Q: I am unsure how to handle a situation that I find deeply uncomfortable. I’ve had several complaints that my female staff development specialist, Kathy, is sexist. Here are some examples of the things she does that irritate her colleagues: If she needs extra copies of a handout during a meeting, she always asks a female teacher to do it. She will never hand over the floor to a female teacher, but she’ll stop and listen when a male teacher raises his hand. She’ll say things to women about their clothes like, “Are you planning to go to a nightclub after work?” These women are typically wearing dressy shoes and a skirt, not something unprofessional. She once told a young female teacher that since she was pretty, she didn’t expect her to hang around for too long. The implication was that she’d marry and quit her job because her husband would support her. That teacher complained to an older female colleague, who then came to me. After that, the floodgates opened, and other teachers started to talk to me about this. Clearly, I can’t ignore the situation, but I feel uneasy about the fact that I’m a man telling a woman to quit being sexist. I’m the principal and supervise Kathy, and I don’t have an assistant administrator, so I can’t outsource this to a woman. Kathy, by the way, is in her forties, so it’s not like she’s from a much older generation. She should know better, which frustrates me. Any advice or things I should keep in mind?
A: Let me start by reassuring you that the fact that you’re male or that she’s female is irrelevant. You don’t have to be a man to exhibit sexist behavior or a woman to call someone out for it. In other words, the advice I share here would be no different if you were a woman who needed to talk to a male employee.
First, be constructive. You don’t want her to feel personally attacked, so don’t lead by telling her, “People are complaining you’re sexist.” It will be unproductive and just make her defensive. Instead, share the behaviors that are rankling people. She needs to understand what specifically needs to change. In this case, you have useful data on how she doles out administrative tasks, leads meetings, and talks to female staff members. Be clear that you’re meeting with her about this because you want her to grow, learn, and recover her reputation. Tell her you’ll also bring it up at a staff meeting because everyone could use the occasional reminder. Before you end your conversation with her, ask her to restate what you said and confirm that she understands what she must do differently. Express confidence in her ability to execute on your directives. You want her to leave feeling like she can turn the situation around. She’ll behave better if she believes she’s redeemable.
When you do bring up the topic at a staff meeting, don’t use any names. Explain that you’re going to remind staff periodically that certain behaviors are offensive and unacceptable. Then go through the list of complaints you’ve been hearing. Encourage staff to call each other out, and to let you know if they need an assist. Give them tools they can use in the moment, such as expressing surprise at a sexist comment, asking the person to repeat what they said, or requesting that they explain what they meant. Empower staff to speak up for one another, too. In a meeting, anyone could call attention to the fact that certain voices are not getting heard. Use this as an opportunity to share your overall philosophy. You could share, for instance, that while it’s uncomfortable to hear (or give) criticism, you wouldn’t take the time to give negative feedback if you didn’t value and believe in them.
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