27 September 2023

How to deal with sexist humour at work

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Hira Ali* shares tactics to effectively call out sexist jokes in ways that could bring about change and are unlikely to negatively impact women’s careers.

Sexist jokes, when targeting individuals, insult, stereotype, victimise, and/or objectify a person on the basis of their gender.

The disposition theory of humour surprisingly reveals that not just men but women too often prefer female-disparaging humour.

Another study notes that humour is also a form of symbolic violence, and women, by allowing themselves to be a source of humour for the dominant group, manifest internalised sexism and demonstrate their loyalty to the dominant group.

Admittedly we are all guilty of this one way or another — enjoying seemingly harmless infantile jokes masked under light-hearted banter.

And because this type of humour has been normalised for too long, rarely is anyone held accountable for engaging in it.

Those who do object are labelled killjoys, uptight, prudent, or accused of overreacting.

However, what makes this type of humour insidious is the normalisation trap which tends to blur what is desirable and average into a “single undifferentiated judgment of normality.”

Consequently, these ridiculing jokes go too far and may often burgeon into something ugly and distasteful – an alarming example of this I personally witnessed last year was of rape memes being casually circulated across WhatsApp groups after a horrific rape made national news.

Researchers discovered that when a sexist remark is delivered as a joke, the humour decreased perceptions that the speaker was sexist, and ultimately decreased the probability that the listener would confront the perpetrator.

Alarmingly, hostile sexists were less likely to be confronted when their message was delivered with humour.

Sexist, humorous messages actually increase tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace.

Raunchy jokes/lewd humour that demean or target women and other minority groups are dangerous for company culture.

Recipients who stay silent are tacitly endorsing it, and thus they are part of the problem, too.

However, the time has come to start calling this out for what it is.

A confrontation intended to change attitudes and behaviour has more impact when it comes from someone perceived to be similar — in this case, another man.

When a man publicly calls out sexism in any forum and challenges the perpetrators, targets of sexism report greater self-confidence as opposed to women who are negatively evaluated when they report an issue.

Moreover, when a man overtly ends an offensive conversation, it changes the atmosphere and observers are more likely to be persuaded.

Failing to publicly call out an incident damages workplace culture because it is a tacit endorsement of inappropriate behaviour.

Why wouldn’t the pattern continue if no one identifies a problem?

Whether you will call out behaviour/comments publicly or privately depends on a number of things.

According to Smith and Johnson, authors of Good Guys, if the perpetrator is genuinely misinformed and immature but generally well-intentioned, or if he is from an older generation or culture, consider calling him out privately.

Furthermore, if no one was specifically targeted or affected, or if you share a positive relationship with that man that could lead to a productive side discussion, then it is better to address the issue in private.

But for someone who is an unapologetic, serial offender who makes a flagrantly inappropriate joke, is old enough to know better, yet remains directly offensive, then you may wish to consider confronting him publicly to help change his behaviour.

Smith and Johnson also warn us to be especially attuned to people who say, “I am not sexist or racist but…” and then go on to add an observation.

These individuals may be developing insight about bias and sexism, but are still working through the denial stage.

In choosing to respond, you could do so immediately or wait until you are in more control of your feelings.

Here are some effective ways of calling out people.

Don’t engage – pause.

The simplest way is to address this is by not responding at all; simply stop talking.

People often don’t like silence and will invariably speak up to fill the void.

They may feel awkward enough not to do it again.

Ask a reflective question.

Sometimes, when you repeat an offensive statement, others are forced to retreat or reflect on what they’ve said and how it might be received.

For example, someone says:

“What I really want is for Susan to be less bossy.”

You may respond by repeating their word choice:



Reframing helps create an alternate way of looking at any situation, person, or relationship by re-examining the meaning assigned to it.

The technique considers that a person’s point-of-view relies on the frame it is viewed in.

Praise past behaviour.

If the perpetrator is someone you personally know, appeal to better instincts:

“John, I have seen you be fair-minded and wasn’t expecting you to make that kind of comment.”

Directly respond to offensive jokes using the following statements.

  • I don’t get it, can you explain?
  • That wasn’t funny at all.
  • That’s against our code of conduct.
  • Did you really just say that?
  • That’s an inappropriate generalization/stereotype.
  • That made me uncomfortable/awkward.
  • You may want to more careful about your choice of words.
  • Disrespectful words are not tolerated here.

Make use of humour.

I often recommend this strategy to diffuse a stressful situation at work.

Sometimes a short, humorous observation or intermediation can help you soften the call-out.

That does not suggest you aren’t serious, but it’s a way of letting off steam.

Share personal experiences.

Demonstrating how sexism has negatively affected you or a woman close to you can help others understand its importance while reaffirming the experience of women in the organisation.

If the culture in your institution is saturated with bias and sexism, people may hardly notice inappropriate comments.

Also, behaviours you thought you had influenced positively (or corrected altogether) can regress.

If, as allies, we are content to only deal with surface issues versus digging down into deeper issues, we will fail to create a better workplace.

So it might be worthwhile to also to stop to think about the bigger picture and do a culture audit, else you may either miss the core problem or chase after too many problems at once.

*Hira Ali is the Founder of Advancing Your Potential.

This article first appeared at ellevatenetwork.com.

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