Many people would argue that the workplace has improved drastically in terms of inclusivity, and it has, but there are still many stigmas that greatly impact women employees and other marginalized groups every day.
In 2020, women held just 38 percent of manager-level positions, while men held 62 percent. Mothers were more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for the majority of housework during the pandemic. Forty-two percent of Black women felt uncomfortable sharing their thoughts about racial inequity at work. Women and other marginalized groups are consistently held to higher standards than cisgender white men—and while there are many factors that contribute to the above statistics, the stigmas that still run wild and free in the workplace are a large contributor.
Because stigma often leads to discrimination, harassment, and burnout, one in four women has contemplated downshifting her career or leaving the workforce completely. So, how do we combat losing top talent? We start by recognizing stigmas and figuring out how to destigmatize them.
Read more: 25 Tips for Dealing with Burnout
9 stigmas in the workplace that should have been gone yesterday
1. Stigma: Talking politics
Most people shudder when thinking about discussing politics at work since historically, personal political beliefs and the workplace were considered very separate spheres. But increasingly, political and social movements like Black Lives Matter greatly affect all aspects of our lives—including the workplace. It's unrealistic to completely separate our personal beliefs from our work because oftentimes those beliefs are married to our identities. It’s also up to employers to be socially responsible to ensure employees feel safe and like they belong.
2. Stigma: Talking about salary
We’ve covered the gender pay gap—the fact that women make, on average, 82 cents to the white man’s dollar—in depth. There are many systemic contributors to the gap including occupational sorting, unequal distribution of household labor, the motherhood penalty...and the fact that we’re discouraged from talking about money in the workplace (and everywhere else). The issue with money talk being taboo is that if women and other marginalized groups don’t ever ask how much others in similar positions are making, they might never know they’re being underpaid and won’t understand the size of their deficit. Ever heard of Lilly Ledbetter? Destigmatize this now.
Read more: How to Ask Someone How Much Money They Make
3. Stigma: Wearing traditionally Black hairstyles
Hairstyle discrimination an issue that many Black people face in the workplace—a quick Google search for "black person fired for hair" will pull up around 69 million search results. For example, in 2018, a woman in Louisiana was fired after her supervisor told her that her hairstyle, an afro, was not up to company standards. There has been long-standing stigma against traditional Black hairstyles like afros, dreadlocks, and natural textured hair, and “racializing (natural) hair as inferior has been a key ideological tactic in denying black people social, economic, and political power,” according to Sociologist Chelsea Johnson, Ph.D. We’re thankful the C.R.O.W.N. Act is making its way around the country.
4. Stigma: Women having body hair, piercings, or tattoos
Yes, it’s 2021, and people still care about how much hair women have on their bodies and if they have visible tattoos and piercings. Even in the workplace, engrained societal beauty standards lead to the policing of women’s bodies and contribute to the removal of their autonomy. Oftentimes, women who choose not to remove body hair are shamed for being “unprofessional” or “unhygienic,” and studies have shown that women with tattoos are perceived as less intelligent, less honest, and less motivated. But the bottom line is, the amount of hair on our bodies and whether we have piercings and tattoos or not doesn’t impact how well we’re able to perform our jobs—talent is talent, no matter what it looks like.
5. Stigma: Gender expression and identity
Despite heightened awareness of the LGBTQ+ community’s struggles over the past decade or so, LGBTQ+ employees still experience pressure to manage their identities at work in order to conform to the expectations and comfort of others. A survey in 2015 showed that 77 percent of trans employees had taken active steps to avoid mistreatment at work by hiding their gender identity, delaying their gender transition, or refraining from asking their employers to use their correct pronouns. Because gendered behavior is learned from a young age—removing stigmas surrounding gender expression and pronouns takes active education and training to uproot.
6. Stigma: Women in non-care-related roles
Women have historically been encouraged to pursue “care-oriented” careers within education, nursing, and child care. It’s called occupational sorting, where people of different genders “sort” themselves into stereotypically gendered careers, and it leads to stigma against women who pursue careers in more male-dominated fields like tech. And regardless of the field, the notion that women should take care of “domestic” and care-related tasks leads to higher levels of unpaid work (scheduling work parties, setting up and cleaning up events, etc). Ironically, even within employee resource groups, hailed as beneficial forums for addressing inequities, women still end up doing the majority of unpaid, invisible work.
