Women Entrepreneurs · Entrepreneurship

How do you respond to covertly sexist comments?

Chloe Hartford Cofounder/CMO at USalesy

March 8th, 2016

As a female entrepreneurs I find that most of the comments made to me or repeated to me that are problems are not the overt, awful comments that most people know are wrong. It's actually the more covert comments, greetings, events we're excluded from (E.g. dinners) that make the impact. It's really death by 1000 paper cuts. The problem I see is that if you say something in the moment or too often, people tell you you're making a big deal of things or just complain a lot. Sue Decker sums it up well here 
I'm curious how other female founders tackle this - do you always say something? How do you say something without making everyone feel like a jerk - because they probably aren't one, they just didn't realize. And yet still not always be "that girl" ?

Not trying to incite a riot, just believe this is important and especially on International Women's Day. Constructive responses only please.
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Karen Adams

March 10th, 2016

Hello everyone!

Thanks for opening this discussion Chloe.

As a female CEO of a tech startup, I'm keen to offer my experience, wisdom and advice, but first, I'd like to address some of the activity in this thread.

First of all, I will say that I would expect that a man who is genuine about supporting women and is smart, would sit on the sides and watch and listen as women tell their stories.

Some of the men here have attempted to list the things that'qualify' them to speak on behalf of us (I was raised by a single mum, I have daughters, my ex was a woman etc). Those attempts to qualify your involvement may come from a sincere place. But here's the thing; nothing qualifies you to speak on behalf of me. Nothing. My experience is not something that you will ever access. You need to accept that and not try to speak about something you will never personally access.

I'm sure Christopher Owen that you would have witnessed your Mother's struggle and pain as a single Mum and her fighting spirit. Thank you that you would visit this post and attempt to learn and support. I'm sorry that you were treated so badly for that. Your experiences have likely been a mix of pain and inspiration. I will not trample on your experiences and what you learned from your Mother. Thanks for sharing them. I would, however, suggest that you, and the other very vocal men on this thread pipe down and let the women through so that we can answer Chloe's question from our perspective.

How many women have perhaps viewed this thread and moved on because the loudest voices on here are from men? If you really really mean well, and thank you very much if you do, then listen.Listen.That is your greatest gift to our cause.

Both sides in this debate needwisdom. Not lots of advice giving. Not agression. Wisdom. Get some. One of the best ways is to listen.

Another comment I'd like to address is the point that Lanvy made about making sure she looks attractive so that any man that falls off will want her to pull him back on. If I've understood this correctly, your advice to women is to use our sexuality and beauty to win favour with sexist men and draw them out of their abusive stance. Really? You set us back a thousand years. Please read more and work on your personal growth. And learn to be more kind to others online too.

So, back to my experiences as a Leader who is a woman; I am the founder of a tech startup and work with a team of 6 brilliant men. We are a strong team. All of them have been nothing but supportive and respectful from the outset. No covert attacks. Just people who share the same mission as me. They are that calibre of man that have sufficient confidence and decency as not to seek to oppress me. They appear to see me, my worth, my ability and they let me be me. And they help me to be a better me professionaly.

By contrast, I have experienced some covert sexist comments/attacks in my life. I don't have a script for you but here's my wisdom;

? Covert attacks are passive-aggressive. This is one of the most unpleasant and difficult-to-deal with personality types.

? As a general rule, it is best to respond to covert sexist attacks with an overt, calm-assertive response that refers to the attack.

? I will say this though, pick your battles. If you find that you are having to deal with repeated or frequent attacks, remove the person from your life. If that's not easy, limit your exposure to the person. If that's not possible, ie, if you work with this person, raise a complaint. Deal with it. Be aware that in dealing with it you may cause other sexist men to draw ranks against you. You have to be prepared for a battle.

? Sometimes, you will have to ignore a covert sexist attack if it threatens to pull you from your focus/destiny. As founders, we have to single mindely pursue our goals and any negative person can suck an enormous amount of emotional and psychological energy if you let them. Don't stop to correct every single transgression that you come across. You cannot police the entire universe. If it doesn't threaten your chosen path and your mission, you may just have to keep on moving and ignore it.

? When you challenge covert sexism, thing beforehand what outcome you are seeking. Do you want to create a change in the person? Do you want to set a boundary? Do you want to communicate that your feelings have been hurt? Do you want that person to walk away and never look back? What do you want to achieve? Give this some thought before you open your mouth to respond. This is wisdom. Thinking first before responding.

I look forward to the shared experiences of other women who have dealt with or are dealing with this stuff.



AJ Johnston Owner at Law Office of Ann E. Johnston

March 11th, 2016

First, I am a "lil ole lady" so i have had a lot of experience in addressing blatant sexism and gentle benign sexism.  The first is easily remedied with a laugh and "I can't believe that you just said that."  Then, move on.  The second is actually harder because it isn't malicious.  It is just ignorance.  Since I have spent many years figuring out how to be a "pushy broad", I have learned that humor is the best approach.  For example, if someone calls me a "bitch", I acknowledge their anger or upsetness.  Then, I laugh and thank them for the compliment.  Usually, that shocks them and I can explain that B.I.T.C.H. stands for "best individual in total control of herself."  That usually shuts folks up very quickly.

