Hear Me Roar – Fighting Subtle Sexism at Work

graphic that says hear me roar - fighting subtle sexism at work

A woman is confident and assertive and her colleagues consider her aggressive and self-promoting. A woman is in the middle of giving a presentation when her male co-worker interrupts to offer his two cents. The only woman in the meeting is assigned the role of taking notes, getting refreshments or planning the post-meeting happy hour.

You get the idea.

In each of these scenarios, there is not an overt act of sexism at work. But add them up and you’re looking at a long career of wage losses, “mommy tracking” and losing credit for your work and ideas — all because of subtle sexism. I recognize that all women professionals – including myself – have benefited greatly from trailblazers who dedicated their lives to ensure our right to vote, attend college and pursue countless amazing opportunities. But, as the scenarios illustrate, our work is not done.

As a woman leader – or male leader – in your organization, don’t tolerate this gender bias. Here are some tips to combat subtle sexism at work:

  • I’m gonna let you finish – Research shows that women are interrupted at twice the rate of men. Make it clear that every voice counts. Set a ‘no interruptions’ rule and if someone cuts a co-worker off, interject and allow him or her to finish. People will get the message.
  • Help a sister out – Don’t fall into the trap of being “one of the guys.” Support women who are junior to you and make alliances with your female peers. Support each other in meetings and celebrate each other’s successes. There is always room for more at the top.
  • Don’t move the goal posts – Studies show that women are often held to higher standards and evaluated more harshly than their male peers. Eliminate vague criteria that relies on ‘gut feelings’ and personalities. Be specific about what great performance looks like, and set goals that are measurable.
  • Hmmm…come again? – If you hear a sexist joke, don’t laugh along. If you hear a female team member described as “too ambitious” or “aggressive” ask if they would have responded the same way if she were a man. Calmly point out the sexism, however automatic or unintended. Sometimes you gotta call a spade and spade.
  • Take a bow – Don’t allow women at work to play down their own achievements. Make sure women get the credit they’ve earned and look for opportunities to celebrate their success. Ask all team members to share something they are proud of at every team meeting.
  • Say no to office housework – The next time a female colleague is automatically asked to take notes, order lunch for the meeting, plan the office party – or any other low-value task that resembles subtle sexism – speak up. If it’s you, politely decline and suggest a male co-worker take on the role this time. If it happens to a female colleague, suggest it’s time to rotate this responsibility to someone new.
  • Everything is negotiable – One reason men often earn more than women in the same jobs is that women are concerned they’ll be viewed negatively if they push to be rewarded for their work. Be a champion and give everyone permission to negotiate.

Whatever your political leaning, it’s inspiring to see so many women working together to demand equality. It’s a powerful statement of empowerment. Awareness CAN lead to fairness. In many cases, your male colleagues – and yes, your female colleagues too — may not realize the harm they are causing or they simply don’t think their displays of subtle sexism are a big deal. If you make them aware of it clearly, sincerely and consistently – but not apologetically – you will start the wheels of change.

We want to help women become leaders in all aspects of their work and life – not just in the Board Room. Powers Resource Center has always been a crusader for women’s achievement with specialized programs that teach women how to:

  • Understand and embrace their authentic leadership style and achieve better results
  • Practice negotiation and communication techniques
  • Identify strategies to address and overcome systemic barriers that women leaders face
  • Develop a personal brand
  • Learn techniques for creating an approachable, positive and powerful presence
  • Tap into the skills, experience and knowledge of a network


Organizations should have zero tolerance for subtle sexism, the same way they do for overt harassment. If your leaders need help setting the standards of expected and acceptable behaviors, or if you are falling short on your women leadership goals, give us a call or check out our Aspiring Women Leaders program https://www.powersresourcecenter.com/aspiring-women-leaders/


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