Everyone deserves an inclusive and respectful environment at work. However, women face many challenges in this respect. One such barrier is the daily grind of sexist and misogynist comments, which are a manifestation of the underlying belief that men are superior to women. Dropped casually at the end of a presentation or as crude jokes between male colleagues, such comments belittle women's work, talent, and dignity.
So what is being said in workplaces that is so problematic? I asked both men and women that question and the responses came hard and fast. Women responded with comments that were targeted at them and men responded with what they overhear in all-male settings. This is a simple call to action if you want to be an ally to women: don't say these things and if someone else does, ask them to stop.
"Everything my female colleague says, my male colleague repeats it in a weird moan to indicate girls are sex slaves to us."
"If I wasn't married, I would have taken her to a corner and shown her who is the boss."
Popular media in the subcontinent represents men as having sexual authority over women; they can demand sex, take it without consent and use sexual violence to intimidate women. In the office, the use of sexual insults is a manifestation of men's expectations to have power over female coworkers.
"Don't hire newly married women, they will immediately get pregnant and you will have to pay for them while they are gone."
"I would rather get a male employee since they won't go into labour."
If only these statements were confined to words; but women are routinely discriminated against for taking maternity leave or due to expectation that they might. Unfortunately, the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006, which guarantees 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, does not include white collar workers. There is no legal protection for women who face retaliation for maternity leave. What stands between them and losing their job and/or promotion is your standing up against such blatant discrimination that is illegal in most countries.
Husband, husband, husband
"Your husband is such a big shot! Why do you still run after money?"
"When I started my business, some said I couldn't even manage my husband (as I am divorced), how can I manage a business?"
"You work so late? Your husband is very generous."
It is difficult for some people to grasp that women are independent adults who make their own decisions and work for the same reasons as men do: to provide for a family, financial freedom, ambition and intellectual fulfilment. Here's a helpful shortcut before making that husband comment. Would you say the same to a man? If not, zip it please!
"She must've slept with the boss to get the promotion that I deserved."
"You want to hire a woman for the engineering department? She isn't capable of technical work."
"Men don't want to be mentored by women."
Our culture paints men as being more capable than women. So when faced with an accomplished woman, many feel threatened at a subconscious level and look for other reasons to attribute her success to ("she is a slut"), or they simply deny her capabilities. By not being hired for technical or leadership positions, women's career progression stagnates. So when a woman is being passed over for a professional opportunity, triple check that the reasons are based on qualification rather than insecurities and biases.
"'You are such a pretty girl, there's nothing wrong with you other than a few extra kilos, which you can lose easily if you become active."
"Man takes me aside after the workshop and says, "You can't be here without a scarf!"
The need to comment on women's bodies stems from the belief that men have a right to it. Layered on top of that is the expectation that a woman's appearance needs to please everyone around her ("smile more, talk in a soft tone"). In the streets, these manifest as catcalls and groping. In cubicles and open desks, they manifest as body shaming and suggestive compliments.
"I can't believe someone said that to you! Why didn't you say something?"
It's a lot to expect when we ask women to overcome the shock of an insult in real time and challenge someone who can impact their livelihood. Yet, our default expectation is that the victim is the one who has to fight back, and we often shame them for not doing so. This is the very opposite of what allies should be doing. Instead, they need to take up the fight. When sexist comments are made, speak up immediately or send an email afterwards to ensure the person who commented realises that their behaviour was wrong. If the behaviour continues, report to HR and senior leadership. Changing deep seated cultural norms is a lot of work but the change starts with each one of us.
Shammi Quddus is a Product Manager at Google.