.

Keep these tips in mind, the next time you hear an insensitive remark in your workplace:

They’re not all the same. The first step in addressing sexist comments is to realize that they don’t all look the same. A male coworker making fun of Hillary Clinton’s recent presidential campaign because of her gender is just as important to address as a male coworker who tells you to the unload the dishwasher because, “you know…” They’re both insensitive to gender disparities, and they’re both detrimental to creating an equality-focused office culture.

Recognize the different kinds of sexism at work, and then make a conscious attempt to say something. The next time a coworker smugly reminds you that he makes more than you, say something. It can be scary, but even a simple, “hey, can we maybe talk about that?” can go a long way to foster open and honest communication.

Set the stage for open communication. Once you’ve decided to do something about sexist rhetoric at your office, it’s important to preserve a positive, dignified tone. So, make sure you emphasize that you want this to be an authentic, conscientious platform for discussion.

Remind your colleague that words have power. Then, explicitly state that their particular comments have hurt or offended you in a personal way. Make it clear that you’ve worked hard to get to where you are, and that you hope your office can be a place of inclusion, diversity, and equality. Starting the conversation with honesty and kindness will allow the rest of the conversation to be productive and meaningful.

Never assume mal-intent. As you begin the conversation, keep in mind that sometimes sexism is so subconscious that a coworker may not even realize they’re guilty of it. Don’t just point fingers in an angry way, because that can do more to enhance tension than improve upon it. Think about whether or not the person usually purposefully hurts others. Sometimes, they might be, and that may require a firmer stance against the examples they are setting.

However, a peer may just be regurgitating information they heard elsewhere, and they may not actually mean any of what they’ve said. So read the temperament of what was said and let that lead you in your approach of addressing them.

In most cases, sexist comments are unintentional. Assuming someone’s actions are based on good intentions can be a great way to open a conversation in a non-accusatory way. That also decreases the likelihood of putting the other person on the defensive right away.

Talk it out. Really, though, it’s important to get to the heart of the matter. For some reason, your coworker has decided that it’s okay to say something offensive, and you need to address that. If not just for your benefit, then for the benefit of everyone else in the office.

If you’re angry, count to ten. If you need to breathe to calm yourself down, excuse yourself for a bit. In order for them to take you seriously, you need to be calm, cool, and collected when you discuss the matter. Make sure you’ve thought through what you want to say, and take your time with it. For this to be as constructive and beneficial of a conversation as possible, both parties need to take it seriously. Do what you can to ensure that happens by taking this as seriously as you can.

Sexism in the workplace is a persistent issue, and sexist comments only further that culture of discrimination by normalizing it into our office dialogue. As a dedicated employee, and a fighter for equality, positively addressing sexist comments is one of the most important things you can do, no matter how awkward it may be.

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Russell irving

Thank you for an insightful article. Hopefully, women also take heart and realize when they are being sexist toward men. I have heard women in elevators or in break rooms talk about what ‘the boys’ did. (when discussing co-workers, husbands, or boyfriends). Or when a woman decides that a male should be the one to fix a computer problem because ‘guys know these things’. Likewise, having a poster of the latest Hollywood hunk can be as offensive to a male as it is to a woman when the poster is that of woman. And, there are cultural differences among men and women, so that what is polite to some might be offensive to another person. – Bottom-line, we all need to be more considerate.


Russell, as a woman, I agree with your comments. Women need to be just as careful as men. Thank you for pointing this out. If every human would just simply respect every other human we wouldn’t be having this conversation.


Also, I think it helps to be tolerant. Especially, if someone refers to ‘the boys’ it may be that someone didn’t want to list everyone by name and was trying to be expedient in not bore others with a story that drags along. We aren’t robots…human attractiveness may be noticed and commented on…No need to elevate yourself as superior. Bottom-line, I agree that we all need to be more considerate and tolerant.