Sexism at work: 10 subtle ways women are treated differently and how to deal with it


India ranks 120 among 131 countries in female workforce participation, according to the World Bank’s 2017 India Development Report. Another report by McKinsey & Co on the advancing of women’s equality in the Asia-Pacific region, tells us clearly why just around 25 percent of India’s workforce is female, and only five percent make it to the top. The McKinsey report also highlights that “a 10 percent increase to that, it says, could add $770 billion to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the next seven years”. Then what stops us from racing towards that dream-figure?

Among the many reasons why women drop out of their jobs, sexism at workplace seems to be a visibly daunting factor. It is slow, toxic and happens every day. Sexism can seep into workplaces in the subtlest of ways too. Can we fight such sexism with grit and grace? Definitely. Here are 10 sexist practices to watch out for, and 10 ways by which you can combat them.

Your voice goes unheard

When an idea, suggestion, or proposal put forth by you goes unnoticed, whether intentionally or not, it can be pretty discouraging. And when the same idea is taken and rephrased by a male colleague only to be met with applause is infuriating indeed. But hey, you’re not alone in this one. The female staff at White House also faced the flak but fought it with what they devised to be called Amplification Strategy.

What the women decided is to stay united and amplify their voices. If one woman comes up with an idea or makes a point but is ignored, then another woman simply repeats it, acknowledges it until it is heard loud and clear.  

“..because you’re a woman”

It’s easier to make a presumptuous list of ‘musts’ ‘cant’s’ ‘shoulds’ ‘shouldn’ts’ and blame it on biology. Let’s say, a new project needs more time to be invested, you have been wanting to work on this for long, but you find your name to be missing from the list. When asked why, you’re told because they assumed you won’t be able to make it to the late-hour meetings, you’d obviously have personal responsibilities.

While it’s true that you do have responsibilities and you juggle between work and personal life, isn’t it only fair to be given a choice? To wade off all presumptions, you could say, “I would love to stay back and take part in the late-hour discussions. Being a working woman, what I seek from this organisation is support so that I can achieve a balance between personal life and work.” Firm assertion goes a long way.

“No offence. Don’t take me wrong”

Often, these are safe phrases followed by obvious, insidious sexist remarks. Brushing off sexist comments is easiest. But sadly, they don’t end. So, take it seriously. There is offence. There is everything in it for me to take wrong. But how to get this point across?

The best way to combat a discriminatory statement would be, “Would you have said/asked the same to a male colleague?”

“Please be the mother of the office”

This one’s not told directly but is quite apparent. In a group of men and women, the women often write the minutes of meeting, arrange for coffee, and do all the menial tasks that are too “silly” for men.

If you have found yourself doing a secretary’s job without being the secretary really, then step back and refuse it. You could either point out this strange role or you could simply tell that you would like to take up new responsibilities, something that challenges you.

Sweet names taste bitter

Although it doesn’t seem like a big deal, it is in reality. Nick names by superiors or male peers could mean lack of boundaries and give out a sense of superiority. Indira Nooyi makes a point in her interview with CBS This Morning. “We have to have equal treatment. We need to be treated as equals. I hate to be called ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ and ‘babe’. That has to change,” she says.

You could express your unwillingness to be called by those names in an honest, personal conversation than reacting in public.


Has it happened to you that somebody, more often than not, a man oversimplifies a subject to you with a presumption that you wouldn’t know about it? That person was probably mansplaining. None of us like to be talked over or talked down to. Right?

Here’s how you can clarify - “I wonder if you assumed that I’m unaware of this subject. I will seek your help if I need it.” And walk away before another round of mansplaining begins. You don’t want to waste your time and energy justifying why you ought not be mansplained, do you?


You got it right. Too much interruption, man!

Jessica Bennet recounts an incident in her book, Feminist Fight Club. “I have a great male friend that I once shared a co-working space with, who literally cannot speak without interrupting someone else. If you don’t have a booming loud voice, you’re going to lose that battle. So, I started calling him a “manterruptor”, half joking but half serious, and would call him out every time he did it. He was maybe a little annoyed, but also maybe a little amused and eventually, he too started to notice he was doing it. And now he jokes when he does it, and catches himself.”

Men wish to be men

What usually happens inside a meeting room until all of them gather? The air is filled with banter, sometimes with sexist jokes.

If you are one of them sitting there and you do not approve it, voice it out. Tell them it’s not funny, looking into their eyes. It’s likely they will stop. Do this until they realise it is not funny. Tell them there are other things lined up for the day. Even better, you could start a conversation about a recent advertisement or short film that promoted gender equality.

Double standards

Studies show that if men display anger, it is appreciated, whereas women are expected to be gentle. Women tend to be labelled as bossy and bitchy if they show aggression.

Tina Fey, in her book Bossy Pants, has a piece of advice for you - “Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.”


It cannot be dismissed that you fear the possible backlash against being assertive, and you see yourself getting into grave trouble after voicing out against the male superiors.

The best way to tackle this is to have a support system. Bennet suggests finding a colleague who will assist you in fighting these things. “This person could echo you in meetings or boost you up to colleagues. And it doesn't have to be a woman - in many cases, men are also willing to step up.”

Along with the skills, here’s an inspiring story of grace and grit from a woman. Back in the 1970s, when feminism was a word unheard of and unknown in our country, an incident took place. A woman, a double gold-medalist from the Tata Institute, saw a job advertisement by a telecom company, which said it required male engineers only. Not having been raised with gender discrimination, she wrote back to the company questioning this. She was then called for an interview by the company, where she heard their side of the story - “We haven’t hired any women so far”. To which she said, “You must start from somewhere.” The woman is Sudha Murty, Chairperson of Infosys Foundation.

When she could do it, we too can. We can solve this problem, as a nation.