Why Women Don’t Always Call Out Casual Sexism

Why Women Don’t Always Call Out Casual Sexism

by Felicity Menzies
Last week, I attended the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum at which Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, presented a keynote “Australia & New Zealand in a disrupted political world”. As Ms. Bishop left the stage to a round of applause, a man sitting next to me leaned in towards me and whispered, “She’s got runner’s calves”.
When I posted about this incidence on social media, reactions were mixed. Whereas some readers (predominately male) felt that the comment was not inappropriate, others (predominately female) interpreted his remark as sexist. A number of readers asked me how I responded to the comment. In truth, I didn’t call out the sexism in my neighbour’s comment face-to-face. In this blog, I explore why I didn’t call out the casual sexism in his remark as well answer other questions raised—was the compliment sexist and why do some of us believe it is while others of us believe it isn’t?


The simplest definition of sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on sex. One form of sexism is sexual objectification—the act of treating women as sexual objects. Sexual objectification occurs when a women’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are isolated from the whole and complex being and treated as objects simply to be looked at, coveted, or touched. Women are far more likely than men to be objectified and judged by a perceived sexual attractiveness rather than nonphysical traits such as intellectual ability. Sexual objectification of women is found in media, in advertising, on screen, and in other popular culture.
The indisputable truth is that compliments about a women’s body in a professional context are sexist. The simplest proof of this is that it is far less likely for a man to be critiqued about his body parts in a professional setting compared with a woman. Indeed, my neighbour did not offer a physical approval or critique regarding Ms. Bishop’s two male co-panelists. There is no grey area – differential judgments based on sex are sexist.


Despite the logic above, some individuals (both men and women) find it difficult to reconcile how a compliment about the body parts of a professional woman at work could be construed as sexist.
Casual or everyday sexism refers sexism that is experienced so regularly that it has become normalised. Casual sexism is often liked to unconscious sexist beliefs of which we are not even aware. Sexism is so culturally pervasive that it has become an implicit or subconscious norm.
We (men and women alike) are all products of our social and cultural environment. We all absorb, in an unconscious manner, beliefs and behaviours that are typical in our world. As we are exposed repeatedly to the sexual objectification of women, we come to link a women’s worth to her physical attributes unconsciously. We don’t even have to believe that a women’s worth must be tied to her physical attributes for us to internalise sexual objectification, we just have to be exposed to it.


Sexist microaggressions refer to sexist beliefs and responses that women are exposed to on a daily basis which add up to more than just a single instance of harassment or one offhanded comment. Sexually objectified compliments are sexist microaggressions that, over time, can shape a women’s belief that her self-worth is intimately tied to others’ approval of her appearance. Sexual objectification has been linked to eating and body image disorders, low self-esteem and lack of confidence.


The unconscious internalisation of sexual objectification partly explains why some women don’t challenge casual sexism. Many women, like many men, have absorbed the sexual objectification of women as a cultural norm and experience it as the natural order of things. Globally, men’s per capita spend on grooming products was $6.50 in 2015, compared with $58.50 for women.
There is another reason, however, why women may not call out sexism. Research shows that women who behave assertively suffer interpersonal costs—women who respond assertively as not as well liked as men who respond with the same level of assertiveness. Because gender stereotypes dictate that women should be docile and agreeable, when women act in a counter-stereotypical manner, they breach implicit social codes regarding what it means to be a successful female. Calling out sexism carries particularly high interpersonal risks because most individuals interpret accusations of prejudice as personal attacks on their explicit egalitarianism values and react angrily or defensively.
Most women are aware, although often at a subconscious level, that when they speak up assertively on an issue important to them, and particularly on issues of gender imbalance, they face the very real possibility of being told to ‘calm down’ and to stop ‘being hysterical’ or ‘overly sensitive’. We have learned through experience that breaching gender stereotypes by behaving assertively is frowned upon and doesn’t make us popular. In particular, calling out sexism carries social and professional risks for women. No doubt New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, knew this when she brushed off inappropriate questions about her private life in a recent 60-minutes interview. Similarly, although I considered calling out my counterpart’s sexism, I simply wasn’t brave enough in the moment to enter into a potential interpersonal conflict in a professional setting when I was already in the minority because of my gender.


Women have fought a long fight for equality. Although, thanks to the contributions of #MeToo and #TimesUp we are currently experiencing real momentum for change, there is still a long way to go. Despite a clear business case for gender equality, the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take another 217 years until we achieve gender parity in the workplace. Even more alarming is that progress towards gender parity has reversed. The estimated time needed to ensure full equality in the workplace jumped from 80 years in 2014 to 170 years last year to 217 years in November 2017.
Most days, I get up ready to continue the good fight to close the gap but I do so knowing that every time that I challenge sexism online, in a workshop, at home, or in social settings, I expose myself to social or professional backlash. This is especially true in relation to calling out casual sexism. Because casual sexism can be ambiguous, calling out casual sexism frequently triggers accusations of ‘political correctness’, ‘oversensitive’ and the like.
Some days, the reality of paying the bills and providing a financially stable environment free from interpersonal conflict as well as a need for social connectedness, mean that I and other women, allow incidences of casual sexism to pass unchecked. When our desire to ‘fit in’, to maintain interpersonal harmony and for approval is strong, some women might even laugh along.
Fighting for equality would be easier if more men shared the emotional load and stood alongside us to back us up in those moments when we need to retreat temporarily for reasons of self-protection. Also, when men call out sexism it is powerful because it is unexpected. Both men and women are disarmed when men call out sexism. While women calling out sexism is frequently dismissed as ‘overly sensitive’, men calling out sexism triggers greater scrutiny of the claim.
So, to those men who stand alongside me on social media. Thank-you.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.