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The Activist Whisperer: Tackling Sexism at Work

Award-winning activist Sarah Corbett is an author, the founder of the global Craftivist Collective and a pioneer of the art of ‘Gentle Protest’. In her weekly Agony Aunt column for Lush Life she tackles those issues that may be stifling someone from being part of the change they wish to see in our world.

Dear Activist Whisperer,

I work in a big company and I often have to be in meetings of ten or more people from across various departments. One person who is often involved in these meetings is an older white English man and I find his actions really sexist! He hasn't said anything explicitly sexist but he speaks loudly over female colleagues; his friends at work are all men the same age, his protégés are all young men, he suggests the same idea a woman has suggested 10 minutes previously in the same meeting, he man-sprawls, he mansplains… you get the picture. As a woman I want to support other women and I don’t want men getting away with these harmful habits and this toxic culture. But because he hasn't done anything notably discriminating against women I’m not sure whether to pull him up on this or let it slide. What do you think?

Uncertain Jenny,

Hull, UK

Dear Jenny,

I am very grateful to a friend on Facebook. I had ended a post for an event years ago with: “Everyone is welcome: men, women, trans x.

My friend replied: “It looks great, I wish I didn’t live on the other side of the world so I could attend! :) And by the way, you might not know but it’s disrespectful to say ‘trans’.

You can say ‘trans people’ though xx

I am so glad she educated me in such a way that I didn’t feel attacked or shamed, and she reassured me that I hadn’t lost her friendship because of my ignorant mistake. She showed me that compassionate correction works.

I am really thankful for your question Jenny; while gender discrimination can be overt, often more subtle actions hold it in place. I bet nearly everyone can relate to your experience. There is, sadly, no perfect response: every context is different. Instead I’m going to share a couple of ways I’ve addressed similar situations in the hope that they help you decide the best response in your context.

I remember coming across a similar person to the one you describe. I’ll call him Mr Z. He was respected for his work and most people really liked him. But his actions could also be seen as sexist.

Like you, my gut feeling was one of injustice. Privately, people acknowledged his sexist actions but I never heard anyone protesting to him directly. People had ‘bigger fish to fry’ but… I believe in treating people how we would like to be treated and that includes being lovingly challenged where we are doing harm.

I tried to observe him objectively: I didn’t want to project my own insecurities onto him or misunderstand him because of any of my own baggage I was bringing to meetings with him. I quietly jotted down things he said or actions he took that seemed unfair to women and wrote my notes super-tiny so others couldn’t see.

I decided that protesting against his actions in front of everyone would not be as constructive as him hearing the comment from someone he knew better, respected and trusted. I knew my boss’s boss well (let’s call him Mr A) and that Mr A was a feminist; he could be a compassionate critical friend to Mr Z who respected Mr A, was a similar age and in a similar position at work and therefore would listen to his words more than my much younger self.

So, I had a quiet chat with Mr A and mentioned some examples of what Mr Z had done in meetings. I politely asked that if he saw anything similar in future meetings with Mr Z could he please challenge it in a way he saw as appropriate. Mr A thanked me for the discussion, agreed Mr Z’s actions were not right and agreed to challenge Mr Z either in a meeting or privately.

Over the next few weeks, not only did Mr Z improve but other people noticed his change. Colleagues felt more confident to speak up: I noticed a female colleague making a joke to her male colleague, copying his ‘mansprawling’, and they both smiled and sat up straight. I noticed a male colleague calling someone out for mansplaining who then apologised. The culture shifted and friendships flourished too.

What if you can’t find a trusted ally? I have also found it helpful to handwrite a letter to the perpetrator. Start by stating your respect for them as a person and maybe some examples of work tasks they’ve done that you can praise them for. Then, with compassion, quote them accurately or describe situations where their actions came across to you as sexist.

Be vulnerable with them: say how their actions made you feel without name-calling them. You could respectfully suggest ways they could change but also leave the ownership with them to come up with the changes to be part of the solution to gender inequality. I ended my letter:

“With my respect and admiration, Sarah.

P.S. No need to reply. I won’t mention this letter to you unless you want to

discuss it. And I haven’t shown or mentioned this letter to anyone else.

I know how hard it is to think the best of a person when their actions discriminate. I also know that some sexism can be intentional, deeply-rooted and much harder to change. Julia Lalla-Maharajh, Founder of the Orchid Project, was interviewed about how she works with communities who perform Female Genital Cutting:

           It comes back to this: what are our truths? Do we believe people are good?

           If so, we must mirror that.”

Like Julia, let’s assume the best of people, not the worst. Show your belief in them as being able to reach the kindest version of themselves. It will not work for everyone but in my experience and looking through history; a compassionate way is often more effective in changing hearts, minds, behaviours and cultures. Whatever your response, thread compassion through your campaigning.

in solidarity,  

The Activist Whisperer


Additional Information:

If you do experience sexual harassment then please do speak to your HR department or one of the helplines below:

Equality and Human Rights Commission – Sexual Harassment

Helpline England: 0845 604 6610

Helpline Scotland: 0845 604 5510

Helpline Wales: 0845 604 8810

You have a legal right under the Sex Discrimination Act not to be sexually harassed whilst at work. This section explains your rights and lets you know what you can do if you think you are experiencing sexual harassment.

Award-winning activist Sarah Corbett is an author, the founder of the global Craftivist Collective and a pioneer of the art of ‘Gentle Protest’. In her new weekly Agony Aunt column for Lush Life she tackles those issues that may be stifling someone from being part of the change they wish to see in our world.

If you have a question for Sarah, email her at: [email protected]



Let’s assume the best of people, not the worst

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