Q: I'm a non-executive director of a large manufacturing firm. I find the role rewarding but, as the only female on the board, I'm sick of all the sexist banter. I really don't want my gender to be an issue but, frankly, their comments are offensive. What should I do?
Jeremy says: Your hesitation is understandable. Make a formal complaint - either at a board meeting or in private to the chairman - and you fear being branded as yet another humourless female who can't take a joke. 'Oh, why can't a woman be more like a man?' as Professor Higgins once lamented.
The probable reason for all this tedious banter, though of little comfort to you, is a certain unease on the part of all the male directors. It's not so much the fact that you're a woman that embarrasses them; it's more that you're different.
And, bizarrely, they seem to think that by constantly referring to that difference, they're actually being inclusive; that, by inviting you to appreciate their joshing, they're actually flattering you. I know it's crass and unimaginative, but if a male Japanese, for example, were to join the board, they wouldn't dream of making constant references to his slitty eyes. Despite being male, he wouldn't be expected to join the club. You are.
I doubt if there's a perfect way to get them to grow up without your seeming prissy - but here's a suggestion. Have a drink one evening with the fellow director with whom you feel most comfortable.
Thank him for treating you like another human being, which will almost certainly prompt a discussion about the sexist banter. Say: 'Well, it was all a bit of a laugh to start with but I must say, I now just find it a bit childish and extremely tedious.' And leave it at that.
I'd be very surprised indeed if he didn't do the rest on your behalf.
- Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. Email him your problems at firstname.lastname@example.org. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.