We can’t rely on individuals alone to dismantle sexism; we must also change the fabric of our organisations. This article outlines what prevents men from speaking up against sexism at work and how this can be tackled.  

How can we define sexism? 

Fiske and Glick, social psychologists, developed a scale to measure hostile and benevolent sexism toward women (Ambivalent Sexism Inventory). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory is a 22-item scale that measures between the two types of sexism. [1]. 

  • Hostile sexism refers to explicitly negative attitudes toward a person based on their sex (e.g., the belief that women are incompetent)
  • Benevolent sexism refers to stereotypical attitudes about people based on their sex that may be perceived as positive but is damaging gender equality more broadly (e.g., the belief that men should protect women) 

Both hostile and benevolent sexism can be seen on a day-to-day basis in more subtle, ‘throwaway’ comments. This type of everyday sexism can be harder to tackle as it can often be passed off as a ‘joke’, or the perpetrator will argue a response is an ‘overreaction’. Research by King’s College found that women in senior leadership positions continue to face everyday sexism and what researchers call ‘micro-aggressions’ and ‘incivility’ in the workplace. 

King’s College surveyed almost 350 men and women at the board or executive committee level and found that: 

  • 33% of women reported someone at work had made disrespectful or insulting remarks about them, compared to 13% of men 
  • 23% of women reported that they had been shouted or sworn at by someone at work, compared to 16% of men 
  • 34% of women reported someone at work had ignored or failed to speak to them, or given them the ‘silent treatment’ compared to 23% of men 
  • 39% of women reported being targeted by angry outbursts or ‘temper tantrums’ by someone at work, compared to 23% of men [2] 

These statistics represent the hostility that women receive in the workplace as a result of their gender. A survey by Catalyst found that 86% of the men who took part are ‘personally committed to interrupting sexist behaviours when they see them in the workplace, yet only 31% feel confident in their ability to do so.’ [3] 

So, what prevents men from speaking up? 

The Catalyst report highlighted 3 reasons that prevented men from speaking up: 

  • Climate of Silence: An environment where employees don’t feel that their voices matter. Employees may believe that speaking up will bring repercussions or no meaningful change
  • Combative Culture: A hyper-competitive environment in which employees are encouraged to compete for professional success. This type of culture correlates with negative organizational dynamics such as toxic leadership and dominating co-worker behaviours, such as bullying and harassment [3]
  • Climate of Futility: The sense that efforts to make a change will not matter or have the desired impact. Catalyst found a ‘direct link between participants’ perception of futility and their likelihood of doing nothing to interrupt sexism’ [3]

How we can tackle this? 

  1. Start at the management level. Managers need to serve as role models. They must be educated to spot and flag sexism. 
  1. Set the tone for organisational values. Reward work that is a reflection of inclusion rather than exclusion. 
  1. Create mechanisms for employees to safely share ideas, dissatisfactions, and concerns. Examples include online forums, anonymous grievance hotlines, and safe places for employee networking. 

Sexism and sexually harassing behaviours are damaging. These 3 actions are the first steps to generating a positive and inclusive workplace culture. Empower and equip your employees to stand up to sexism.


[1] Fiske, S., Glick, P. 1996. The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating Hostile and Benevolent Sexism.

[2] Gov.uk. 2020. Third of FTSE 100 board members now women, but Business Secretary says more needs to be done. [online] [Accessed 01/04/21].

[3] Catalyst. 2020. Interrupting Sexism at Work. [online] [Accessed 01/04/21].

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We can’t rely on individuals alone to dismantle sexism; we must also change the fabric of our organisations. This article will outline what prevents men from speaking up against sexism at work and how this can be tackled.

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