Successfully Interrupting Sexism

I have a success story to share!

I am a first period sheet metal apprentice, and a retired instructor recently started coming in to teach us about safety. He would make a lot of jokes during class about sex and looking at women’s bodies. The jokes could go on for minutes at a time, with a new joke every one to five minutes during a four-hour lecture. There are over eighty people in my class, and only three of us are women. (This is considered a large number of women apprentices for my trade.)

At one point this instructor started using a sheet metal term I hadn’t heard yet called a “smile.” I raised my hand and asked what a “smile” was, and he said with a leer, “It’s what happens when I look at you.” I was too scared and mad in that moment to say anything back except a quiet, angry “no.” He immediately shifted his tone and explained that it was a slang term for a certain kind of dent in the metal. I thought maybe he would stop joking about sex after that, but no, he kept going with a new joke every few minutes. My strategy to survive the class was to mostly ignore what he was saying, but that meant that I wasn’t able to learn much either.

After class I decided I did not want to go home angry and annoyed, that I would rather go home feeling powerful, by speaking up.

I waited to talk with the instructor one-on-one after class. I greeted him warmly and told him, “Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge with us. I appreciate your sense of humor, but would you be willing to not make jokes about looking at women? I know you’re not used to teaching women, but it’s not just for us. It’s also that you are a role model for the male apprentices.” He immediately and non-defensively said, “You’re right. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” I shook his hand, said thank you, and walked out feeling powerful!

I didn’t actually believe he would stop, because it seemed like such a chronic pattern and I had not offered him a naturalized session. (I knew I did not have attention to counsel him, so I did not even attempt to listen to his feelings about what I’d said.) I hoped maybe he would at least make fewer jokes.

I am surprised and delighted to share that I underestimated him! He lectured again this week for another few hours and did not make any jokes about sex or women at all—not one!

I was able to speak up because of the sessions I’ve had on sexism and male domination. Thanks to Diane Balser [the International Liberation Reference Person for Women] and all the women who have been able to hold out the importance of women’s liberation. Thanks to the tradeswomen Co-Counselors who have listened to me when I didn’t know how to speak up without losing my job. I love my trade, and I am glad that this time I did not have to choose between learning my trade and being a powerful woman.

I think I had the extra attention to speak up because earlier that week I had decided to go to Standing Rock to support the Native people and allies who are protecting the water from a large oil pipeline. Something about deciding to undertake a big project and putting my mind toward a big vision gave me the extra attention to efficiently contradict patterns I might have otherwise ignored or been too scared to interrupt.


Long Beach, California, USA, Traditional land of the Tongva people

Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of women

(Present Time 186, January 2017)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00