A friend of mine is a student at a british dental school, and the seniors in question are the professors of said school.

She has mentioned her professional environment is predominantly female, with male seniors. She feels the seniors are very domineering and pompous in conferences and large meetings, which occasionally manifests itself in a mildly sexist manner.

This friend doesn't wish to cause a ruckus, she is doing well but I mentioned that if things are getting on her nerves, she probably isn't the only one.

I responded that she might be complicit unless she complains but am starting to backtrack in my thought process. I completely understand that maintaining the status quo is much easier and she doesn't feel she has a rigid statement that can be made (the difficulty of the situation) as it's primarily the emotional response to derogatory statements.


The question is: Without intervening directly into the situation, what advice can I provide on dealing with sexism in professional spaces that won't hinder her work/work relationships more than it currently is?

She is a deep thinking introvert, doesn't always answer the academic questions she knows the answers to and definitely doesn't want to sour relationships with professors.

As mentioned above, the examples she gave didn't immediately sound like sexism, hence the difficulty in raising formal complaint, but perhaps a perception over the past 4 years of her degree that confirms the small comments. Specifically, there were a series of taunts to the students due to the lack of answers to the questions he was answering (its exam season, other priorities exist). Over the years, some students have had bum slaps, etc, which is a flagrant issue.

My fear is that this behaviour unchallenged perpetuates an unsuitable situation for students of the years to come. They're certainly a part of an older generation.

I should also add, this was a quick 10 minute outpouring while I was driving, so I'm unable to provide the level of detail some are asking for. It clearly was a point of emotional difficulty because she phoned her mum soon after the event. What I can say is that the subtlety of sexism was demonstrated through mannerisms and body language, not with physical contact (exception mentioned above) or direct speech.

[Edit 2]

Expanding on my question, I have thus far advised that she create some formalised complaint to register her issue with the conduct of her professors, perhaps anonymously. I have also suggested speaking to her course reps. She herself conceded that the issues were too vague, which is why it hasn't left her immediate friends and family up to this point.

The core of the issue is definitely an emotional one. As a direct individual, my standard approach is to fix a problem head-on by speaking to those I have fault with, if I deem the battle worth pursuing.

To provide more specific context (to the best of my ability as I don't feel I can revisit the topic without her prompting), what alternative advice can I offer for responding to:

  • Corporate blame and receiving downspeak from seniors
  • Responding to sexism in the workplace without a clear case and point for formal allegations

closed as too broad by Tinkeringbell, sphennings, avazula, HDE 226868 Mar 8 '18 at 14:32

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • I was unable to add the tag for sexism, – user13938 Mar 8 '18 at 12:19
  • 1
    So basically, your friend is struggling with her assertiveness? Do you know what she's already tried, and why that didn't work? – Tinkeringbell Mar 8 '18 at 12:21
  • 5
    More context would also be very nice. As is, this is an incredibly broad question and answers will necessarily have to be a shot in the dark like approach. Some might go from well meaning answers to completly counterproductive because of lacking detail. I'd advise you do add a lot more detail to the question, especially what you mean with "Mildly sexist manner", since in any case that'll be a point of contention in this. – Magisch Mar 8 '18 at 12:34
  • What would you like to advice your friend on? Are you asking on her behalf for advice on the Interpersonal Skills needed to handle the situation, or are you asking for the Interpersonal Skills needed to give whatever advice you're wanting to give in a good way? – Tinkeringbell Mar 8 '18 at 12:37
  • 2
    I think it would be good if you provided information on what specific scenarios you'd provide advice for. There's plenty of material for general advice for combatting sexism; I think we need you to specify what sort of situations you'd be advising her on, to narrow the possibilities down. – HDE 226868 Mar 8 '18 at 14:30

She feels the seniors are very domineering and pompous in conferences and large meetings

Overly inflated egos are a staple of the strange world of academia. It isn't for everybody. Tickling such inflated egos is generally not a good idea. They tend to make a lot of noise when they blow up.

...which occasionally manifests itself in a mildly sexist manner.

If you want to convince someone to stop doing something, you will have a much easier time if they already understand that what they've been doing is bad, or are perhaps a bit ashamed of it, or have been doing it due to lack of other options.

However, if the seniors are part of the older generation, they might not perceive what you label "mildly sexist" as sexist at all, in fact they might consider it "business as usual", absolutely normal, nothing to see here. In this case, your friend's chances of convincing them to change behavior are basically nil.

Most likely outcome if she puts her foot in it would be her getting involved in a hands-on close-up study on reactance, which can be summarized in one simple sentence: if you tell someone they're a problem, and they don't think they're a problem, then they'll think you are the problem.

Considering you say it "occasionally manifests itself in a mildly sexist manner", and since you did not provide any specific examples, it would be wise not to attempt to convince her to make noise about the issue.

IMO, the best way for her to convince her teachers to be a bit less sexist would be to produce academic work of excellent quality...

  • I agree in that changing the minds of an older generation, particularly those with a superiority complex won't happen. She certainly is producing good quality work. She actually answered a question after the professor made a sweeping remark and she got a sarcastic retort of 'someone did their homework'. Perhaps there is no easy win. Thanks for the reactance link, I'll check that out. – user13938 Mar 8 '18 at 14:25
  • "someone did their homework" would rather be a compliment for her and a jab at the others who didn't, don't you think? – peufeu Mar 8 '18 at 14:29
  • Again, I think it's down to the intonation. The british (as you may already know) are a very sarcastic bunch – user13938 Mar 8 '18 at 14:35
  • Sarcasm is not sexism, even if it's percieved as such. It's really a tightrope walk – Mafii Mar 8 '18 at 15:30