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At Work - Dealing with Sexist Comments

Mar 13, 2011

Q: I work for a very large company that holds conference calls among the various levels of managers in different states. I was the only woman present on the conference calls at the time of the following incident. While I was speaking, a man from another location called out, "Oh, just go have a baby."

The shock of the comment prevented me from initially recognizing whose voice it was, but I replied, "There are reasons I don't have children, and it is none of your business."

A week later, I started having nightmares about the incident, and then I started having anxiety attacks at random places, such as the grocery, work, home in the middle of the night, etc. I took a week off, with a letter from my doctor approving it. When I returned to work, the nightmares and anxiety attacks started again.

I e-mailed my boss about the incident and its aftermath. He said he had identified the offender. I told him I didn't want to know who it was, though I later recognized him. (He is a level above me.) In the same conversation, my boss then criticized my communication skills but said he didn't know how to measure those skills. I said that if he couldn't tell me what was wrong, I wouldn't know what to improve. I had worked there for two years, and I never had been corrected for anything. My reviews always had been good, and I had received 150 percent of my bonus. At the end of the meeting, I thanked him for the feedback and left.

The next quarter, my boss gave me a bad review and told me it was because of my communication skills. He said I had asked too many questions in a meeting but added that he didn't want me to stop asking questions. I was in shock. I used to like and trust my manager, but now the relationship seems beyond repair. I am angry and depressed, and I feel twice victimized. The sad part is the betrayal. I met with a lawyer, who offered to write a severance letter, but I do not want to file a lawsuit, as I do not want to ruin my career.

A: The man's sexist comment during the conference call did not deserve any answer as to why you don't have children. His comment meant "you don't belong in the workplace," and his intent was to degrade you in front of others whose respect you need to be effective. Your boss admitted he knows who the offender was but neglected to say what, if anything, would be done. He apparently listened to the offender complain about you and thinks a sudden and extreme drop in your performance status will legally cover him and the company for not properly reprimanding the offender, but it won't. The timing of his criticism and sudden low performance review is in your favor, as it is an obvious ploy to lessen the impact of the man's sexist insult. It is irrelevant that the offender is a level above you. Sexist comments are not acceptable in the workplace, and his comment was with malice.

It is probably hard to face what is going on, but you are on your way out of the company, perhaps because of your response to the comment and your reporting it to your boss. If you believe in right over might, be friendly and work diligently, while you discreetly visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's local office. An investigator will interview you to determine whether you have a potential charge against the company. Filing an EEOC charge is not always the answer, and you may decide against it, but it is clear your boss supports the offender. Had you ignored the comment, it is possible the situation would not have evolved to this extent, but the damage from the comment would have remained. Only you can decide what would empower you and lessen your anxiety attacks - filing an EEOC charge or negotiating a solid reference letter so you could easily interview to get a new job.

E-mail Lindsey Novak at LindseyNovak@yahoo.com with all your workplace questions. She answers all e-mails.

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