Guest Column | August 22, 2018

Lessons For Our Fight Against Subtle Sexism

By Christine Haas, Christine Haas Counsulting, LLC


When my hotel room phone rang at 9:30 pm and woke me from a deep sleep, I assumed it was a wrong number. I was traveling for work in Denmark, and I knew no one in the area. The woman at the front desk explained that “Kevin” was in the lobby to see me.

It took me a moment to place the name, but then I remembered he’d been a participant in my presentation skills class that day. The group of tech professionals had been the best kind of class, full of bright and appreciative students. I hadn’t expected them to show up at my hotel, though.

Still assuming there was some sort of mix-up, I asked the woman to put him on the line. I could hear the embarrassment in Kevin’s voice, as if he hadn’t anticipated having to explain his presence at my hotel.

“I was just coming by to see, well, would you like to have dinner?” he asked. 

No. I did not want to have dinner.

I politely declined the invitation, but something about the encounter left me unsettled. At lunch that day, another student asked where I was staying, and I’d told her. I didn’t think most people were even listening. Why had he been listening? I called the front desk back, and the woman confirmed my suspicion. Kevin had asked her for my room number, as if he’d planned to show up at my door without invitation. The thought sent shivers down my spine.

This is one of a handful of stories from my time working in the science, engineering, and technical fields. While these stories are hardly as outrageous as being propositioned by Louis C.K. in a hotel room, or as unconscionable as Larry Nassar’s decades-long misconduct, I imagine my encounter with Kevin is closer to the situations many women face on a daily basis.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently gave a name to the problem, gender harassment, which they define as “behaviors that belittle women and make them feel they don’t belong.” Jessica Bennet, in her book Feminist Fight Club, calls it subtle sexism — situations that leave you wondering “Is it me or them? Was that harassment, or am I making it a bigger deal than it actually is?” 

Regardless of what name you use, subtle sexism is challenging — not just because it’s subtle, but because it is baked into our culture as an acceptable form of behavior. Whether it’s complimenting a woman’s smile, or asking her to take notes during a meeting, or inviting her to dinner from her hotel lobby, these actions are the equivalent to putting a frog in water and slowly turning up the heat. Each degree is so minor you can barely feel a change, but collectively, those degrees boil you alive.

Some of my clients have asked me how to react to subtle sexism, but we don’t just need a plan for how to react. We need a plan for how to shine a light on it, revealing the line in the sand so we know when it’s been crossed. If victims can identify these moments, then they can react to them. Even harassers likely have challenges understanding where the line is after they’ve seen it crossed for so long without regard. If we can bring subtle sexism to light, when either side encounters it, the taboo will be akin to running with scissors up a flight of stairs covered in marbles — clearly a bad idea with serious consequences.

Below are some lessons from my time working in communication for the S.T.E.M. fields, usable by anyone who wants to take action against subtle sexism.  

Trust Your Instincts

If your gut tells you that something is wrong, then something is wrong. Kevin was out of line. I spent too much brainpower trying to answer, “Were his actions inappropriate?” before realizing I hadn’t been asking myself the right question. The question was not whether he had been out of line, but what I should do about it.

Share Your Story — And Then, Share It Again

I knew I couldn’t handle the experience of this hotel room encounter alone. I called my parents and a colleague, each of whom had different interpretations of Kevin’s intentions. My father was irritated that I found Kevin’s invitation offensive. My mother sympathized with my discomfort, but thought Kevin may have had a simple lapse of judgement. My colleague was horrified and thought I should tell his employer.

Sharing my story with others, even those close to me, was difficult. As a public speaking instructor, I have a flair for the dramatic. I was concerned others would see my upset as an unwarranted call for attention. However, I felt better after sharing my story with three people, even though they had wildly different interpretations of the event. I was able to source different opinions and decide how to handle the situation.

Understand The Power Dynamic

Like most communication, what’s not said is often more significant than what is. In the case of harassment, the unspoken is the power dynamic. In the #metoo stories that have emerged, there’s a massive discrepancy between the power of the harasser and the power of the victim. There’s a reason that rules exist that bar teachers from dating students, or bosses from dating employees. The power dynamic between these parties is skewed, and it’s hard to call anything “consensual” when there is an uneven power dynamic.  

Had Kevin stopped to think about our power dynamic, he may have realized that I was traveling alone in a foreign land. As a resident, he had the upper hand. If his dinner invitation was meant as a friendly and welcoming gesture, then he could have leveled the power field by asking me after class and inviting others from the class to join us. He could have emailed or called me from somewhere other than my hotel lobby. As it was, his invitation was inappropriate because he infringed on my personal space in the hotel, the only safety buffer I had.

