Dealing With Sexism
by Wendy Priesnitz

Q: I am a woman small business owner. Today I was in a meeting with one of my major clients. Eight people were present, plus me. The head of marketing for the company chaired the meeting. During the course of his initial remarks, he made some demeaning comments about women. I could tell the other two women present were uncomfortable but none of us said anything. Now I wish I had spoken up. Is there a way to do that without losing the client, or was I right to stay silent?

A: I'm always amazed to realize that such situations still occur in this supposedly enlightened day and age! And when I witness or hear about them, I want to jump up and down and scream. 

However, given the dynamics of this situation, I think you were wise not to challenge the man during the meeting. That would likely have seemed adversarial, which is not the climate you want when dealing with a client. Furthermore, it might not have accomplished anything, since embarrassment can often cause people to feel defensive and can therefore block positive change.

Depending on how well you know him, you might have taken him aside after the meeting and shared how his remarks made you feel, without referring to any perceived reaction from the other women present. A bit of off-handed humor on your part might have defused any negative reaction to your comments, even if you don't know him well.

Or you could have tried to speak to those other women, supporting them if they felt comfortable challenging their coworker (which they might not want to do if the man in question is their superior). You may still be able to do this.

When choosing appropriate responses in such situations, you must consider the stakes involved. In other words, what is the worst possible outcome of your speaking up, how likely is that to occur and would you be willing to live with it? In other words, is this a fight worth picking? Only you can decide that.

Also consider the likelihood of your negative response changing the other person's behavior. If his inappropriate comment was uncharacteristic, he might welcome your feedback. On the other hand, he might be a true misogynist and react in that manner to your comments.


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