Q: I’m a high school principal (and a man, which feels relevant to my question). I know several female teachers think that one male teacher in particular is a total creep. He’s definitely sexist, but his behavior isn’t illegal or actionable. This is a guy who calls women “bitchy,” “crazy,” and “emotional,” and comments that it is “probably that time of the month.” He doesn’t talk about men this way. He’s a chronic mansplainer, even about dumb stuff. He’ll tell women the “right” way to use the toaster in the staff lounge, and he interrupts them left and right. He’s pretty much a cliché, and there may be a generational disconnect at play, but I completely understand why these teachers find him so intolerable. This is a guy who can turn an innocuous comment about hamburger pickles into something suggestive and sexual. He calls women “honey” and “sweetheart,” which bothers them.
Fortunately, he doesn’t do any of this with female students, at least to my knowledge. I called the school system’s lawyer just to make sure he isn’t breaking any laws, and she more or less confirmed that he’s toeing the line. In other words, he’s not doing anything illegal — he’s just a jerk. It seems I can’t write him up for sexual harassment, but I really want him to quit making my staff irritated and uncomfortable. I hardly ever witness this behavior firsthand, though. I need women to share their concerns and give me specific examples. But so far, they’ve been reluctant, and I hear about all this secondhand. How can I encourage them to come to me directly, so I have ammunition? And if they do, what’s the best way to share their complaints with this teacher? If I’m going to say something to him, I want my intervention to work. Otherwise, these women will never trust me with this kind of information again.
A: Women are often subjected to pervasive, subtle sexism in the workplace, and schools are not immune. One 2015 study found that women who deal with “low-level, covert sexism” risk as much psychological damage as those who contend with unwanted advances from male colleagues. This man sounds particularly grating, and I’m guessing he wears out male teachers, too. I commend you for wanting to put an end to it. It’s important that your staff members feel you have their back, especially if they’re constantly fending off (or trying to ignore) one guy’s offensive comments. That’s not a healthy work environment.
You’re right that Step 1 is to get some ammunition. When you meet with this teacher, you need to share as many specific examples as possible. So how can you get your female teachers to talk to you? I’d first bring up the issue in a group setting, perhaps at a staff meeting. Tell everyone exactly what you consider to be offensive or unacceptable. Go through a list of every complaint you’ve heard, whether it relates to using stereotypical language, interrupting, mansplaining, or sexualizing lunchroom pickles. Explain that you want staff to report this kind of behavior because it changes the culture for everyone, and you can’t do anything without information. You also might want to suggest they keep a record of problematic interactions. Assure them that no one will face retaliation and you’ll protect your sources. Acknowledge the real possibility they could face backlash from coworkers if they report, then tell them you’ll intervene if that happens. Teachers may not want to seek help from the person who writes their evaluation — or they may prefer to talk to a woman — so give them the names of others who can help them, such as a female administrator or someone in Human Resources. You may be surprised to learn that a large percentage of your staff had no idea that seeking help was an option.
Let’s assume you’re able to get the details you need. I’d call a meeting with the male teacher. Say, “Here are a couple examples of things I’m hearing about you, and that you need to stop doing.” Be as specific as possible without divulging your sources. Use the language, “I’ve spoken with,” which doesn’t imply that anyone sought you out. Explain that he’s making women (and probably some men, including you) uncomfortable. Then ask, “Does this resonate with you? Can you agree to stop this behavior?” Tell him what the consequences will be if the problematic behavior continues. Then document the conversation, because you may need to reference it later. If this teacher agrees to comply with your directive, for example, but then fails in the execution, you can write him up for insubordination.
As a man and the school’s leader, you’re in a position to be a role model. You can encourage everyone to call each other out when they witness sexism. I’d give them some strategies. For example, no one should be laughing at these offensive comments. Instead, teachers can stop and ask, “Would you say that to a man?” Even a simple, “Your comments about women make me uncomfortable,” or “That’s inappropriate,” can be effective. Or teachers can ask the person to repeat the comment, which can highlight how boorish they sound. Or they can say, “I’m confused. Why is that funny?”
Be clear that you’re addressing both sexes, and that women can be sexist, too. I’d also make sure that everyone understands that while sexual harassment policies address very obvious sexism, you care about more covert behaviors, too. Then reinforce this message with your staff on a regular basis, underscoring that everyone deserves to feel comfortable at work.
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