How to Tell Someone They Sound Sexist

Sexism: better confronted than ignored.
Sexism: better confronted than ignored.
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During a 2010 town hall meeting, a moderator asked Hillary Clinton, "Which designers do you prefer?" After clarifying that she, the U.S. Secretary of State, was being asked about clothing designers, Clinton responded with her own question: "Would you ever ask a man that?" The moderator admitted it was unlikely [source: Amira].

Even if you're not a powerful woman in the public eye, you're bound to face sexist comments at some point. In the short run, it may seem simpler to let a sexist statement slide, but there are lots of good reasons to speak up. You may not change the offender's behavior, but, at the very least, you'll set some boundaries. And, if you shrug it off, you're tacitly contributing to prejudice, whether you're part of the targeted sex, or whether you actually agree with what was said. Protesting lets the speaker — and anyone else around — know you're not buying into that attitude.

When you take a stand against a sexist comment, keep your focus on the comment itself — don't guess at the intent or personal beliefs behind it. While interrupting someone is usually considered rude, it's acceptable to interrupt an inappropriate joke or statement. Don't just say something like, "You're wrong," though — it doesn't explain the problem, and it will probably just raise the speaker's defenses. Be precise, using a clear statement like, "That sounds sexist."

Then, explain why you find the speech objectionable. Is it is a generalization? Does it condone violence? Does it assume familiarity? Is it a worn-out stereotype? Be specific. Use "I" statements so offenders will be less likely to tune you out. For instance, feedback like, "I think that's unsuitable because we're coworkers," or "That's not funny to me because it implies violence" is specific and personal [source: Ronin]. Make sure to stick to what the person said, not your conclusion of what belief or mental process led to the statement.

If the person you're confronting seems open to discussion, ask what the comment meant. Someone who uses sexist language often doesn't think it through well. Talking it through could open some eyes – and minds.

If you discover you're tongue-tied, don't give up. Taking time to reflect on what you want to say may help you make your point better. Bringing it up later also indicates it's a serious issue that deserves to be revisited. And if you find the idea of a showdown really uncomfortable, remember: There's nothing wrong with a little preparation. Practice what you'd say in different situations. Use the mirror or role-play with a partner. When an actual incident occurs, you'll have words ready.

Often, people don't realize that a comment, or the belief behind it, was offensive. In fact, a 2010 Loyola University study found that when women challenged sexist opinions, male speakers tended to react positively toward them. The men were also less likely to use additional sexist statements during the rest of the study. This research doesn't indicate how all men will react, but it's an encouraging sign. Don't worry about making someone angry or causing a scene. If you're using the tips outlined above, you're likely to make an impact.

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