In my classes, I teach that good communication begins by considering your audience, but in the moment, it’s easy to forget. Putting yourself in another person’s place to determine the power dynamic can be challenging. Women even forget to do this, despite often being the victim in the power dynamic struggle.

I was teaching a class once where a young woman arrived two hours late. She sat down and listened to me for a few minutes before putting her hand up and forcefully challenging what I’d just said, without hearing the context I’d set up before she arrived. I snapped back at her and she immediately stopped talking. My goal is to encourage interaction in the classroom, so I’d made a mistake in being so forceful.

I spoke with her one-on-one when we took a break, and I apologized.  Because she was the student and I was the teacher, I had the advantage in our power dynamic. Had I listened to her and softened my response, I would have encouraged her continued participation.

Keep Your Composure

We’ve confused the ability to easily share our private thoughts publicly with an obligation to share every thought that enters our mind. Passion is an important component of communication, but so are restraint, focus, and deliberateness. Composure helps us achieve these objectives.

While it can be difficult to maintain your composure, especially when the stakes are high, taking a beat will help keep your cool. Think about what you’re going to say.

Had I taken a minute and replied to the young woman in my class more calmly, I likely would have gained the appreciation of the audience and her trust. My subsequent side conversation with her helped, but it didn’t undo the damage completely.

Be Honest, Kind, and Firm

In Katty Kay and Claire Shimpan’s The Confidence Code, the authors tackle the intangible idea of confidence and try to make it tangible, particularly for women. While this book is full of interesting science, engaging anecdotes, and great advice, the tip to “be honest, be kind, and be firm” stuck with me the most. It’s the perfect trifecta of guidelines for difficult situations.

Had I applied it to my encounter with Kevin, I’d have handled the situation better. As it was, I declined dinner with him, and after an extensive discussion with my colleague, decided against telling his company about his actions. It seemed plausible that his behavior was a terrible one-time error of judgement. That didn’t stop me from having a sleepless night. I couldn’t shake the unsettled feeling in the pit in my stomach.

To this day, the incident seems like such a horrible failure of judgment on Kevin’s part. For my part, I’d been kind and firm, but I was not honest with him about how the incident made me feel. Ideally, my honesty would have helped him better gauge appropriate behavior moving forward.

If You See Something, Say Something

As I was writing this article, the following story was shared with me: a woman has been working for a company for over ten years, rising to the role of lead design engineer. Despite her talent and competence, she is intimidated by the male-dominated workplace where she works. When executives and colleagues from other countries and other branches visit, they make leering and unseemly comments. Her colleagues tell her this behavior is meant as harmless, or good sport, or even flattery, and she should brush it off.

I thought about this story until the small flame that had been burning in me erupted into a wildfire. I felt angry for this woman — furious that her competence and confidence are being eroded and that her colleagues are playing a part.

It’s not enough to hold only ourselves accountable for our actions. We must hold others accountable. One of her colleagues, especially one of her male colleagues, could say “I know you mean well, but I’m sure those comments make ‘Suzanne’ uncomfortable. I know they make me uncomfortable. I’d appreciate if you’d stop saying things like that.” This action would expose the subtle sexism she is facing, as well as make her feel supported by her colleagues.

In conclusion, if we value human rights, we cannot continue supporting a culture that silences one person while protecting another. In Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous speech to the United Nations in 1958, she said:

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works."

Trust your instincts, share your story, be aware of the power dynamic, and keep your composure. Be honest, kind, and firm, and if you see something, say something. With these actions as a starting point, we can improve the neighborhood where she lives, the school or college she attends, the factory, farm, or office where she works — the small places we call home.

About The Author

Christine has over 10 years of experience working at the intersection of science and communication. Since founding Christine Haas Consulting, LLC in 2012, Christine has traveled the world teaching courses and conducting one-on-one coaching on presentation skills, technical writing, and storytelling. Before launching her business, the author held positions as the Director of Marketing for Drexel College of Engineering and as the Director of Operations for WPI Engineering. She received her MBA in marketing and international business from Drexel University, and her BA in English and Film from Dickinson College. Christine’s job has led to some amazing experiences, including tobogganing down the Great Wall of China, attending the launch of the final U.S. Space Shuttle, and meeting Bill Nye the Science Guy (Bill, Bill, Bill!).