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Begin with success > Scary truths no one told you > Dealing with a Sexist Boss

Dealing with a Sexist Boss

By Galia BarHava-Monteith

“How do I respond/manage a male boss who is convinced that females, independent of their abilities, should stay at home and mind the kids? And in case there are no kids, who truly feels that females should get married and stay home afterwards?”

The question is related to my past. I left the company before the situation reached crisis point but have often wondered afterwards what I could have done to make it a less frustrating situation.

Some background:

  • He was married with (grown-up) children, with his wife staying at home. I would have guessed his age at 50+, with mine being 30-ish.
  • He made his ‘females-should-stay-in-the-kitchen’ comments in a joking sort of way, but it was very clear it was a core belief. He wasn’t really interested in my professional development (requests for interesting courses/challenges were often denied because of ‘lack of budget’ while male colleagues could go without a problem) or finding jobs/projects that would really suit me.
  • I worked for a large software company with hardly any women let alone ‘senior’ women
  • When I worked for him, my job (office manager on a big, risky, high profile software project) was rather ‘invisible’: if I did my job right, hardly anybody noticed because everything went the way it should. If I didn’t do my job, everybody noticed. My boss certainly never noticed what I did, the amount of hours spent and the quality of my output.”

While we sincerely hope that this sort of attitude is in decline, we suspect that this question will still strike a chord with some of you, some of the time.

We decided to answer this question from today’s point of view, in a more general manner, to ensure this answer is relevant to women today who may be dealing with similar situations. Some of our suggestions may not have worked ten years ago. But, of course, employment law has changed a lot over the last decade and in today’s context you’d have more options open to you.

Spare a Thought for the Sexist Boss

Before we list the options we believe are available to you, we suggest you do some thinking about your boss’s frame-of-mind. Our natural reaction was ‘what a jerk’, and I’m sure that was the reaction of most of our readers. However, after giving this some thought, it occurred to me that in the mid-nineties, males in their mid-fifties had faced a raft of challenging changes with the rise of technology, demise of the “job for life” concept and so on. It is possible that the boss in question was simply ill-informed or uneducated and genuinely believed that his views represented what was best for all parties involved.

It is a core belief of mine that when confronted in any situation where you are required to manage the difficult behaviour of others, it is always important to do some thinking about the other person’s frame-of-mind. This is useful because it can help you come up with the most appropriate strategy. Also, it may shed a different light on the situation and perhaps make it more tolerable without having to do anything.

Some of the questions you can ask yourself about your boss are:

  • What is he going through?
  • Is he under a lot of pressure from management to perform and so takes it out on whoever is there?
  • Is he feeling threatened/undermined? By the quick rate of change? By more technologically literate younger people?

And the list can go on. At times, when going through this exercise with a generally ‘jerk’ type of boss, I’ve ended up feeling sorry for the guy! This gives you, in turn, a feeling of being in control of the situation.

Three Possible Options

We believe that in this case, there are three key options. Each option depends on the specifics of your situation. When considering your options, keep in mind which of them will result in you feeling most in control. The hardest thing in dealing with a bully boss/ a sexist boss or generally a jerk-of-a-boss, is the feeling of not being in control.

  1. Ignore Him

This may not be the politically correct thing to say, but there are some situations where ignoring this kind of behaviour may be the best option for you. If you think that your boss is unlikely to ever change his behaviour or that you’re not ready to deal with the situation head-on, this may be the easiest option for you.

Having said that, it is also extremely important that you feel in control of the situation. Choosing to ignore the comments can be an extremely powerful tool. Some people like to say outrageous things just to get a reaction. Simple, but so true. From a behavioural psychology perspective, the more outraged you get, whether you actually say something or just respond with body language, the more likely they are to continue with that behaviour.

If, however, you decide to completely ignore the comments, you might find that over time they will taper off. In the meantime, make the decision to plan your exit, either to another role in the organisation or elsewhere. But do it because you choose to, not because you felt you were cornered.

