Sexism: the elephant in the room

We’ve all seen the headlines:

Sexism is still rife in our society.  While things have improved, the headlines confirm that sexism continues to thrive in its various guises.  In the workplace, it continues to hold women back from progressing and from contributing.   So this month, we’re looking at the elephant in the room: sexism in the workplace.

Sexism can be overt – something that most of us would recognise straight away.  More often, however, sexism is disguised in humour, compliments, and other communication.  It’s this particular type of ambiguous, unintentional sexism that is harmful, because it’s difficult to detect and to fight. Let’s take a look at some common forms of covert sexism.

Sexist Comments
Studies report that most women experience sexism in the workplace.  In one study, 81% of women reported being on the receiving end of a sexist comment or joke.  These comments and acts vary from being innocent (yet harmful) to inflaming.  Here are some of them:

  • Referring to women as ‘girls’, ‘sweetheart’, ‘love’ or ‘honey’
  • Making comments about women’s appearance (‘You look like you’ve lost some weight’ or ‘You should smile more!’)
  • Addressing men by their title and women by their first name
  • Confusing women’s names
  • Referencing women’s menstrual cycle (‘Must be that time of the month’) or emotions (‘Don’t take it so personally!’) to infer they’re not being professional
  • Putting women down in a disagreement by referring to their contribution as ‘whining’

Gender Stereotypes
Believing that men and women want different things from their careers often leads to women not having the same opportunities as men.  An example of this is when someone assumes that a female colleague would not want a more challenging job opportunity because she recently got married or has smaller children, or is caring for someone. These kinds of career-limiting assumptions are rarely made about men.  As a result, women are often relegated to jobs that don’t present progression opportunities.

Women are also often expected to behave in certain ways, leading to comments like ‘bossy’ or ‘aggressive’ when they assert themselves.  In many cases, if a woman isn’t direct, speaks loudly or acts expressively, she is labelled as lacking confidence and therefore not ready to step into management.

Disregarding opinions and contributions
Women, including senior ones, report having to justify their opinions more than their male peers.  They also point to incidents when their contribution to a discussion is subtly discouraged, like in this example: “My old boss would only take advice and suggestions from males. It was subtle because he would nod and smile as you made the suggestion, but he would only follow through with things that male colleagues said.”

In addition, women tend to be interrupted or spoken over twice as often as men and are often assumed to know less than men.  This can lead to men explaining, sometimes basic, details – something that’s commonly referred to as ‘mansplaining’.

The consequence of sexism in the workplace
Sexism causes a number of problems for organisations, such as:

  • The gender pay gap.  When women do not progress to more senior positions, they don’t earn as much as men.  In fact, the gender pay gap in the UK in 2020 was 15.5% – that’s to say that, on average, men earned 15% more than women last year.
  • Mental health repercussions.  Sexism can and does have a great impact on women’s mental health.  Anxiety, a decreased sense of self and uncertainty are all consequences of sexism.  These can lead to women contributing less of their thinking and creativity and to lack of motivation.
  • Sexual Harassment.  Persistent sexism can also lead people to believe that women are inferior to men, which can also lead to harassment and discrimination.

How to combat it
It’s not just up to women to address sexism.  It’s important that everyone does it.  Companies must raise awareness about it and work to gradually eradicate it.

Here are a few tips on what everyone can do:

  • When you hear or see sexism, speak up –even if the relevant person is not in the room.
  • Raise awareness by learning about it, reading up on it and expanding your knowledge about Unconscious Bias and how it leads to blind spots and stereotypes.
  • Deal with repeat offenders sternly. Companies must have clear cut policies on sexism and sexual harassment and be consistent in applying them to those who persist.
  • Prepare in advance. If you are on the receiving end of sexism, think of a few statements or come-back’s you can use at the right time.  Following Kamala Harris’ example, next time you’re interrupted, say slightly louder ‘I’m speaking!’.

If you have a question or comment you’d like to share about your experience with sexism at work, please email me.

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