7. Stigma: Mental health
The less we talk about mental health and mental illnesses at work, the more the stigma grows. Mental illnesses are seriously misunderstood, and many employees don’t feel comfortable disclosing their illnesses in fear of being viewed as “too emotional,” incapable, or even dangerous. Because the pandemic helped bring mental health to the forefront in the workplace, managers are now navigating how to address mental health holistically and strategically with their teams. And since Census data indicates that a third of Americans show signs of clinical anxiety or depression and one out of five employees has a diagnosable mental health condition, removing stigmas surrounding mental health should be a top priority to ensure employees know they’re not alone.
8. Stigma: Working motherhood and parenthood
According to LinkedIn, 35 percent of working parents who don’t take a career break—but would have liked to—cite a fear of losing their job. And another 15 percent said they worried they would not advance professionally if they took time off. This fear stems from a stigma that working parents (specifically mothers) are somehow less competent at their jobs because of competing demands in the office and at home. And don’t even get us started on the stigmas related to breastfeeding at work…49 percent of mothers say they’re concerned that breastfeeding at work could negatively impact their career growth, and 35 percent said they’ve experienced a negative interaction with a colleague because of breastfeeding or pumping. News flash, maternity leave and pumping at work aren’t vacations or excuses to stop working.
9. Stigma: Menstruating
Talking about periods at work, or even acknowledging that they exist, remains uncomfortable for many employees who menstruate. A survey from DPG revealed that 60 percent of menstruators feel they can’t talk about periods at work at all—and this number increases to 75 percent in workplaces where men outnumber women. The stigma surrounding periods can even cause employees to feel the need to hide why they need to take time off, with 57 percent of people who menstruate saying they’ve had to lie about the reasons they needed a sick day to cover up period pain.
Read more: 6 Examples of Ageism Hiding in Plain Sight
How to destigmatize these stigmas:
Stigma leads to discrimination, and discrimination can lead to lower self-esteem, higher stress levels, and depression and anxiety. Because stigma is perpetualized through our everyday beliefs and behaviors, it’s within our control to dismantle it. Below are several ways that leaders can send a message to employees that stigma is unacceptable in the workplace:
Watch your words
Language is critical. For example, when someone describes mental illness as a “phase,” it dismisses the gravity and implies that it’s something you can grow out of. When talking about any type of stigma, make sure you’re educated on the correct, bias-free language and terminology.
Offer bias training
We all have biases whether we’re aware of them or not, so allow your employees the opportunity to recognize their unconscious beliefs. The point here is to move past biases by acknowledging them, discussing how they’ve lead to stereotyping and discrimination, and making plans to eliminate them. The more you talk about “taboo” topics, the less invisible they are.
Offer more benefits
Explicitly state that it’s okay for employees to take time off for *whatever* they need—parental leave, bereavement leave, mental health, transition surgery, period pains, everything. Ensure your insurance plans cover transition-related treatments and make sure providers are experienced with caring for trans patients.
Make your employees’ salary information public. Inequities will be brought to light that you may not have even known existed, so be prepared to have conversations about compensation and why some employees make more than others.
Re-evaluate your company policies
Take a look at your company’s dress code and grooming policies. Are there policies in place that are inherently discriminatory to certain ethnic or gender groups? Are there policies that are upholding sexist ideals? Do you even need a code regarding appearance at all?
Sponsor employee resource groups
Advocate for an ERG’s needs, suggest new initiatives to the leadership team, increase visibility of the group’s contributions, and provide financial support so your employees can enact real change.
Support your LGBTQ+ employees
Provide gender-neutral bathrooms. Encourage pronoun usage voluntarily—making pronouns mandatory in email signatures or forms may “out” employees who aren’t ready to share their full identity at work yet. Celebrate Pride all year long.