The Speaking Out Dilemma: Professional Edition!

In my personal life, I don’t hold back when it comes to my politics, which are nothing if not in-your-face feminist. Why should I? I pick the people with whom I choose to socialize, and though they say you can’t pick your family, I give that my best shot as well. As for the professional life, we aren’t so lucky. Sure, we could try to pick our work and/or academic environments based on the people within them, but unemployment isn’t exactly fun. And so we get stuck holding back, curbing our words, and internally giving the biggest eyerolls ever while coworkers, bosses, professors, and students go on their merry ways.

Yes, it’s professional courtesy. Up to a certain point, that is. I don’t want to be subjected to the dude down the hall’s neo-conservative ramblings about birth certificates or welfare queens or whatever the hell the latest teabagging trend is, and I’m not going to randomly rant about abortion rights between meetings. The thing is, feminism is taken as OMG SO OFFENSIVE by so many people, like it’s socially inappropriate for me to not want to bow at the feet of the husband I surely want. Unless you work with or take classes from a huge asshole, they probably aren’t going to start talking about blatantly offensive things (unless you appear white, male, middle- or upper-class or all three, but that’s another article). They’re going to be much more subtle, and probably using some sort of “humor.” Like someone talking about how their sister blew a tire hitting a curb, because  hurhurhur wimmin drivers! Or someone talking about how the reason there are so many women in a particular psychology program is that they’re just so naturally caring! Yeah, that little bit of sexism happened in my presence just recently, and yeah, it was a woman who said it.

But perish the thought that you speak up about such everyday, commonplace sexism and misogyny! Nope, because then you might face retaliation. In our personal lives, it might cost us some heartache, some energy, and maybe the loss of a friend who probably wasn’t that great of a friend to begin with. Certainly that is a major price, but it’s one we pay to keep our own controllable spaces safe. In our professional lives, it can cost a promotion, a recommendation, a desired assignment, and even a job. It’s that fear of retaliation that silences us, and in the most subtle ways. All it takes is one story on the news or heard from a friend of a friend to keep us from speaking up about that sexist professor or coworker.

As I go into my first professional environment in nearly a year and a half (I start practicum for a psychology graduate degree this week), the fear that I will face something that I can’t speak out against without fearing retaliation is very, very real. I’m aware that there are laws designed to keep that from happening with regard to inappropriate behavior in the workplace, but I also know that those are easy to get around. While I don’t have a promotion or raise at stake, I do have grades and recommendations that balance on nothing more than the opinion of supervisors and professors. I know I’ve got a bit of a habit of rallying the troops at the end of my articles and trying to start the intersectional feminist revolution, but I don’t have a way to do that here. All I can do is raise the issue, bring attention to it, and hope that even small actions will bring about some change. So I ask you, wise commenters with more experience than I, how do you deal with this? What say you about the feminist silence in professional environments?

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

15 replies on “The Speaking Out Dilemma: Professional Edition!”

This is a tough one indeed. I’m new at my job and am in a probationary training program for 6 months, so I definitely don’t have much leverage for calling others out on their crap. But I’m a big fan of passively expressing my dislike by going completely unreactive- stony faced, a few noncommittal “uh-huh”s, and maybe a tight-lipped fake smile like nonsensikel said. I’m usually a pretty active listener at work, so when my body language changes it usually gets noticed and shuts people up.

I do actively speak up when people are sexist in an opposite way- they treat me too much better than the guys, and that I will call them out on. A lot of the field people I travel with will censor themselves a lot around me, which irks me to no end. If you would say “I’m sweating my balls off” in front of the boys (totally reasonable when we’re standing in a 100+ degree boiler room), I don’t want you changing it to “I’m sweating my, erm, uh… face off” just because I’m a woman.

If I encounter sexism, racism, or bigotry, I speak up, and if I disagree with a political point of view, I say that, politely, too. If someone else is expressing her views, then why shouldn’t I? I’m not saying it’s a fantastic strategy for getting ahead at work, though it hasn’t hurt me personally.

For me it’s very important to say what I think. My mom raised me to speak up when I didn’t agree with something, even to teachers and authority figures, and it’s pretty ingrained in me.

I go kind of along the lines of what nonsensikle does, too. Granted, I am one of only a handful of women in an otherwise rather guy-dominated lab. Usually it’s fine and no one gets sexist/racist/homophobic/etc. Except in the lunchroom, that seems to be the main time when a couple guys really talk however. If it starts to get a little offensive I’ll look at them and raise an eyebrow, or a disapproving smirk. Or if it gets really offensive then I’ll actually come out and say “Really, guys? Really?” And then they usually change the subject.