Rob G

March 8th, 2016

Chloe, at this point 15 of the 26 followers of this thread are male, as best i can tell from first names. That is a good indication that men are interested in being part of the solution - don't shy away from educating us. i was not going to post a comment here given your question was directed to fellow 'female founders', but i'm not good at sitting on the sidelines... and i felt directing the question only to women was a bit like asking only white, Americans how to address racism. So, don't wait for an invitation.

As much as i'd like to think i'm 'enlightened' (as i don't recall having been called out for a covert or overtly sexist comment/act) i could certainly be clueless and not know it (as you reference above). Whether the issue is sexism, racism, culture-ism, or any other ism, it's not likely to get fixed if you don't take ownership for fixing it - easier said than done i realize, but on balance i say call it out. How? that depends on the culprit and your people skills. Many just aren't worth the effort. Entrepreneurship isn't for the faint of heart. All of the above suggestions including "call it out", "educate" and "ignore" are all applicable depending on the circumstances. Yes you risk being labeled 'that girl' and you also run the risk of leaving this to your daughters to clean up later. Participate in the conversation. Make yourself a seat at the table. Don't wait for an invitation. start your own conversation/event. Wade into conversations. Entrepreneurs of all stripes appreciate strong participants, especially when they are on their team. I am much more inclined to consider a partnership with, working with or teaming with someone with sharp people instincts, well-honed instincts as to when to use sharp elbows, and polished people skills than i am someone who accepts a seat at the kid's table. On the other hand i'm likely to treat any woman or man who "uses sexism to their advantage" as, well, someone trying to use sexism to their advantage.

It's also important to participate in diverse boards and teams. I coach my 2 daughters to be strong, competent and confident, but to also realize that men and women have differences - thank god! if men and women all looked at issues from the same angle this would be a pretty boring world.

@ Julie, "women and other minorities..." really? women are 50% of our workforce, earn more than 50% of college degrees and are every bit as competent and capable as any man. Life's too short to accept being treated as anything less. Perhaps considering women as "minorities" is part of the problem.... speaking of covert/overt stereotypes.

Chris Owens

March 8th, 2016

Julie Gomoll,

Why are you consistently responding to me in a, well, sexist way, when I've been nothing but supportive in the conversation? How exactly do those comments cause anything but more divisiveness?

You're doing the very thing you are criticizing in men.


Lizzy Klein

March 14th, 2016

For context, I want to remind you that the topic here is "covert sexist comments" and not "overt sexual innuendo". 

Hence, I pointed out the irony of describing a woman you encounter (hypothetically) in your professional life as a "girl." I respect your disagreeing with that... just understand that some people in the workplace will share my perspective and using "girl" instead of "woman" may affect your professional relationships.

I did not say "girl" is a slur, and nor should it be used as a synonym for "unprofessional"... it means a female who's young. Not one who acts young, but IS young.

I'm not following the point r.e. your wife being a "girl", nor why you'd reference the Book of Sexual Secrets in this thread. 

Am agreeing to disagree and done with this topic for the eve. lk

Chris Owens

March 8th, 2016


My post was an honest inquiry from someone SUPPORTIVE of the topic. Not sure why you want to turn that around on me with a condescending remark.

I ask specifics because that's the best way to give advice for any interpersonal issue. Advice given about generalities is rarely useful. And I think the main question, despite being on the topic of sexism, was focused on how to address COVERT communication, which I'm certainly qualified to comment on.

Andrew... really... you're not contributing constructively to this discussion with comments like that.

Sedef Onder Managing Partner + Strategist, Clear Inc.

March 9th, 2016

Mutual courtesy and respect is never sexist. That is, men should hold doors open for other men as often as they do for women. And women should do the same for others when they are able to do so.

Chris Owens

March 8th, 2016

Respectfully, David, I disagree. There is a big difference between hijacking and being interested in helping and contributing to a conversation about what I feel is an important topic.  I mean, the topic was concerning the interaction of women AND men (two parts of the same equation). It doesn't seem far fetched to assume that a supportive voice from the male perspective might be OK to include too.

Regardless, it was not my intention to cause a problem, so I will leave the conversation. Chloe, if you felt my presence in this discussion was disruptive, I apologize. 

Steve Getman Partner/CTO/CIO at Flash Point Communications

March 8th, 2016

Edit: My apologies, I completely missed the part of the original post asking only for input from other female founders.

I agree that speaking up is the most effective approach, but it is also probably wise to be tactful about it. It is quite possible (as Chloe mentioned) that those making subtle comments may not even be aware they are causing offense. So there's a potential, though not a guarantee, to educate and avoid similar issues in the future.

Ultimately I think how effectively you can communicate this stuff to anyone is related to the quality of the relationship you have with them. Speaking for myself - I don't think I do these things but if someone I barely know (man or woman) tells me I'm doing something that doesn't fit what I know of myself, I'll likely not give it much thought (unless their delivery of the news seems well reasoned). If someone I know and respect tells me so I'll consider it deeply.

@Julie - In my experience, both men and women are equally adept (or inept) at making the discussion about themselves. :)

ArLyne Ph.D. Diamond Associates: Consultants to Management - Transforming Individuals and Organizations by cooperative interaction

March 8th, 2016

I think the best way to ignore the covert comments is to ignore them and assume you have full rights - speak up as though the comment had not existed. Men seem to have no problem inserting themselves in conversation - and expressing their talents (just a generalization - don't shoot me gentlemen) and so should we.

Don't wait for an invitation - assume you belong.  On the other hand, be fair.  We women frequently create women only events - so the "old boys" should be allowed to do so as well.