Can't take a joke - We need the courage to call it

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Recent events in the media have demonstrated the need to be careful in how we speak to and about others, particularly in a professional setting.  Sometimes things said in jest can be extremely hurtful. 

Speech is a form of action. Whether we like it or not, our words have consequences.

  • Non-inclusive jokes can lead to hostile feelings and discrimination. International researchers have found that sexist joking reinforces existing prejudice. If someone jokes about women and is not pulled up on this, staff who are opposed to gender equality interpret this as social sanction for their own views and behaviour – even if the original joke tellers themselves are not actively opposed to women and gender equality.
  • Australian social scientists have also shown that non-inclusive language harms people who witness it as well as the intended targets and frequent non-inclusive experiences at work can have just as harmful effects as more intense but less frequent experiences, particularly in relation to sexual coercion and harassment.

Violence against women is now widely acknowledged as a major societal problem and the time has passed where it is ok to laugh off derogatory comments, even said in fun or where the intent was not to cause harm. 

Expecting the recipient of the behaviour to solely challenge such behaviour is also inadequate. We all have a responsibility to challenge inappropriate language and behaviour that excludes, demeans, humiliates or discriminates.

Have the courage to call it

It can be challenging to confront non-inclusive language, especially when it’s coming from powerful or influential people in your organisation. In fact, research suggests we confront it less than half the time we encounter it. But doing so can increase our confidence and promote inclusion at work for all. When we confront someone about their language, not only are they less likely do it again, they are also more likely to change their views on what is appropriate behavior – and so too are any bystanders.  

Speaking up is a way of changing culture, and culture changes slowly and often involves lots of small steps such as simply pulling someone up on language that excludes.  Try to focus on the language or behaviour and avoid personal name-calling  (i.e. describe the language as sexist or racist, not the person).

Even making an indirect comment such as "Ouch" can show that you have noticed the language is not inclusive and are uncomfortable with this.

Keep an open mind

It is important to be open to changing what we have always thought was ‘normal’, respectful and appropriate to say. Our unconscious bias can affect how we communicate with others, and making a deliberate effort to adjust our language to be more inclusive is one way to overcome old habits.

Resources for members

DCA has developed a range of resources to help employers understand how to build more inclusive workplaces and tackle everyday sexism.  

  • Dr Michael Flood, Associate Professor, University of Wollongong provided some useful insights into engaging bystanders on everyday sexism at a DCA event in November 2014.  A highlights video was produced from the event called “Can’t take a joke”. The full event recording is available to all current DCA members in our audio video gallery.
  • A recent issue of DCA’s members-only Diversity Matters explored how to tackle everyday sexism
  • DCA’s new #WordsAtWork guides provide detailed practical information on building inclusion through the power of language and how to tackle non-inclusive language.  We are also now offering a two hour in-house knowledge program for member organisations.