Was that Sexist? How Boundaries and Respect Could Eliminate Sexism

We often hear stories about women who experience sexism and are harassed by male colleagues, especially in STEM professions. We read about men making unwanted advances, saying sexual comments, and exhibiting sexist behavior in the workplace.

It’s astounding to read and makes you wonder what’s happening for this to continue to occur in today’s world. You would think there would be generally more awareness about such behavior. I believe that most offenders start their “journey” with disrespectful, off-hand comments or poor form “jokes,” and if these behaviors are not addressed and changed, the sexist behavior escalates into harassment, creating hostile environments.

When I was at MIT, I was a member of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Sexual Harassment. Our mission was to expose campus sexual harassment. It was in the labs, in classes, at the workplace, between peers, classmates, professionals. We knew our organization was making headway when we got a meeting with the president.

Shortly after that meeting, I had a conversation with the headmaster in my dorm about sexism and sexual harassment between students. He organized a task force and a study with other dorms to explore the problem in more depth. I got to attend some of the meetings. Sadly, the harassment went far deeper than I ever imagined, and it spread into date rapes and other abuses.

Note: Sexual and other violence and hostilities represent a level of hate and anger against women that I won’t be addressing here. There is no excuse or reason for violence and hostility or any sort in our society. Justice and protection from physical harm needs to be addressed in legal channels.

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I realized through my experience at MIT that harassment starts with disrespectful and sexist communications that never should have been allowed in the first place. Words are powerful. Thoughts become words, and words shape our belief systems, creating our view of the world. In some cases, harassment starts with offensive language that, when unchecked, gradually escalates to assume harassment and physical action. Then again, if thoughts become words, words become beliefs, and beliefs and words can take action — the progression is logical.

The thought process becomes: If it’s ok to call someone a negative term, it must be ok to treat them like one.

This is why early stage offensive comments need to be corrected as soon as they happen.

Step 1 in the fight against sexism: find your voice and confront your offender.

I learned that before you can build a case about sexism and harassment against anyone, you need to tell the person who offended you what he did. That can be very difficult, if not painful, to do, especially if that person is a repeat offender and you didn’t speak up when it originally happened.

I had a hard time speaking up at 18 because I didn’t know how to confront this type of behavior. A teaching assistant told me my physics question was stupid in front of the entire class (My response was to leave the tutorial session and meet with the class professor individually in a separate tutorial, after an argument about this event with the program director). Another teaching assistant (a woman) told me my answer was right during a tutorial, and a male student who was wrong threw a tantrum, called me and the assistant names, and left the room. I didn’t have enough confidence in my voice at the time to speak up and tell these guys that their actions and words were inappropriate or bothering me in some way.


With that in mind, what are some reasons why someone wouldn’t speak up about sexist behavior or harassment?

  • Denial of the situation. How could someone say that? Do you think he meant it that way? Maybe I asked for this? If those questions are in your head, you are in denial and can’t face the problem, never mind address it. Before you can heal, you need to admit that this happened to yourself and confront the problem.
  • Lack of personal boundaries. To speak up and say that someone is offending you and doing something inappropriate, you need to have confidence to know that you are worth better treatment. At the same time, you need to know what better treatment means so you can correct the behavior in a way that works for you. You need to define how you want to be treated.
  • The offender is in a position in power. There could be repercussions of saying anything about the behavior – losing a job, getting a bad grade, not getting a well-deserved promotion. If the person has power, that power could, and usually is, used as an intimidation factor. This usually requires help from authority figures to resolve.
  • Unclear how to address the situation. If you have never had to address such behavior before, you may need help to address your first confrontation. It’s hard! You need to be strong, clear, and direct. See counsel and support here for the best approach for your situation.
  • Past traumas. This makes this all the more difficult. If you have experienced this before and have to confront experiencing this again, you may avoid it all together. This may require counsel and support for best approaches.

It can take a lot of courage and determination to confront your offenders, even for something small. Why do it?

  • You need to define the boundary that is being crossed. If you don’t define how you are offended, there is no way for anyone to change their behavior and no way to reference what line was being crossed. You need to communicate to others what is ok and what’s not ok. If the boundary is crossed again, then you can point to that moment where boundaries were defined and escalate the discussion.
  • Give someone a chance to change and have a successful relationship or interaction with you. Boundaries create growth opportunities for someone, especially in how to interact with you. Without setting the boundaries and defining how you want to be treated, you aren’t giving that person the opportunity to have a successful relationship with you.

