Taking on sexist comments in the workplace

Early in my career, I was the only woman in a meeting full of male executives. Though I was as much a participant as anyone else around the table, the visiting executives from Japan pretended I did not exist – until the moment that one of them turned to me and asked me for some coffee. They just assumed that I was an assistant, not a stakeholder, since I was the only female in the room. At the time, that sort of behavior was typical of what I experienced in meetings, sort of like something out of the show Mad Men: “My girl will get you some coffee.” I don’t get asked for coffee anymore, so hey — we’ve come a long way! Or have we?

The statistics on women in board positions remain dreary; we are still way too outnumbered. And on a fairly regular basis, we continue to be on the receiving end of comments about the lengths of our skirts or the height of our heels. Those comments get old fast. I used to think that sexist remarks were something I could ignore. I would say to myself, “I won’t let this behavior stand in my way.” But the more I think about it, coming up with an action plan for how to address these situations is important to paving the way toward work environments that will succeed in attracting and retaining more women.

To that end, we need to look at the problem of sexist comments in the workplace in a way that will make a positive difference. As a leader, I know that creating a warm, welcoming, fair environment for all employees is an important goal. Thinking about this constructively, I wonder: if a man was the only male executive in a meeting, would he be uncomfortable sharing a table with an otherwise all-woman executive team? He might be. It’s not strange that it’s taken a while for women to get comfortable. Anyone outnumbered is going to feel a bit uncomfortable. The difference is that men don’t receive the type of negative comments that women do.

It’s important to note that there’s a lot that we need to do to make sure that when there are women around the table, they are more included. That will be the subject of other blog posts. Meanwhile, there are things that we can do right now to make sure that women change the dialogue when sexist remarks are made.

There are ways to speak up and change the tone of male-dominant meetings without being rude or confrontational. For example, the next time someone says “among us boys” while I’m in a meeting, I’m going to be quick to chime in with “and among us girls, too.” I earned my seat at that table, and I won’t be discounted or dismissed. And when someone tells me for the umpteenth time “don’t look at it like a woman,” my reply will be “why not? It might actually help!” I’ve written a lot about valuing diversity in the workplace, and it’s time to recognize again that we all have valuable perspectives. I can share that and help us all move forward.

Now, it’s your turn. Have you had sexist remarks made to you in the workplace? What would be a constructive way to respond if those remarks were made again today?

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About Kira Makagon

Kira Makagon is a successful serial entrepreneur and tech industry leader. A graduate of UC Berkeley with both an undergraduate degree in computer science and an MBA, she enjoys sharing her lessons learned from being a veteran “only woman in the room.”

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