Written by Chad Echakowitz
Two days ago I exhibited sexist behaviour towards a coworker. Well, I guess it was two coworkers, since sexism cannot truly have only one victim because one treats a woman (victim A) differently to a man (victim B). One could say that the woman is the only true victim because, in many cases, she is the one undermined or disadvantaged. This is not one of those cases.
I went to ask my female colleague a question to try and resolve an issue I was having. I adopted a certain persona: charming, sweet, and a little flirtatious. I did this because I believed this would yield a more positive result to my issue. I did this because she was a woman. She couldn’t help me and pointed me in the direction of the person who could, the man who sat opposite her. Immediately, my persona changed. I was more masculine and direct. I did this because he was a man.
To give some context, my workplace thrives off a very relaxed atmosphere. Everyone gets along well and there is rarely animosity between any two members of staff. It is a predominantly sales-based workplace, and such environments tend to be male-dominated, as has been demonstrated by a number of statistical analyses.
When I apologized, the woman whom I felt I had wronged said, “This is [company name]. There’s no need to even think like that. There’s no need to be sorry.” I had pulled her aside and said I was sorry for being sexist towards her. She had no idea what I was talking about. She didn’t even remember the event. I wanted her to know I had treated her differently because she was a woman because, at the time, both of us didn’t even realize that it was happening. She smiled and said I was being silly. That she didn’t even think it was sexist and she wasn’t hurt or offended. This encounter has made me realize a couple of things.
First was the complete obliviousness to the situation. The fact that she didn’t even realize I was being sexist, coupled with the fact that I didn’t even recognize what I was doing at the time, is deeply alarming. Sexism is so inherent in our society that had attention not been brought to the situation, it would have gone unnoticed and such behaviour would continue. Some would say it would be unnecessary to bring up every little sexist action in every situation, but that is the only way we can cure this systematic prejudice. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it, of course, and I’m not saying I have all the answers, but we need to talk about these things openly, whether it’s uncomfortable or not.
This event has shown me how systemic sexism is, and how easy it is to fall into such behaviour. We are all guilty of being sexist or prejudiced in some way. It is systemic and no matter what, we cannot run away from it right now. This event has made me re-evaluate my actions and my beliefs. It has made me check my privilege. I will now be more aware of how I behave to women and ensure that the way I act with women and men will be equitable. In order to be equitable, we need to recognise past injustices and acknowledge present skewed behaviours.
A lot of people will read the anecdote above and say that I had no reason to apologise. If she did not realize I was being sexist, then I am absolved of any guilt. Luckily, no one got hurt. Luckily, no one was disadvantaged by my actions. But such actions still need to be corrected. Any and every act of sexism, whether it hurts or disadvantages someone or not, needs to held to account. This is the only way we can stop sexism and its systemic hold. Sexism, and every type of prejudice, needs to be treated with a level of meticulousness akin to the Broken Window Theory. Only then can we fight the systemic nature of prejudice. Next time my colleague and I will hopefully be more aware of any prejudices around the office – or anywhere for that matter – and try to correct them. Speaking up is an important act in fighting prejudice. Speak up when it’s difficult. Speak up when it’s awkward. Speak up because you can.
I fucked up. There’s no better way to phrase it. I did a thing I hate to see others do. And so, because I did wrong, I needed to apologise. I needed to repent. Her forgiveness was only part of the solution; it was an apology to myself too for not being as considerate and aware as I should have been. Only through self-reflection, and expecting a higher standard of oneself, will we be able to reduce such prejudice. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Be better. You have an obligation to be better because you are the conduit for a more equitable future. Only through your actions can you make the world a better place and being easy on yourself, by not reflecting on holding up your demons like the proverbial albatross, defeats any notion of a future without such prejudice.
I was sexist. I’m sure there will be times in the future where I will be sexist again. I will probably be racist in the future too, like I am sure I have been racist in the past. I have my prejudices. I am aware of them. I will always be apologetic of them because no human should be treated differently due to arbitrary standards set by an archaic system which encouraged oppression and domination until it was considered normal. Moving away from such a system is ugly. It hurts and it’s going to suck a lot more that it already does. But in order to cure a festering wound, one needs to clear away all the muck and sepsis, to scrape away the dead tissue. But after all that pain, there will be healing and things will get better.