Why you should not ignore sexist jabs

When an executive assistant at a Dallas physicians group complained to her CEO boss about his sexual comments and dirty jokes, the executive retaliated: He fired the assistant. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is now on the case, and if there’s justice, will resolve it in her favor.

It’s important to tell HR of your concerns because it puts the company on notice should the situation turn into a sexual harassment lawsuit.

But let’s focus on the fact that she directly confronted her CEO. That’s extraordinary. Studies show how hesitant people are to challenge offensive or sexist comments.

In one study, 68% of women said they would refuse to answer questions during an interview that were sexually harassing, while 28% said they’d actually confront the individual asking the questions. But when the interview happened, not a single woman refused to answer the question or confronted the interviewer.

In the real world, people don’t want to be seen as “complainers,” and they don’t want to take steps that will make the workplace even more hostile. Instead, they try to ignore inappropriate comments.

But, says psychologist and speaker Heidi Grant Halvorson, there are at least three good reasons to confront someone making lewd or sexist comments—despite the fear of retaliation:

1.  It won’t be as bad as you think. Men who make insensitive comments usually want to avoid being viewed as sexist jerks (though not always). So they tend to react less negatively when approached.

One study at Loyola University Chicago involved partnering males with females for a discussion in which the women challenged the men’s statements—some of which were sexist, some gender-neutral.

The study found that men reacted more positively when confronted about the sexist comments vs. the gender-neutral ones, trying harder to apologize for their remarks.

2.  He’ll probably be nicer. In the same study, the men who had been accused of sexism behaved more nicely to the female partners after being confronted and reported actually liking their partner more than other participants who hadn’t been confronted.

3.  Confronting the behavior might make it stop. Hundreds of studies show that the best way to change people’s bias is to confront it. Unless someone points out how offensive a person’s remarks are, he’s likely to go on making them. He won’t figure it out on his own.

Online resource: Find out more on what constitutes unlawful sexual har­assment at www.theHRSpecialist.com/harassmentmemo.  

— Adapted from “Why It Pays to Not Let Sexist Comments Slide,” Heidi Grant Halvorson, Forbes.