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What to Say When Someone Says Something Sexist

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 04, 2021

Sexism is prejudice or discrimination against a person based on their sex. Historically, women have faced sexism, but there is also sexism against transgender people or people whose gender identity doesn’t fall along the male/female binary. Men may also find themselves victims of discriminatory statements or actions.

Sexism is hurtful to people and leads to emotional challenges and low self-esteem. Sexist policies at schools or workplaces are barriers to success for many people. Challenging sexism helps level the playing field so that all people have genuinely equal opportunities to thrive.

If a friend, relative, or colleague says something sexist, you may want to seize the opportunity to speak up and provide a less sexist perspective. Speaking up can be difficult, especially if you’re confronting someone you love or a person who has power over you at work.

Why Saying Something Matters

Sexist jokes and remarks may seem benign when you first hear them. For example, jokes about women being too emotional to be leaders are commonplace. So are offhand insults about men who seem feminine or women who present as masculine. While they may not seem like a big deal, they may be very hurtful. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of a bigoted remark has felt pain and humiliation because of it.

Sexist comments have a more insidious element, as well. Research shows that liking sexist jokes correlates with sexist attitudes about women's roles in society. Men who enjoy sexist humor may also have higher levels of acceptance of sexual violence. Experts have found that unchallenged acceptance of sexist remarks can cause people to assume that everyone else agrees with these sexist attitudes. Silence about sexist remarks allows sexism and sexist policies to continue.

Speaking up when you hear something sexist can help to derail sexism. When you voice your opinion, you can help people challenge their own assumptions and biases about sex and gender. Your actions can help teach others how to effectively confront sexism. Standing up against sexism also shows victims of sexism that you will support them.

Managing Confrontations About Sexism

Plan ahead. If you know you will be spending time with a person who has sexist attitudes, you should think about how to confront them before you see them. Consider possible responses to sexist jokes or prejudiced statements. Practice what you want to say aloud so you can hear how it sounds.

Ask questions. In some cases, you can open a discussion by asking for an explanation of a joke or comment. Ask the person what they meant, or why they thought it was funny. Question what informs their attitude about sex or gender.

In the workplace. Workplace sexism is often a case of men talking over women or taking credit for women’s work. You can help by making sure everyone in a meeting has a chance to talk. If a colleague isn’t giving fair credit to another worker, take the time to clarify who did the work. If there is a sensitive situation where you don’t feel comfortable speaking up, talk to your Human Resources (HR) department. They can help you handle the issue.

Dealing with family. You may not feel comfortable confronting family members, especially parents or grandparents. Rather than engaging on the subject, you can set limits about what you will tolerate. You can say, “I don’t like sexist remarks, so please don’t say them. If you want to keep saying that, I will leave.” You can also let family members know that you won’t join them at future events if they won’t respect your wishes.

Men Confronting Sexism

Men don’t always think it’s their place to confront sexism when they see it or hear it. It’s important to remember that people with sexist attitudes are less inclined to listen to women, trans people, or gender-non-conforming people. On the other hand, getting push-back from a man may have a different impact on their thinking.

Men can speak up by firmly rejecting sexist statements. You might say something like, “I don’t think that joke is funny. Making fun of women isn’t cool.” Or you might remind coworkers to treat all colleagues with the same level of respect. If there are policies against racist or sexist behavior, remind others about them if they start making sexist comments.

Being an ally takes work and strength. You can help others by saying the right thing at the right time. 

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES:

Australian Human Rights Commission: “Bystander action.”

Council of Europe: "Sexism: See it. Name it. Stop it."

Harvard Business Review: How Men Can Confront Other Men About Sexist Behavior.”

Psychology Today: “Can't Take a Joke? Good!”

Southern Poverty Law Center: “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry.”

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