Sexism continues to be an issue. It’s found in all spheres of our personal lives but also our professional lives. It remains a deeply rooted issue in our society, and it continues to rear its ugly head in women’s daily lives at work. 

Ordinary sexism is a recurring obstacle to the recognition and advancement of women in the workplace. It prevents women from advancing and being recognized for their work. Its presence is proof the gender gap has not closed. It’s time to reduce the impact of sexism in the workplace.

Below, we’ll discuss sexism at work, what it looks like, how to deal with it, and how to stop it in its tracks.


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what is ordinary sexism at work?

Occupational sexism is a form of discrimination based on a person’s sex that occurs in the workplace. Sexist behaviour is based on old stereotypes related to gender roles in society. 

It can take on many forms such as comments, assumptions, and even the type of tasks assigned to women. 

Here are some examples of what sexism can look like:

  • Inappropriate humour: It can be an injustice that hides under the pretext of humour (It was just a joke!). When sexist remarks are communicated in joke form, it works to decrease the likelihood of a confrontation. 
  • Generational differences: A clash of generations or the “In my day...” rhetoric. 
  • Marginalization: Inappropriate words, toxic attitudes, preconceived ideas, and actions that exclude, marginalize or harm women. 
  • Belittlement: Unspoken or insidious gestures that destabilize, delegitimize, or devalue women's skills, or even belittle them by making them consciously or unconsciously inferior.
  • Mansplaining: Patronizing and condensing explanations or communications from men. The assumption is that women don’t understand a concept or situation. 
  • Inappropriate comments: These can be comments about the body or physical and intellectual abilities
  • Misogyny: Misogynistic attitudes or thoughts suggest that equality between women and men is already here and that feminism is no longer relevant.
  • Biased questioning: Questions that lead back to gender and sex biases. Questing women’s decisions because they are women. 

These types of behaviours can increase the level of tolerance for sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace. It is a dangerous behaviour that will hurt organizational culture. 

innuendos and phrases to ban

The words you use and the actions you take have an effect. Sometimes, you may unknowingly make a sexist remark without realizing it. There are phrases and types of conversations you hear in the workplace every day with sexist undertones. 

Here are some examples of phrases that should be banned:

  • “Can you get us some coffee?”
  • “Don't bother looking for X, by 4:00 p.m. she's probably already gone to pick up her kids from school.”
  • “Are you pregnant? But didn't you want a promotion to manage a team?”
  • “When are you going to start a family?”
  • “Are you sure you have enough clout to manage this team of men” (even though you have the experience and qualifications to do the job at 
  • “Gender equality is part of our values, but it's not easy to promote women to this highly technical position.”
  • “Man up”
  • “be a doll and…”
  • “ladies”, “girls”, “dear”, “sweetie” – these can undermine the authority and negatively affect the perception of a women’s competence. 
  • “For a women…”
  • “She’s the office mom”
  • “Are you sure you are up to the challenge?” 
  • “Guys” – when addressing a group
  • “Negative Nancy” “Debbie Downer”
  • “Female CEO” “Female manager” 

how do you respond to ordinary sexism?

Responding to sexist comments and actions is a key step to eliminating them from company culture. It’s important for everyone, not just women, to call out sexist behaviours. Here are some ways to react to and respond to ordinary sexism:

  • Ask the question, "What do you mean by this? Make the other person aware of the absurdity or awkwardness of their thinking (from the perspective of the victims of this sexism).
  • Not laughing at or ignoring the phrase, but rather acting and standing up for the victim (from the witness' perspective)
  • Implement strict policies regarding such comments and behaviours (Employer's Perspective) 
  • Call out double standards. Speak with management about sexist policies and practices. 
  • You are allowed to be offended. You don’t have to “take it”
  • Report deliberate sexist comments and actions

It is also important for people to take ownership of their comments. Even if you unintentionally say something sexist, you need to own it. 

Apologize and tell your colleague that you recognize your mistake and will do your best to remove sexist language from your vocabulary. 

how does ordinary sexism impact the advancement and recognition of women in the workplace? 

Too often, people brush off sexist comments and actions. But continuing to allow sexism to happen in the workplace is detrimental to women.

It becomes a part of the unspoken company culture, undermining efforts to support women and foster gender equality, as well as negatively impacting mental health.

Unconscious biases, along with overt sexism, can lead to unfair treatment and hinder the progress of women in the workplace.

Certain behaviours get overlooked. This negatively affects advancement and recognition opportunities for women.  

Here are some examples of how sexism can negatively affect women in the workplace:

  • Fear of speaking out against sexism – fear of becoming an outlier 
  • Loss of self-confidence and adoption of standards that are not their own.
  • Slower career progression with less access to key and decision-making positions
  • Men remain in more authoritative roles – women are afforded fewer opportunities to get promoted to management positions
  • Women don’t apply for promotions because they feel as if they will not seriously be considered.
  • Women must do more and prove themselves repeatedly to get recognized
  • Women receive less feedback and are given less face time with management

Sexism needs to stop. It is yet another hurdle that women face in the workplace. Employers need to focus on building an inclusive culture that does not tolerate sexist actions. 

The removal of sexist practices and processes (intentional or not) will help eliminate unnecessary hurdles for women seeking to advance their careers.

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