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Sometimes life’s questions are really easy. Is the dog hungry? Clearly yes, he’s half Labrador. Is the clinic overbooked? Obviously. And some sexist behaviour is so blatantly dreadful that most people would recognise it as such.
Many of us have stories of eye wateringly unacceptable behaviour. I’ve been asked, in a job interview, whether being female would make it more difficult for me to get on with my nursing colleagues. Friends have been ‘groomed’ by senior colleagues and asked on dates, and I’m aware of one part-time consultant post that wasn’t advertised for fear it would attract someone ‘who might get pregnant’.
All pretty easy to recognise as wrong, and although none of these were reported we are working to make it easier to do so.
But what about when your friends at work make unacceptable comments as part of banter – with the group laughing and you feeling that you are the only one who feels uncomfortable? What if they are joking about a female colleague’s sex life or clothes? Or implying she is emotionally unstable, or a ‘princess’?
You may not even immediately recognise this as sexist or undermining behaviour and it is very hard to call it out – you immediately appear to be ‘not one of the gang’ and part of the fun police. And that person might be someone you think of as a friend, so you fear jeopardising a good and supportive personal relationship. Perhaps it’s better just to pretend you didn’t hear – to move on – to hope it doesn’t happen again?
I’ve done that, on and off, for 25 years now and it simply isn’t the best option. First, they won’t realise you found it offensive and will therefore probably repeat it in front of others who will learn that it is OK. Second, it damages you – you will feel uneasy that you didn’t act, disempowered and you will have missed an opportunity to ‘lead’.
So how can you preserve your relationship with that person and keep the atmosphere at work convivial and inclusive?
I’ve found the best way is to address it with that person afterwards, in private and in a relaxed manner. Simply telling them that when they said ‘it’s probably the menopause’ it made you feel very uncomfortable and wasn’t OK will probably be met by surprise – and 9 times out of 10 by an apology. Stick to your guns and repeat it if the message hasn’t got through, and accept the apology and move on.
You will have made one of the most incredible interventions possible in the war against sexism, and it will be much easier next time. I’m going to put it in my Personal Development Plan next year.
Helen Fidler is BMA consultants committee deputy chair
In October, the BMA published the findings of a review into sexism and sexual harassment within the association. BMA council has now considered the report and, following a detailed discussion, unanimously agreed to take forward, develop and in some cases go beyond all 31 of the recommendations. Read more about the recommendations and next steps
If you have experienced sexism or poor behaviour you can speak to someone in confidence by contacting our 24-hour code of conduct support line on 0333 212 3618.
This is an important issue but I note with interest this articles (sexist) bias towards female directed sexism. I am not sure whether this was conscious or unconscious, but disappointing nonetheless. Males are also frequently subject to "banter" in the workplace which would be dealt with much more seriously if the sex roles were reversed.
If someone is made to feel uncomfortable by a comment that is made then this cannot be right and has to be addressed and Helen makes a wise suggestion in how to tackle it. However there is a significant bias in this article as men also face these kinds of comments, from other men and from women. Excusing sexism and harassment as 'banter' is also not acceptable, but not all 'banter' is sexism. Comments about menopause, 'baby brain', 'blond moments' and 'women drivers' are often made by females and as such are seen as humour. Hyperbole and stereotypes are the basis of a lot of humour (by both sexes) and, again, not always offensive. Context is important and that is easy when faced with a stand up comedian on a stage but harder in the workplace. Sometimes speaking to someone else (of the same sex) who was also present in the conversation might help to make a more balanced assessment of the behaviour (which may confirm or refute the sexism). The same could be said for most other types of potential harassment.
In response to some of the comments, I agree that the article is written from a female perspective, but I think the author is female and was writing from a female perspective. Rather than her making her comments more gender neutral we need men to speak up or write in a similar way about their uncomfortable (or worse) experiences. It isn’t acceptable for either or any gender.
Sexist banter in life, let alone in medicine is all too endemic, cultural and an accepted norm. Dr Fidler is right to suggest we should all stop tolerating it and telling the perpetrators in a calm, dignified way, where possible. Although she writes from the stance of women being abused and colleagues have commented on men being abused by sexist banter the latter is far less prevalent. I struggle to judge when banter is light hearted joking, even ironic joking for example; 'a blonde moment' 'men's inability to multi-task' and so on. This is even more so when it's said amongst close colleagues and friends, who are all seemingly happy to laugh and ignore any sexist insult. Some female hand surgeons seem to like the accolade of being able to perform the best hand job. Is that outrageous? So called black humour keeps many of us going during high pressure work environments and I'm fearful of colleagues engaging in banter that they don't mean to be offensive - on the contrary - they want it to enhance the fun we experience at work. I fear there's grey line overwhich some of us may fall - and I'm not talking about the blatant examples Dr Fidler details. It's not unheard of for my female colleagues, recently back after maternity leave to blame their 'mummy brains' for forgetting things. Is that acceptable? Should they be flagellated by their colleagues? Suggesting that has got me aroused. I should go and self flagellate for having such thoughts!
Thanks for discussing such on the front burner issues! I hope that my favorite writers from https://getmyownsite.com will step back from their usual topic and dedicate some time to this theme also.
I have had a male colleague put his arms out to hug me and I refused saying it was not appropriate; this was in front of a group of other colleagues. I had found the man repulsive as he had bullied and undermined me previously. A senior white female colleague laughed and said of me "oh, she is prudish". I am sure she would not have accepted a hug but he was careful not to put his arms out to people he knew he would not be able to cross the boundary with.