A reader writes:
I’m a young (early 20s) woman, petite, and I’ve been at my current position about 8 months now. I’m generally very happy here, but I’m not sure how to deal with certain kinds of comments.
For example, part of my job requires me to carry large boxes and put large shipments into our storage room, which involves pushing carts and pallets with pallet jacks. I’m happy to do the work and it’s not difficult; I’m quite strong. Today I was unloading some boxes from a pallet, and two guys from IT walked by me in the hall. I wasn’t struggling in any way, but one of them saw me and said, “Are you sure you’re supposed to be handling that kind of equipment?” He said it in a friendly way, but I said no and (also in a friendly manner) and asked him why. He ignored the question and asked if I needed help. I told him no, I was fine, the boxes weren’t very heavy, and I’d be all right. He asked if I was sure and I said yes. Then he started picking up the boxes for me and asked if I minded if he helped me anyway. At this point, I wasn’t sure how to decline further without seeming rude, so I let him help.
I feel quite certain that if I were a tall strapping man, he would not have been so insistent. How can I deal with subtle sexism like this in the workplace without coming off as confrontational?
“I can’t let you help me with this — it’s a normal part of my job.”
Followed by, if necessary: “No, really, if I can’t do this, then I can’t do my job.”
And you say that last one in a serious tone and no smile. Inexplicably, people sometimes read a friendly tone and or a smile as “It’s okay if you ignore what I’m saying.” That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be friendly or smile at people — but it does mean that you shouldn’t do those things in a situation where someone has made it clear that they’re not taking you seriously.
And if that still doesn’t work, then you say (again, seriously and with no smile), “Fergus, I know you’re trying to help and I’m sure you haven’t thought of it this, but it’s really undermining to me if people think I can’t do this on my own.”
Some people will argue that that’s nicer than it needs to be — and that someone who has ignored several direct requests doesn’t deserve an “I know you’re trying to help” — but this is a colleague and helping people save face is good for your standing in the office. And frankly, you’d be doing the world (and him) a favor if you spelled out for him what the problem is what his behavior, and might decrease the chances of him repeating it with someone else in the future.
(I actually do think that a lot of men who ignore clear statements from women in these situations genuinely don’t realize why the women are taking that stance — which makes some of them more likely to get offended and huffy, the way you might if you offered someone a tissue and they threw it back in your face. I’m not saying that’s reasonable, and certainly they should think it through and figure it out on their own, but they’re up against centuries of cultural norms and those are powerful. So while you’re not obligated to explain it to them, I think it’s a kindness to all involved if you do — especially at work, where you’re going to have continued interaction.)