'I’m experiencing sex discrimination at work and my boss won't help. What can I do?'

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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's new column answering your questions on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. Send your dilemmas to stories@stylist.co.uk and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand. 

This week's question:

"I work in banking and my company has recruited a high-profile client, but he refuses to talk to me about business deals because I’m a woman. If I answer  his calls, he immediately asks for a male colleague to take over. I’ve tried speaking to my managers – one male, one female – but they just find it funny. Should I stand up to him or ignore it to remain professional?"

Feminist Victoria Joy says:

Wow. Just… wow. It’s taken me at least twenty minutes to quell the rage bubbling up inside of me to even have a stab at thinking rationally and answering this question.

Some may judge me as naïve or ignorant (my mother does daily) but, having had the pleasure of only ever working in a mostly female environment, I cannot believe that this kind of misogyny exists so unequivocally and unashamedly, STILL.

And yet, with a study out today showing that a third of working women in the UK have suffered discrimination, you're clearly not alone. 

If you were my mate and we’d had a few wines, I would tell you to sack in the world of banking and tell your douchebag client to shove his £?*^& up his @*<S”! But that won’t do your career – or any other woman in the same position – any favours.

Some ardent campaigners for workplace equality might tell you to fight back directly to the man himself. After all, how dare he hold such warped views and have the gall to unleash them on others in a workplace environment? But I for one don’t think that’s your best course of action – someone as hateful as him isn’t likely to change his thinking or behaviour if a woman reacts negatively to his treatment of her.

Equally offensive and dangerous are your managers’ views of the situation, and that’s where you should focus your attention.

As your employer, and the reason you’ve come up against this discrimination in the first place, they’ve got a very real responsibility to protect and support you against harassment, which is exactly what this client is subjecting you to.

"The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as 'unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic (in this case, your gender), which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual,'" explains Lyndsay Salmon, an HR consultant for Silver Cloud HR.

Think about it, would your managers find it so hilarious if a client refused to talk to one of your colleagues because of their race? Or because they were overweight?

What does make it a little trickier is that the discrimination is coming from someone outside your workplace, rather than another employee, but according to Lyndsay, it’s still down to your company to stand by you and sort it.

"Although the 2010 act applies to employers and employees, and the government has removed express protection for third-party harassment, your employer still has a legal duty to ensure they protect you from harassment from this client. The professional body for HR professionals (CIPD) recommends 'an employer should act promptly upon any discriminatory acts of any customers or clients against employees and behave supportively towards any employee who complains of such harassment,'" she adds.

So put his treatment of you down in writing, including dates and specifics and how it makes you feel (don’t play it down, I know you will, but be honest), and take it to your managers. Given their previous reaction, this will be uncomfortable - but if you stick to the facts and lay out your concerns in a calm, authoritative way, they will have no choice but to listen. If they still don’t get it, or play the 'he’s a client, we can’t piss him off' card, raise the issue formally with your HR team, who should investigate and help your managers resolve it so you’re not made to feel shit about being female at work.

Making a formal case that your HR team can then take to this client is going to hit him much harder (in the ego and bollocks, I hope) than you losing your rag during one hostile call too many, and doing it this way may well encourage other employees to speak out if they’ve suffered a similar situation.

I’m not saying we should all book a meeting with our HR team the moment anyone in the office makes a sexist remark - sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an element of The Boy Who Cried Wolf about these kind of complaints and my worry is that if we don’t save the big guns for blatant, vindictive harassment like the kind you’re describing, the whole gender equality argument will be lost.

Flippant remarks or hurtful day-to-day decisions, in my opinion, are best dealt with by flagging up to the person responsible, and I trust we’re all intelligent enough to know whether a quick chat in the canteen or a more formal meeting will do the trick. Then when it comes to fundamental issues; pay gap, unfair promotions, your managers not taking idiot clients to task, take it to HR and don’t accept no for an answer, however awkward the conversation might be.

Remember, you’re not being unprofessional by speaking out about this or demanding support; your douchebag client and shameful managers are the ones coming across as far more pathetic.

What do you think? Is lodging a formal complaint to HR the best way of combating workplace sexism? And how much impact has the Equality Act had on our day-to-day experience of discrimination in the office? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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Stylist Team