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Sexism & Harassment – It’s Happening at Work.

Posted on September 10, 2021


be the person you needed when you were younger

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Melissa Cantarero Weiss, Director of Administrative Services for Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Connect with Melissa on LinkedIn or Twitter.

What I’m Reading: Wauwatosa’s draft budget – all day, all week.

What I’m Watching: Friday Night Lights

What I’m Listening to: Iron & Wine


I hope to be one of only a handful of local government employees who have witnessed sexism or harassment in the workplace, but sadly, I am probably not. I want to reflect on some of these experiences and offer a few options for interrupting this inappropriate conduct.

These interactions are often whispered about following meetings or texted about during them, but rarely addressed in the moment. We should be talking about this conduct aloud, in real time, and calling for change.

Here are some examples I have encountered in local government workplaces:

  • In meetings, men are commended for their intelligence and strategic thought. Women are commended for their honesty, kindness, and empathy.
  • A female employee was recently placed in a public facing position. The running comment is that she was assigned to the position because she is attractive.
  • A female employee offers a solution in a meeting. A male employee repeats it later. The leader responds that the male employee is brilliant without acknowledging who originated the idea.
  • A department director frequently talks about sex or people’s sex lives during meetings. No one says anything to them.
  • A leader comments that a female employee is young for her position. Sitting next to her is a male employee who is the same age and in a similar leadership position. No comments are made about his age.
  • A meeting of department directors is underway– only one is a female. She is asked to make copies for everyone.

How does this make you feel? Gross? Uncomfortable? Angry? All of the above?

Your employees are watching this type of conduct play out and wondering if this is the right place to work, the right place to grow. If we don’t create change in work environments, the answer to that question is probably not.

It is hard to speak up in the moment and many of us worry about being “that person” who always speaks up. I argue that we should all be that person. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here are some actions we can take in the moment:

  • Interrupt and say the right thing. For example, when a man is being recognized for a woman’s idea in a meeting, you could say, actually, Diane shared that idea earlier in the discussion – thank you, Diane for that excellent suggestion. If a professional meeting turns unprofessional, interrupt and say – this topic isn’t appropriate for work.
  • Speak to your supervisor about what happened and how it makes you feel. If you don’t do this in the moment, schedule a private meeting with them. In my experience with male supervisors, I have found these discussions make them more aware of these issues.
  • Look for allies. More than one person should be speaking up in these moments. If a colleague tells you after a meeting that they couldn’t believe what happened, tell them – thank you, but what would really help me is if you spoke up about it in the moment.
  • Do you have a Human Resources Department? Make an appointment to discuss your concerns with them.
  • Document everything.

One of the things I often reflect on is that witnessing this type of conduct as an employee in my first few professional workplaces or in an environment where I was the only woman in the room was even harder than it is for me today. One of my favorite quotes is, “Be the person you needed when you were younger.”

be the person you needed when you were younger

A new generation of leaders is watching this and like us, may not be sure how to respond. We need to lead by example. We need to step in. We need to follow up with them after these meetings and create a safe space to hear their feelings.

Most importantly, we need to be the change so that one day in the future, this type of conduct won’t be so common.

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