How to Speak Up against Everyday Bias

a young woman giving the time-out signal
September 02, 2016


This story was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine. To read more stories like this one, subscribe.

We’ve all seen it, and most of us have experienced it. But what should we actually do when it occurs? I’m talking about gender bias — the everyday sexism that many women face. It’s so common that it’s simply part of our landscape, and that very ordinariness is what makes it so pernicious.

When we encounter bias, we often don’t know how to respond. Or worse, we worry about the possible consequences of calling it what it is: sexism, harassment, gender discrimination, rape culture. And let’s not forget that women of color, women with disabilities, LGBT women, and others struggle with an intersectionality that adds even more complexity.

As AAUW’s top lobbyist, I know a thing or two about changing minds. Ultimately, my job is to advocate for AAUW’s mission and persuade others to take action. Although sexism’s hold on our society can seem overwhelming, there are ways to challenge it — and we can use some basic lobbying tactics to respond to it. Wherever it’s safe and reasonable to do so, we can confront bias in self-affirming ways that make it clear that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

AAUW Outlook Spring 2016 Cover (250px)

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This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 of AAUW Outlook magazine.

When I’m lobbying for AAUW, I always consider the enlightened self-interest of the other person. In other words, what’s in it for them? Arguments that persuade me might not be effective in moving another person to action. Similarly, you can ask yourself these questions to size up your situation and develop a strategy for tackling everyday sexism.

  • How much am I invested in this issue, situation, or person?
  • How much influence do I have with this person?
  • Who else heard the person make their problematic comment?
  • What is the motivation of the person making the remark?
  • Am I in a safe place if I challenge the biased comment?

Since every situation is different, there is no perfect response. And only you can decide whether you want to confront it head-on. If you do, here are some suggestions for dealing with common occurrences.

Scenario 1: A Cocktail Party

When faced with a sexist joke or comment among friends and family, don’t laugh. One of the most effective approaches is to tell the messenger that you don’t understand and politely ask them to explain their remark. You’ll often find that once they’re forced to break it down, the comments don’t seem as funny, innocent, or helpful. Sometimes a gentle rebuttal about why the person’s statement isn’t factual can turn the tide of a conversation and encourage bystanders to speak up as well.

Scenario 2: The Family Gathering

Addressing sexism and bias within your family can yield big results. Some tactics from the previous scenario apply here as well. Sincerely asking the messenger to explain their remarks can effectively unmask bias and teach valuable lessons — but when it’s family there are additional concerns. There are relationships to maintain, and no one wants the dinner table to feel like a shark tank.

One method you can use is to redirect the problematic comment. If your mother-in-law suggests that your daughter should be a nurse but your son should be a doctor, you can say that both those fields would be great for either child and then proceed to highlight other careers they could pursue. (The world is in desperate need of women in computer science, for example, and men are especially needed to teach in elementary schools.) You are planting a seed of new thinking, which over the years can grow to counteract the sexist messages we receive daily.

Most important, if kids are involved, parents should discuss ahead of time how they plan to address gender bias—in work or in deed—on the part of relatives. In these situations, presenting a united front based on a prearranged game plan can diffuse frustration and tension.

Scenario 3: Street Harassment

a young woman holding a hand up to resist a harasser on a street

Street harassment is a common problem for women whenever they leave home. It’s male privilege in action, and it attempts to remind us who’s in charge of public spaces: men. This harassment can take the form of catcalling, stalking, leering, telling women to smile, and many other scary behaviors.

If you feel safe doing so, you can respond in a calm, assertive manner that conveys that such actions are unwelcome, unacceptable, and even illegal. Sometimes a simple and loud “leave me alone” or “knock it off” will do the trick. Stop Street Harassment is an organization that provides an online space, as well as a hotline, where women can share their stories about street harassment and talk about responses and solutions. (There’s even an app for that — search “Hollaback!” on your smartphone.)

Remember, you’re not alone — harassers just want you to think that you are. Many women all over the world are speaking up when they experience and witness street harassment. But whatever you do, don’t dismiss it as a compliment.

Scenario 4: Online Sexism

The world of social media can go from lively and interesting to disheartening and even dangerous in a heartbeat — especially for women. A seemingly simple post can result in insulting comments and personal attacks from complete strangers. For women, these attacks often devolve into sexist insults, body shaming, and even threats of violence. The internet can be a hostile place for women who dare to have an opinion online.

When confronted with a sexist “troll” who only wants to inflame and insult rather than have a rational discussion, the best advice is usually to not respond at all. More than likely, these commenters’ motivation is to start a fight. Don’t stoop to their level. Further, most social media platforms have ways to block offensive users as well as avenues for reporting inappropriate or threatening behavior.

I personally don’t engage in Facebook and other social media debates when the level of discourse isn’t productive. But I’m always willing to have a spirited discussion with a reasonable person (and I hope you are, too).

Scenario 5: The Workplace

Although this article is about confronting everyday sexism in your life, I’m leaving out career advice for a good reason. Workplace situations are different, largely because of the legal issues involved as well as the fact that your livelihood may be at stake. Most companies have policies to address overt sex discrimination, though it’s harder to combat everyday slights and gender biases that skirt the law but still have a real impact. If you’re dealing with sexism at work, I encourage you to visit our Know Your Rights at Work page to find resources about your legal rights and other options.

Fear Not

If you take away one thing from this article, I want it to be this: Speaking up can be revolutionary, and it won’t be as bad as you think.

Too often, women don’t want to make waves for fear of being labeled difficult, demanding, emotional, bossy, or any of the other code words our society uses to discipline assertive women. Language is powerful, and all of this bias and harassment is meant to keep us in our place. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Remember, you aren’t required to respond to every comment you may hear. There will be times when you choose to do nothing, and that’s OK. We all have to pick our battles, but we can empower ourselves to win them by taking strategic bites out of the apple whenever we can.



Outlook Spring/Summer 2015 cover (250x306)

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By:   |   September 02, 2016


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  28. Dorothy Mehl says:

    The Spokane NOW has filed an ethics complaint against the city of Spokane and has invited us to their protest. Would you advise taking AAUW signs to the protest? There will be media.

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