It can be as simple as constantly telling yourself, “I’m CHOOSING to leave this environment because he is a jerk and I’ve got options”.

It may sound trite, but it really is all in your mind-frame. If you decide that, having considered all your options, this one is the best one for you, then take control of the situation by ignoring the comments and actively planning your exit.

Advantages:

This option doesn’t involve confrontation. It’s also the simplest to implement and requires little emotional energy.

Disadvantages:

You might think back in ten years and wished you’d made a stand. Unless you’re 100% comfortable with this option you might end up feeling like you weren’t in control and gave up to the jerk.

2. Educate Him

Some people we come across in our working lives hold views that seem incomprehensible to us. But they may hold these views out of sheer ignorance or a completely different cultural paradigm, rather than malice.

If you’d like to stay at your work, and would like to try and resolve the situation without resorting to full blown confrontation, taking this route can prove helpful. You can ask your boss for a meeting and start by saying that you’ve noticed he makes many comments about ‘women who should be at home’. Do this in a non-confrontational manner, more in an interested-kind-of-way, and ask him why he thinks that’s the case.

You might find out that he genuinely believes that it’s best for children in all circumstances to have their mums. And that it’s best for women in all circumstances to have children. If that’s the case, you can engage with him about his core beliefs in a genuine discussion without the semi-joking put-downs.

Now consider this: for many decades last century, in serious psychological research, the assumption was that it’s best for children in ALL circumstances to have their mums at home. But subsequent research demonstrated that children fare best when their mums are happiest. Common sense, isn’t it? But you’d be surprised how much research was done on the topic.

In a nutshell, if the mum is happy being at home, and is at home through her own choice, then her kids do best. If the mum who wants to stay at home, however, is forced to work then her children don’t do as well. And the reverse situations are also true.

The key here again is being in control of your circumstances and your situation. That’s the message you can convey to him. He might listen, or he might not. But you’ve taken the initiative and confronted him about his beliefs without actually confronting him personally.

Advantages:

In this alternative, you might be able to alleviate the situation without resorting to leaving or confrontation. You might gain more respect from your boss for tackling the situation in this manner. And lastly, successfully educating others can be extremely rewarding!

Disadvantages:

This alternative might not work and your boss may get even worse as a consequence. It requires you to do some reading and preparing so you can debate the topic from a point of knowledge. It may potentially end up being a confrontation.

3. Confront Him

If you feel that the previous two alternatives are not right for you and your circumstances, and you feel ready and willing to take the confrontational approach, you have three options here as well:

  1. Opt for formal mediation to resolve the situation.
  2. Lodge a formal complaint with the Human Rights Commissioner.
  3. Take the legal route and sue the organisation for mistreatment/discrimination.

But firstly you must make sure that you are thoroughly prepared by having a written record of the following:

  • The occasions/circumstances when your boss made sexist comments, what he said and who was present.
  • All your requests for courses/advancement opportunities that were denied and the reasons given.
  • Your performance discussions and your attainment of your contractual KPIs.

Once you feel prepared, ask yourself what it is you want to achieve?

Do you want to stay in the company and in your job? Then, mediation is probably the best option for you.

Do you want to make a point and ‘teach your boss a lesson’? Then, complaining to the Human Rights Commissioner is probably more appropriate.

If you think there’s no hope in staying, but you feel that you’ve been mistreated/discriminated and should be compensated, then go the legal way.

You can approach your HR department for the first two options. With their assistance you might re-think the route you’ve chosen. Good HR departments should be able to help you with the formal route and with your meticulous preparation they should be able to do so promptly and with good results. If you want to go the legal way, then find yourself a good employment lawyer.

Advantages:

This alternative is the most likely to produce results for you and give you closure. It’s also the most likely to make you feel you’ve taken control of the situation. And there’s always the possibility that you’ll end up getting some monetary compensation.

Disadvantages: This alternative will require you to invest a lot of emotional energy and deal with confrontation. It may be costly (if lawyers are involved) and may not produce the results you want.

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