X signs of subtle sexism at work and what to do about it MAIN

3 signs of subtle sexism at work

Healthista editor and CEO Anna Magee reflects on the everyday occurrences that as a whole represent a subtle sexism still present in the workplace

I was recently in a meeting of all-male colleagues. We were discussing my company’s future; a company owned predominantly by me, making me technically the boss in the room.

Someone made a statement. I disagreed with him and began to explain why. He interrupted me with the words, ‘Anna, there is no need to be so aggressive.’

Hmmm, let’s see. We are talking about carving up my company and I am showing some passion as to how I feel about it.

unless he had threatened to remove one his colleague’s fingers with the paper slicer, a man in the same position would never have been told the same thing

Now, unless he had jumped over the boardroom table and threatened to remove one of his colleague’s fingers with the paper slicer, I am pretty certain a man in the same position would never have been told the same thing.

What had I done? I dared to disagree with him and use a less than pleasant, somewhat un-nice tone of voice.

It was the equivalent of David Cameron’s telling a female MP to ‘calm down, dear’ in a House of Commons exchange back in 2011.

My colleague’s behaviour represents yet another way the patriarchy is using loopholes left in feminism’s legacy to silence the voices of women.

Indeed I’m not alone. In December last year a survey by Moneycorp found that the majority of female buinsess owners have experienced gender discrimination, with a quarter – even in this ‘woke’ age we apparently live in – reporting blatantly sexist comments and a third saying they had missed out on a business deal as a result.

The worst region was London, where I am based and where 61 per cent said they had experienced gender bias.

‘micro-aggressions’; that’s tiny comments or behaviours that in and of themselves aren’t really much, but over time add up to lasting damage.

I told a female colleague the ‘aggressive’ story and she mentioned the term ‘micro-aggressions’; that’s tiny comments or behaviours that in and of themselves aren’t really much, but over time add up to lasting damage.

It made me realise that these tiny little body blows are dealt to women in the workplace every day, by men, and sometimes even by other women.

Pressure to be ‘nice’, whatever that means. Pressure to hide our emotions. Mansplaining, manterrupting, hepeating – all of those wouldn’t be words if they didn’t happen every day.

These seemingly small, everyday occurrences don’t necessarily seem like the monumental incidents that lead to a harassment claim or indeed, a glaringly in-your-face-unfair issue as Britain’s massive pay gap. But because they happen everyday, their compounded effect over time is actually, monumental.

In her book, Feminist Fight Club, Jessica Bennet calls such incidences ‘subtle sexism.’ Now is the time to recognise them and call them out.

These are the subtle signs of sexism I have encountered and how I have dealt with them.

Subtle sexism sign #1: Manterruption

I used to think the fact that my male colleague often asked me a question and then interrupted me during my first sentence answering was a me thing. Maybe I wasn’t making sense. Maybe I was boring him. Maybe I don’t know what I am talking about. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

But I knew deep down that what I had to say mattered, because of the points I could get out, he would often suggest as his own opinion in subsequent meetings.

Then I heard the term ‘manterruption’ and spoke to another female boss whose colleagues are all men and she got exactly the same thing, even though part of her job was providing intel these guys needed to do their jobs. But would they let her get any of that intel out? Not without a fight.

Who knows where it comes from. But I have actually learned to deal with it. Now, I keep my cool, hold up my hand, look the manterrupter firmly in the eye and say, ‘Just let me finish this point please, it’s very important to the discussion.’ Then I continue.  It’s a technique I stole from politicians constantly being interrupted by interviewers on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

Note, I don’t use a rising inflection because my statement is not a question, but a statement. If he keeps interrupting, I will keep on talking over him. It’s a game of wits, but eventually, the manterrupter and all those around him get the message.

Subtle sexism sign #2: The too ‘bossy’, ‘aggressive’, ‘angry’ thing

Social scientists say that everyone enters situations with pre-determined biases.

