How to Deal With Sexist Comments at the Office


We have all been there. Sitting at our desks, minding our own business, doing great work, and then a colleague drops by and asks a completely inflammatory question that makes you want to verbally attack them. You can’t attack just yet because of the possible ramifications to your job status, so you awkwardly smile and continue with your assignment. That doesn’t mean that sexist comments at the office are okay; that silence doesn’t make it acceptable.

When I started my first job, I smiled at these offensive comments and vented to my friends. But once I become more comfortable in my “professional skin”, I began to fight back. The question is never, “Should I say something?” The question is always, “What should be my response?” Your silence does not stop the problem; the commenter assumes that you appreciate their words.

In a male-dominated workplace, it’s not uncommon to hear any of the following sexist comments:

Sexist Comments at the Office You’re Likely to Hear

Why aren’t you married?

What you want to say: “None of your damn business.”

What you actually say: “Because I don’t want to be right now. Why aren’t you married? And if you are, why are you more concerned about my nonexistent marriage than the marriage you have?”

Do you live alone because you want to be anti-social and unfriendly?

What you want to say: “Why does my living situation define my social life? Better yet, why is it weird to you that an independent adult female can make the decision to live alone?”

What you actually say: “Nope. I actually just want to be a grown and independent human being, and I like my space. I enjoy waking up to myself, only sharing my closet with my shoe collection, and I love taking long showers without the sound of an irritated knock on the bathroom door with a faint whisper, “Are you almost finished?” It is pleasing to watch television as loud as I want and to drink milk out of a carton. Yep, be jealous.”

You must be terrified living by yourself.

What you want to say: “The fact that you assume a single female is scared to be alone just shows the unchanging attitude in our patriarchal society. Please go ask a male of my age the same question, and let me know their response.”

What you actually say: “I have Olivia Benson from Law & Order: SVU on speed dial, and she will always be there when I need her. Also, I can use good old fashioned 911 if someone gets through my lock and alarm system.”

So you’re not married or engaged?

What you want to say: “Umm, did the last 50 years of feminism mean anything to you? Didn’t we already settle this in some court with a judge and a jury? No, I am not married, and I am not currently planning a wedding. More importantly, I am not ashamed of it either. Get over it.”

What you actually say: “I am focused on being the best me.”

Are you actively looking for a spouse?

What you want to say: No, I am not going out to exclusively look for someone to help me make a baby. I do not make choices based on the proximity of single people. When my uterus and I meet the right person, we can then discuss the next steps.”

What you actually say: “What does that actually mean? I live my life and do my best.”

I love your outfit. Who are you trying to impress at work?

What you want to say: Well actually, I like this dress because it makes me feel good not because the random guy in the break room will be instantly turned on by my stylish abilities and then propose next to the coffee maker. It does sound like a completely awkward idea that I could purchase items for me and not for anyone else. No, I am not dropping cash on an item to possibly look fabulous for someone I have not actually met yet.”

What you actually say: “Thanks. I love this outfit and I picked it out just for me.”

If you are a lesbian, we completely support you. We are open.

What you want to say: “My LGBT friends are married, unmarried, dating, single, and everything in between. It is possible that status of marriage does not define your sexuality. But you never know—I have been wrong before. But to be completely frank, I was born straight.”

What you actually say: “My sexuality does not influence my work productivity.” OR: “I am proud to be straight/gay.”

I wasn’t trying to offend you. Why are you so emotional?

What you want to say: “Whoever invented that excuse is the worst person to ever live because this is the most patronizing thing you could ever say. Just because your intention was to not offend me does not mean your words were not offensive. And maybe that is the issue with our world. There are too many people defending their words instead of listening and learning from others about why their language feels like a bullet aimed at their emotions. You think your ‘excuse’ is going to smooth out the tension? It is not. It is just going to make me smile and say, ‘No problem!’ even though I am secretly fuming inside.”

What you actually say: “It did offend me, but thank you for understanding.”

The best form of combat is a dash of humor and a dollop of realness because many times people don’t realize how their comments can be interpreted.  I am a strong believer in office “teachable moments.” Not only will it make you feel great to know that you stood up for yourself, but it will also shed light on what females and minorities encounter in their professional environment.

What awkward personal questions, or sexist comm