You may wonder, if women drive the conversation to define what is offensive, doesn’t that put the work on the woman? It depends on how you look at it. With this approach, women determine what is offensive and define the rules for how to be treated. It can be empowering to teach people how you want to be treated. It helps you define who you are with them. Further, each person is different and accepts different language and conversation styles. This approach allows for different types of relationships to develop.


What could spark sexism and harassment?

Sadly, some men have malicious intent and genuinely don’t like or respect women. However, I think most men do respect women. I believe some of the sexist behavior that occurs isn’t intentional — it is based in a conflict of gender-driven communication styles. This is why correction is key. The challenges start as being unintentional. It may be from defining a hierarchy versus building a group. In some cases, men are attempting to be friends; it’s just a very different approach to friendship than how women communicate and build relationships.

Duel vs Duet

Men, [John Locke] argues, use antagonistic speech, or ‘duels,’ to show off their strength and prove themselves to women. Women, meanwhile, use quieter speech patterns to bond with each other — and help protect themselves against aggressive men.

–Thomas Rogers, Why do men and women talk differently? Salon

Men establish hierarchies. A man challenging a woman leader could be considered to be sexist and threatened by her being a leader. However, one could interpret what he is doing as establishing a hierarchy on the team.

…Men talk to determine and achieve status. Women talk to determine and achieve connection. To use metaphors, for men life is a ladder, and the better spots are up high. For women, life is a network, and the better spots have greater connections.

–RLG, Johnson: Why men interrupt, The Economist

As a man is establishing status and hierarchy in the confrontation, the woman manager may take offense because she’s trying to achieve connection with her employee. She is trying to assert her dominance, but in a different way. In some ways, they communicate past each other to create a communication gap that is based on subconscious goals of what needs to happen in the conversation. One wants to establish status; the other wants to build a relationship.

In cases like this, a woman can’t expect the man to be submissive because she’s in charge of the group — he doesn’t think that way. She needs to work with his communication style in the same way he needs to recognize his need for hierarchies and acknowledge her need for connection – and learn how to accept what it means to lead through connection.

For a full mindmap containing additional related articles and photos, visit #sexism

What if there were two men talking?

Men begin discussing fact-based topics, sizing each other up. Before long, a hierarchy is established: Either those who have the most to contribute, or those who are simply better at dominating the conversation, are taking most of the turns. The men who dominate one group go on to dominate others, while women show more flexibility in their dominance patterns.

–RLG, Johnson: Why men interrupt, The Economist

This happens in work environments as well.

Both men and women need to know if men are dominant or subordinate. Men need to know because they are very hierarchical in their organization. It’s recently been discovered that a very rich repository of information is carried by the speaking voice of individual men, and women are particularly good at picking this up. 

–Thomas Rogers, Why do men and women talk differently?

This can easily be linked to sexist behavior and inappropriate comments at the workplace. And it goes back to communication styles that help with mating. Mating rituals don’t belong in the workplace, but if these behaviors are built-in, at times hardwired, to people’s communication styles based on gender, it starts to make sense why it happens.

It is natural for men to establish hierarchies because this is what they are “programmed” to do to attract women. And communication plays a huge role in establishing hierarchies. If there is a woman at work, a man may get the idea to impress her because that’s what he’s wired to do in this hierarchy building process. If she goes along with it and tolerates his behavior, he will assume this is acceptable behavior and continue. If she says no, the behavior is corrected; rejection is a strong deterrent.

I’m not proposing that men naturally try to date women at work. I’m proposing a reason why this may happen. However, men need to be aware of this within themselves to stop the behavior and change it. If they don’t, women need to arrest it before it gets out of hand.

The banter club

There are a number of criteria: It’s symbolic, playful, stylized. In its purest form, it looks quite a lot like a performance. But the disposition to duel sort of seeps into everyday speech too — like if two guys, for example, come up to each other, and one of them says, ‘Hey, you old son of a b****. How the hell are ya?’ and maybe insults him a little bit about his bulging midriff, or his thinning hair, or some weird shirt that he is wearing.

–Thomas Rogers, Why do men and women talk differently?


In some environments, when a new woman joins a team with a number of men, the guys will remind each other that a new woman is present and to watch the language. They don’t know her; she’s not in the club. They need to see how she works with them before she is invited into their banter.

It’s easy for this to be misinterpreted. If a guy is joking and says it’s great that you figuratively have a “big dick” or even call you a “bitch” – in his world, he gave you a compliment. In another world of communication, that could be interpreted as an insult. And if she is offended, she needs to define conversation rules with the man, telling him that those words are not acceptable. He’ll understand and find another way to connect with you.

