The Girls’ Guide To Calling Out Sexism Without Being Attacked

April 20, 2012. By Meghan Casserly contributed to Forbes.com
A few weeks back, when product manager Shanley Kane put the Silicon Valley startup Geeklist on blast for its sexist promotional video—in which a panti-clad co-ed dances “girls on trampoline” style for the camera—the young tech world was highlighted for its nonchalant sexism. Just days earlier, another company, Sqoot, had taken heat for advertising “beer-serving women” as entertainment at a hackathon event.

But what was most disturbing to me wasn’t the sexism itself (I’m not the type to get offended by sex in marketing. I’m sold stuff by sexy women in 99% of my life. That ship has sailed), it was the heat Kane took on Twitter for calling attention to the video in the first place. The first tweet by Kane on the issue was tame enough: “@csanz @rekatz why the ads with a woman in her underwear dancing around to dupstep?”

Almost immediately the conversation was about Kane’s behavior—her tone and the fact that she expressed her opinion in a public forum—rather than the video itself. As Rachel Balik pointed out on ForbesWoman, Katz also complained that he once bought Kane and her friends drinks and thus didn’t understand why she “couldn’t be nicer.”

While the incidents led both companies to apologize and launch an initiative to support and promote the achievements of women in technology, the response from the vox populi on the worldwideweb was overwhelmingly one of “shut up, woman.” Over on CNET, Ben Parr tried to rationalize: “The problem is simple: technology is still a male-dominated industry. Male-dominated teams lack female viewpoints, which can contribute to the objectification of women.”

For Balik, the San Francisco-based writer who covered up the affair in a guest post on our site, the sexist back-and-forth hit especially close to home when she began receiving responses to her article from male colleagues and friends. Two former coworkers told her they didn’t like her article because “We want to be able to look at scantily clad women,” adding that, since the tech world is mostly male, “What’s wrong with marketing to the audience?” Another emailed her and told her she should re-think the photo used in her bio as she looked like she looked a little, well, post-coital. Yes, really. The fact that her public criticism of her industry upset her male friends is one thing. That they used it as an opportunity to attack her character is another entirely.

But the truth of the matter is, casual (and even not-so-casual) sexism isn’t just a technology or startup problem. In 2011, there were over 11,000 officially charges of sexual harassment filed with the EEOC resulting in more than $52 million in settlements. And research shows that while the vast majority of women say they’ll not only call out but shut down sexual harassment or sexist behavior in a hypothetical situation, in practice next to none of us do.

And what’s worse, when we do raise the alarm, we’re most often met with criticism, threats or even retaliation. At the very least, women who call out sexism can expect to hear the B word, which makes me beg the question: Is it even possible to nip sexism in the bud without a little mud getting slung your way? Of course, researchers and “experts” say yes, that men actually like being reminded of their sexist behaviors and will, in fact, like you more for it. But in real life, women know that’s usually not the case.

When I first took this question to the social graph, hoping to crowd source a helpful guide for women to confront sexism on the job in a healthy, mutually beneficial sort of way, I was met with case after case of failed attempts to do just that. A few examples from different industries:

“I took out a prospect for lunch … an old[er] man. (I’m in the insurance industry). We had a nice lunch and he referred to his desire to become a client eventually. At the end of the lunch, I stood up to shake his hand, and he pulled me forward and kissed me. This is right after he went on about his lovely wife and grandchildren. Total pig. I pulled back in shock and mentioned his wife, and he said, “maybe we can do this again, but over dinner?” I said a firm “No!” and of course out comes the B-word. “Well, you don’t have to be a bitch about it,” he grumbled.”

“I work as a TA in a foreign language department at a major university. For an oral examination a fellow TA held exams in our office, where about 15 other TAs were working. There were three different oral skits in which male students referred to women as “sluts” and “whores”, some of whom were dying in fires and whose fictional deaths were the subject of laughter.  The TA laughed and did not reprimand the students.  I intercepted several students and asked them why they thought it was at all appropriate to include that language in a skit. Of course, their reply was that they didn’t mean to offend anyone.  I took this to the head of the department, and I don’t talk to this TA anymore for a plethora of reasons.  But the way he tells his story is that I pounced on these poor students and yelled at them.  Yes, I am the crazy psycho feminazi bitch for not voicing my opinions politely and for voicing them in the first place.”

“I was working on a trading floor in New York and my team was mostly guys. Like the other women on the floor, I regularly wore pencil skirts and heels, and would occasionally overhear guys making comments about fit and legs and butts, all of that. One day I got fed up and when I heard one of my teammates (who I was pretty cool with) at the desk behind me say something about the assistant who walked by I turned around and told him it was unprofessional and inappropriate. He called me a bitch to my face and I got the cold shoulder from my team from that point on. I eventually left because of the way they treated me, it’s like their whole opinion of me changed.”

Surprisingly, it was Balik, who brought me the Shanley Kane saga (I reached out to Kane for comment, but she declined, said the whole drama was a distraction from her work) in the first place, who offered the first morsel of helpful advice. She has a friend, she says, who recently shut down some sexist behavior in her male colleagues without destroying their relationship or hearing the B word. She heard a comment in passing, turned to the two guys and said, calmly “inappropriate.” One of them responded, “Really?” “Yes,” she said, and continued on her way. While it doesn’t sound dissimilar to the anecdote form the trading floor, Balik says she thinks that her friend’s casual tone might be key.

“If you were a dude,” she says, “And someone said something that made him sound like a jerk, you’d say ‘dude, lay off,’ and that would be the end of it.” No hard feelings, no raised voices. When we call out sexism, she says, it’s  easy to be seen as shrill or preachy. “Crying sexism is essentially victimizing yourself,” and in industries like tech, that’s never a good position to be in. Instead, stress that any discriminating language, boy-girl-black-white-rich-poor, is simply uncool. Doing so with a “tough” demeanor so as not to “scare” the men with your feminine ways might also be key.

Ashley Bischoff, a Texas-based front-end developer chimed in on Twitter today, and said she was able to break through the sexism barrier when she recently schooled her male colleagues that the word “girls” was not an acceptable way to refer to the women in the office. Says @handcoding: “I’ve pointed out to a couple coworkers that “woman” may be more appropriate than “girl” and was actually pretty well received.” She says she spoke with them privately (IM for one and stopping by the office for the other), figuring (correctly, it seems) that they’d be less defensive that way. She says: “The lightbulb moment for both was mentioning that if a male counterpart wouldn’t be ‘boy’, one similarly wouldn’t say ‘girl.”

Interesting. As for positive advice from been-there-done-that real girls, these two voices were, unfortunately, the only two I’ve heard, making this girl’s guide a bit of a bust.

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