Don’t Be a Team Player: Speaking Up About Sexism in the Workplace

Recently, a former female Wall Street employee published an article in the New York Times detailing her experiences working on the male-dominated Wall Street. Framed in a discussion she had with a prospective female employee, she walks the reader through encounter after encounter where her male colleagues demeaned female employees, such as through sending her a pizza box filled with condoms or female colleagues having their ideas attributed to men. Meanwhile, she describes how she and other female colleagues hurriedly tried to hide their marital and reproductive status lest they be cast out for needing to take maternity leave. Maureen Sherry, the author of this account, says that she doesn’t bring this up to the woman she is interviewing. Instead, she describes herself as a “team player.” As Sherry puts it, of herself and her female colleagues, “Like members of a dysfunctional family, we kept our secrets to ourselves.

The End of a Career 

It can be hard to see why any woman would keep silent about these acts of sexism in the office. Any woman whose read Sherry’s piece certainly came away feeling horrified. However, we must consider the consequences of speaking up. At the end of the piece, Sherry reveals what became of the woman she was interviewing: after five years of working on Wall Street, she filed a discrimination complaint, took her settlement along with a non-disclosure agreement, and was gone. Sherry’s final sentence is chilling: Another brilliant woman’s career on Wall Street ended.

Had Sherry spoken up earlier about the sexism she experienced would she have been able to stay in her job? It’s true that speaking up is important, but understandably so that many women fear what could happen if they do: retaliation.

Last year, after Rose McGowan posted on Twitter about sexism in Hollywood, she was fired by her acting agent which seemed to send the message that she shouldn’t speak up. Speaking up could mean the loss of a job or more harassment. Working in a male-dominated field may mean being surrounded by those very sexist people which could make anyone feel unable to say something. Thus, Sherry is not at fault for hiding some details of her experiences from the candidate she was interviewing.

However, there comes the question: will anything change if one doesn’t speak up?

The Danger of Sexism in the Workplace

A 2015 Cosmopolitan survey found that 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18-34 have been sexually harassed at work. A 2014 British survey created by the campaign Opportunity Now and the firm PwC found that more than half of women experience harassment at work. The problem is widespread and dangerous.

In 2015 the University of Melbourne conducted a study to understand the effects of sexism in the workplace. They found that sexist acts that are considered less “intense” such as sexist jokes caused as much damage to a woman’s occupational well-being as a “more intense” form such as sexual coercion. Sexist jokes may be discounted as harmless when, in fact, they’re causing great harm and can gradually hurt a woman’s job performance. Moreover, allowing something a workplace culture where sexist jokes are considered casual or harmful begs the question: when does it end? If sexist jokes are seen as harmless, what else is seen as harmless? Furthermore, a colleague who thinks it’s acceptable to make these jokes or may be receiving gratification from this sort of behavior may soon think it acceptable to elevate their behavior to a “more intense” act. Any forms of sexism put the well-being and safety of a female employee at risk.  

Don’t Be a Team Player

Maureen Sherry’s article was a brave step in the right direction. It exposed the sexism on Wall Street in an honest way that outlined both the misogyny, but also the fear in speaking up.

However, it’s important to continue speaking up and refusing to normalize any sexism in the workplace. Subtle sexism—dress codes, sexist jokes, etc.—is still sexism and needs to be exposed like all forms of sexism. No woman should have to stand for any male colleague making a sexist comment as no woman should have to stand for a male colleague asking for sexual favors.

We must continue having these conversations and revealing these acts of sexism as a way to avoid normalizing them. Openly speak out and expose them. Embarrass the people who believe this sort of behavior is acceptable.

Sherry refers to the women who kept quiet about their experiences as “team players.” Of course, that definition of “team player” is one created by a male-dominated workplace: you’re a team player if you keep quiet about these injustices and develop a “thick skin.” I’m calling for the rebranding of “team player.” A team of men and women who support one another when they speak out about harassment in the workplace. A team that steps up to support a colleague experiencing harassment in the workplace and refuses to accept it.

This task shouldn’t fall solely on women. Men who see it need to speak up as well. It’s the unfortunate truth that a man speaking on sexism may be listened to more than a woman—especially by other men. That’s called exercising male privilege in a positive and effective way.

Sherry calls for an end to mandatory arbitration which would take complaints out of the dark and into courts where they can be more easily accessible to the public. Allowing these complaints to be open in an office can only help in allowing people to speak out against sexism where it occurs. 

It’s my hope that these efforts will keep women in the workplace and help them continue to catapult their careers and put them in more powerful positions that they can use to stamp out sexism in the workplace.

Sexism in the workplace hurts. It damages careers and it demeans women. It’s time to do more than speak up. It’s time for change. 


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