First Thing to do About that Sexist at Work

Short answer: make sure they are really a sexist.

First, let me be clear: if someone makes a remark that is blatantly racist, sexist or any other kind of -ist, that is what it is. There’s no excuse for it. This article is not about that.

This article is about those times when we assume what it is. I’m talking about those marginal situations — times when someone does not act the way we expect, so we suspect the worst.

For our sanity and career’s sake, we need to cut that out.

Let me give an example: a young woman has been working for a company for a few months as an infrastructure manager. Her boss (the CTO) has been with the business for 10 years and has been teaching her everything about the systems. She feels she is ready to help the development teams with their infrastructure needs, but the teams continue to go to her boss. She wonders: is it because I’m young, or because I’m female?

I wonder: is it inertia? After all, if your boss has been giving direct support to the teams for 10 years, why would they go anywhere else?

Again, I’m not saying discrimination doesn’t exist (far from it, in my personal experience). I’m just concerned that the current climate has made us over-sensitive and prone to make assumptions too quickly — incorrect assumptions. Assuming that someone else is some kind of -ist is not fair to them, and it keeps you from developing a strong working relationship (so it’s not really fair to you either).

So for your own sake, I’m asking this: in the absence of something overt, assume good will. Look for another reason why someone is acting the way they are. Work based on that alternate theory and test it out in your interactions. One of two things will likely happen: you will learn that it was a misunderstanding and develop a better working relationship, or you will learn they really are discriminating and, well, then you know for sure where you stand.

Be vigilant, but be fair and you’ll be successful.

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