The fine line between sexist behaviour and sexual harassment

by Apr 26, 2022

The difference between sexist behaviour and sexual harassment


I am writing this because people still don’t seem to understand the difference between sexist behaviour and sexual harassment. A man posted on LinkedIn that a female colleague called him by a pet name, usually reserved for a personal relationship, so he reported her for sexual harassment. The man did not feel threatened physically or morally or fearful that the situation would escalate. The woman was spoken to and it stopped,

Was that sexual harassment or sexist behaviour?


This is the first and I think the only official definition of sexism from the Council of Europe

“Any act, gesture, visual representation, spoken or written words, practice or behaviour based upon the idea that a person or a group of persons is inferior because of their sex, which occurs in the public or private sphere, whether online or offline.”

Sexist behaviour is on a spectrum. It can be both intentional and unintentional. It can also be a single act or a pattern of behaviour. These instances are known, as micro-aggressions


sexist behaviour and sexual harassment


Definition of a micro-aggression

Micro-aggression is a term used for commonplace daily verbal, behavioural or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups

Examples of sexist micro-aggressions are:

  • Introducing a woman by her first name and her male colleague by his full name and title.
  • Pet names usually found in a more intimate relationship: sweetheart, babe, love, darling, honey, boo
  • Viewing the same personality and behaviours through a different lens: men are “dynamic and assertive” women are “bossy and aggressive.”
  • Inappropriate touching or invasion of personal space
  • Ogling a woman as she walks by


Worth a read: What you should never say to a woman in the workplace or anywhere! 


Definition of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another, when such conduct interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. While typically involving a pattern of behaviour, it can take the form of a single incident. Sexual harassment may occur between persons of the opposite or same sex. Both males and females can be either the victims or the offenders.”

Worth a read; Inappropriate sexual conduct – who thinks about it? 


Can sexist behaviour be harassment?

There will be many layers of nuance in this. If someone calls you “honey” in the office with no malice or forethought. In my book it is sexist behaviour not harassment although it could be covered by  the clause “might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another.”  If you ask that person to stop and they persist, then it has crossed the line into a pattern of unwelcome behaviour becoming harassment.

If a manager offers male employees career building opportunities to travel because they think that their female team members would rather stay home with their children, that is benevolent sexism which is also discriminatory.  It is not harassment.

In the case of the man who reported a colleague for harassment for calling him a pet name, it’s a way to inadvertently devalue someone’s work by calling attention to their sexuality instead. It is potentially demeaning even if it is unintentional.  If the woman had been his boss then the situation would have been more serious especially if there were other intersectional issues (race, physical ability etc.).



Bottom line.

No pet names in the office… from anyone.

Hope this helps!


If your organisation wants to create an inclusive work place to combat sexism and harassment, contact 3Plus.


Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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