When women can’t get a word in edgewise

While over 50% of women surveyed said they didn’t feel included in the workplace — whether in business social events, casual meetings or conversations — 90% of men surveyed felt women had equal opportunities and didn’t feel they excluded women.

–Lisa Evans, Are We Speaking A Different Language? Men And Women’s Communication Blind Spots, Fast Company

Picture a room filled with men and a handful of women. Pretend they are all having an engaging, heated discussion. The men start to talk at a dizzying rate, and the women will wonder how they could interject a word into the conversation. The women may feel excluded, like they can’t get a word in edgewise. This may strengthen the belief that the women need to be invited to join the conversation (Most women feel this to be true generally; this situation may aggravate this). This may explain why this type of situation could be interpreted as sexist. The men, according to John Gray in the Fast Company article, most likely feel that in this situation, the women had nothing to say. They couldn’t understand why the women wouldn’t speak over them to make a point like they are doing.

Depending on how well everyone knows each other, this type of situation can be easily fixed. The women need to either speak up, Lean In (Sheryl Sandberg style) or demonstrate to the men somehow how they are excluding them in the excited banter. The women need to speak up and tell them they want to be included.

Conversely, men could be more aware of their communication style, taking a break from the banter from time to time and ask the women what their thoughts, inviting them into the conversation.

These are all reason why it’s important to tell the offender what he is doing and how it makes you feel. If most men who act sexist aren’t really sexist – they really are just being men and need to be more self-aware and adjust their behavior – this is a salvageable situation that doesn’t require escalation.


What about men who disrespect women, but respect their mothers?

There was a social experiment in Peru. Men who are offenders of cat-calling women in the street were identified. The person running the experiment found their mothers, disguised them as sexy younger women, and had them walk past their sons. The sons cat-called their mothers, and the mothers disciplined them on the spot, shocked that they acted that way because they didn’t train them to do that.

If men are petrified of offending their mothers, how do they justify doing this to other women? Does this go back to communication styles gone awry and unchecked? Is this part of the same subconscious situation?

Which raises the issue, how do we stop sexism and harassment permanently if it is possible for mothers to raise sons who respect them and not other women?

We need to teach children respect for everyone.

We put pressure on girls to be quiet and polite, but being quiet and polite doesn’t include knowing who you are and defining personal boundaries. We need to encourage our daughters to set boundaries for themselves, and provide them with right tools to be able to successfully shift conversations that venture into sexist areas.

Conversely, we need to stop punishing boys from being boys and teach them to respect and appreciate who they are. Studies show more boys getting suspended and expelled. It is alarming and raises the question: how can boys appreciate who they are and respect themselves when they are told every day to behave like someone they aren’t?

Adults need to be better role models because we teach our children.

This applies to both genders.

Children pay close attention to the adults around them to learn social queues in society – what’s okay, what’s not okay. In a way, adults teach them how to act. So when they observe adult behavior that puts other people down, they will most likely follow that lead.

One painful truth that contributes to this problem involves mothers who put down other women. Children observe women not respecting other women, internalize that behavior, and believe that it is acceptable to tear another woman down. It may be a more difficult lesson for boys – they see their mother disrespecting other women while at the same time, demanding or commanding respect from their father. If women want to change how women are perceived, then they need to demonstrate to boys the value of all women.

This applies to men as well. Children observe how the men in their lives treat women like their mothers. If women are objectified, abused, or disrespected, children believe this is okay behavior. They need to learn how men treat women – from what to do (boys) to what to expect from a man (girls).

Men and women have a responsibility to their children to be a good role model for how to treat other people. If men and women respect themselves, they will respect others. And that lesson will go very far for everyone.

Most people would be horrified to know that they are treating others badly. We are able to teach each other how to be better people by raising challenges at the start, communicate boundaries and openly discuss appropriate behavior. If we teach our children this, and how to respect themselves for who they are, we may be in a different place in a few years. A more respectful place that allows us to be more aware of our innate traits and adjust them so we can be more welcoming to those who have a different communication style than we do. We can all work to create a place where sexism and harassment is unknown.


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About the Author /

Mary is an experience designer. She creates experiences for people using different types of technology - from apps to Web to phones. As an entrepreneur, she has a passion for startups. She founded her own business and has collaborated with others started a few. She is also a writer. Her interests span from how people experience technology and communicate with each other online and offline to women, leadership, and entrepreneurship. When she's not designing, writing, or working on a business, she's either at the gym, at her home studio belly dancing (was formerly a professional belly dancer), or in her kitchen cooking. Her personal motto comes from Yoda: "Do or do not, there is no try!"

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