It’s no secret that women are notoriously tough on other women, especially in the law.  As  a young attorney, I felt abused by some of the female attorneys with their ridiculously high standards.  As I got older, I came to realize that they weren’t being tough on me because I was a woman but in spite of that fact.  They wanted to see the next genereartion of female attorneys excel the way they did.  Often, the older women had to fight harder  than the younger ones and they did not want their hard earned positions squandered by the younger generations.


I keep my mouth shut at work.  Lol. It’s difficult at times, but I find it really unprofessional to talk about personal views at work so I try not to. Of course, my coworkers don’t hold this standard for themselves so I get to hear all about their racist and sexist thoughts.

However, I don’t hear them nearly as often as I once did.  My coworkers just know I don’t agree with them.   I don’t laugh at their jokes. I keep silent during their rants or I change the subject.  Sometimes I quirk my brow or give them a tight lipped smile.  I simply don’t engage with them when they go off and I have yet to feel any repercussions from doing this.  I get along really well with the vast majority of my coworkers.  This includes my manager who I have used this tactic on.  She once bitched to me about how Obama was destroying the US by his need to micromanage everything which HAHAHA, my manager is the effing queen of micromanagement. Anyway, I just gave her a tight lipped smile and she changed the subject.  A month later my evaluation was fine.

This all being said, I have a small circle of coworkers which I can speak freely to. I rant to them when I’m frustrated.  I openly disagree with them when they say something I don’t like.  They are how I have managed to keep silent without going crazy.  I share a look with them when someone is going off and it makes it just a little bit better knowing I’m not the only one.  :-)


I had a new client poke his head into my office the other day looking for the attorney he had been meeting with. After I tracked the attorney down, I came back and told the client he would be right with him. The client replied “You are a paralegal extraordinaire!” This is not to knock paralegals, who have extremely tough jobs, and are total bad asses, but why the fuck was that his assumption? If you are in a law office, wouldn’t one assume the people in the  offices are attorneys? But no, because I have a vagina, apparently I am automatically a paralegal. And BTW, client dude, our paralegal and receptionist are dudes. ***sexist head explosion***

It is a very fine line one has to walk. I actually see the internalized sexism more often with the women in the office, honestly. There have been a number of times where someone has come to me upset by something one of the female attorneys has said or done, and often, after hearing them out, I say “would you be this upset if Rick had said that instead of Judy?” Usually, they admit that they wouldn’t have been, they acknowledge that they hold the women to a different unreasonable standard, and I feel like I have won a tiny little battle.

I am very lucky that I work with an exceptionally mindful group of men and women. The women here have strong personalities, and the men know and appreciate them more for it. It’s not perfect, but I’ll take it over a lot of other places I’ve worked.

It’s a philosophical term, but in social justice context this is a good explanatory phrase:

the assumption that something in their chromosomes or genitalia or gender identity somehow operates to make them all susceptible to a particular shared behavior

In this case, it would be that women, because they are women, are “just” automatically more caring than men, because they are men. Historically, that would also have been taught as “women are weaker”, “women are less intellectually able”, etc. etc. You would also see essentialist (racist) attitudes when it comes to race, both historically and currently: Black people and Irish people are “just” more violent, Asian people are “just” better at maths and music, etc. etc.

If anyone else has a more thorough explanation, please post!

Some studies in the fields of neuroscience and psychology have suggested that’s the case. Simon Baron Cohen has done a lot of work in this area. It’s very controversial, because some people don’t like the idea of making any generalisations about gender.

Given our cultural expectation that women should be nurturing and caring, I think it would be surprising if women didn’t exhibit those qualities more of the time than men, but it’s a pretty hard thing to quantify. Obviously women engage in behavior that’s the opposite of caring–i.e. violence, murder–much, much less than men do.

The studies also aren’t particularly conclusive. People also don’t like the idea that what we consider to be personal or gender attributes could be culturally determined. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender is a good book to read if anyone is interested on scientific research into psychological and neurological gender differences.

ETA: and it was reviewed here last year.

Oh, this is so hard. I usually just give the stink eye, but a part time job at the mail office is probably not the same level you’re working on. Or I throw in the silent treatment, but that’s only met with “What did I do?” which is more infuriating.
If it’s really bad, I rant with other colleagues and don’t care if the bad ones overhear. But again ..part time job.

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