In a study by Dr. Madeline E.Heilman she identifies ‘human descriptive bias’ which automatically assigns women characteristics such as sensitive, caring and emotional, that have described women for centuries.

In her paper, Professor Heilman explains aspects of gender stereotyping in the workplace – one leading indeed to descriptive bias, and the other to prescriptive bias, Forbes.com reports.

Descriptive bias as she defines it is a result of our beliefs about women and men and their differences.

Women are thought to be people-people, who take an interest in others and relationships, kind and caring.

Men are thought to have qualities such as taking charge, getting things done, confronting conflict, and not letting emotions get in the way of their thinking.

Women are thought to be people-people, who take an interest in others and relationships, kind and caring.

But these characterisations are cultural, they’re not biological, even if they’re true for some.

Prescriptive gender bias on the other hand refers to the way women are told they should and should-not behave.

Women are not supposed to self-promote, negotiate tough, be outspoken, or take on a directive leadership style, she explains.

And they are not supposed to succeed in areas traditionally off-limits to their sex.

The penalties for such achievement can mean they are not liked and are described in terms such as selfish, bitter, abrasive, untrustworthy, manipulative, and cold – or in my case ‘aggressive’.

This has all sorts of consequences for their future path but also, she says, for how they manage themselves, as this can be quite depleting and depressing.

In my own experience, the ‘aggressive’ comment rattled me and caused me to wonder, ‘Am I indeed too aggressive?’

I discussed it with another male colleague who was in the room at the time and he simply said, ‘Not at all, he was confusing passion with aggression.’

I don’t claim to have all the answers for how to deal with the insidious micro-tears such comments and judgements make in our professional self-worth over time, and how they can cause us to question our own ability – it certainly did in my case.

I ended up emailing the guy a few hours later, telling him in brief terms that he had no authority to make such comments and to please stick to the business being discussed rather than my behaviour in future. He now talks to me like nothing happened.

Subtle sexism sign #3: The too emotional thing

My ex-husband used to have a real problem with women crying at work. He felt it was a method they used to manipulate the situation to get their way (yes, that is as misogynistic as it sounds).

As someone who has cried at work a few times and has dealt with lots and lots of people crying at work, I can honestly say, that is absolutely not the case.

Crying at work happens. Whether you’re a woman, or you’re a man, we’re human. We cry.

But to call someone out for being too emotional or dismiss their emotion as not belonging in the workplace or worse, as manipulative is yet another insidious form of subtle sexism.


Sometimes crying is part of the language we are using to be at work; a manifestation of something that is wrong, a problem that needs solving. It’s an expression of a situation at work in the same way that sending an email or having a conversation is. What that situation is needs dealing with, just like any other.

I have cried at work for so many different reasons. When my mum died, that told me I needed time off. When my company ran out of money, that told me I needed to find more fast. It was my body’s way of saying ‘Stop trying to keep it together! There is a MASSIVE problem here and I am going to make you stop and take notice of me.’

Now, if someone is crying during work I will say, ‘Would you prefer to carry on the meeting, or did you want to chat this through, or would you like some time out?’

I don’t want the person to feel that their tears have made everything stop because tears are so often involuntary and if we react to them like they are a huge mistake; a big event, that person might feel even more uncomfortable for having those emotions. Conversely, there may be a problem they want to talk further about, in private, or not and instead just have some time to themselves.

My point is, emotion is a language that belongs at work and that includes crying, or emotional outbursts – if it’s okay for someone to shout, it’s okay for someone to cry. People going through such moments need to be listened to and given a choice about what they would like to happen next.

Besides, without emotion, without passion, there would be no creativity and without creativity, work, business and well, everything would be very dull indeed.

Read Anna Magee’s feature in today’s Telegraph about how she took Healthista from a blog in her bedroom to a commercial website

More Healthista content:

How to deal with a bully at work

How to ask for more money at work

How to calm down fast if you’re having a bad day at work

3 public speaking tips this stand up comic swears by

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