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  1. Blog
  2. Diversity

The Difference Between Overt & Covert: Recognizing Hidden Systemic Racism & Sexism

Gaslighting has entered the chat

Alcoa Aluminum advert 1953
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Overt behaviors, those that can be observed by others, are informed by covert behaviors, which are our thoughts, dreams, and beliefs. While we like to think we’re pretty much in control, direct and intentional in what we do, our covert behaviors—influenced by our upbringing and education, work environment, friends, and the media—will inevitably surface in what we do and how we act.

We consume so much media today that it can be a particularly strong influence on our subconscious, especially with regard to reinforcing negative outlooks and characteristics.

“Stereotypes shape our split-second emotional responses and judgments of others in ways we may not be conscious of, so media reinforcing negative stereotypes of people of color produces real-world discrimination,” explains Madeline Di Nonno, president and CEO at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

Read more: 6 Examples of Coded Language in the Workplace & How to Eliminate the Practice

The difference between overt and covert behaviors

By using synonyms, it’s easy to understand what the difference is between overt (or obvious) behavior and covert (or secret). You can actually see overt behaviors, like the manner in which someone walks. Covert behaviors, on the other hand, are hidden. They’re the subtext to open behaviors: They explain a person’s actions, but are not observable.

You can see a person walking very quickly, an overt behavior, but you don’t know why they’re doing so. They may be anxious to get somewhere or might simply be exercising; their reasons are covert behaviors. You can make an educated guess, based on what the person is wearing or on their facial expression, but because you’re not privy to that person’s thoughts, you could also be wrong.

Read more: A Thousand Paper Cuts: Microaggressions in the Workplace

Overt racism allows covert racism to thrive

When racism is overt in society, it becomes embedded in our laws so that racial lines deeply divide people and keep those discriminated against at a constant disadvantage in every aspect of life. Overt racism allows covert racism to thrive, so even as we move away from open and recognizable displays of racism, hidden discrimination remains a systemic problem.

“Systemic racism in the workplace exists today, yet very few people outside of Black and brown communities understand what it looks and feels like in a real way because many books, TV shows, and movies focus on overt racism, the type that is done in the open, easily spotted, and easier to prove,” Jacquie Abram, co-author of Hush Money: How One Woman Proved Systemic Racism in her Workplace & Kept her Job, tells InHerSight.

One example of overt racism, Abram says, is calling a Black person the N-word in a public area (like the break room at work) for others who are in that area to hear.

Read more: Introduction to Intersectionality: 8 Ways Identity Affects Employment

Covert racism in the workplace

Covert racism is alive and well in society and in the workplace, and as destructive as overt racism ever was. That’s because covert racism allows an element of deniability, of gaslighting

Abram, who is a Black woman, says she experienced two decades of covert racism in her career in higher education. She tells InHerSight that covert racism is “hidden, much harder to prove, and therefore more damaging.” An example of covert racism, she says, is a manager who calls an employee the N-word in their office, behind closed doors and with no witnesses.

Another example of covert racism is any workplace policy (or even expectation) that puts you at a disadvantage because of your race, like bans on certain hairstyles. Underemployment, which is when people want to work more hours, but can’t find the work (ex. a food service worker wanting 20 hours/week, but only getting 15), is a form of covert racism too. According to one analysis, those affected by underemployment “are more likely to be women than men. They are more likely to be Black than white, and more likely to be Latino.”

Read more: Your Resource Guide to Understanding the Intersectional Gender Pay Gap

Covert racism can keep qualified people from getting jobs in the first place. Darrick Hamilton, Ph.D., founding director of the Institute on Race and Political Economy at The New School in New York, says the common argument by technology companies of a lack of Black and Hispanic qualified job applicants “does not hold water,” adding “if you look at the empirical evidence, that is just not the case.”

Outside the typical office setting, you’ll see covert acts of racism in seemingly innocuous workplaces, like your grocery store. Some chains won’t build their stores in communities that don’t meet their criteria such as median household income and education levels, writes Alexis Morillo at Delish. Signage in the aisles inside stores segregates further, even to hair care products for Black women, which, if available at all, are “often displayed apart from their mega-brand counterparts.”

Read more: The Origins of Sexism & Why It’s Just as Toxic as Ever

Covert sexism in hiring, our careers, and our lives

Sexism is a form of discrimination that can also be covertly expressed, and is built into cultural and societal norms. It’s everywhere, from gender tax and the gender pay gap to gender bias in health care and the world of classical music.

In classical music

The top five American orchestras in 1970 were made up of 6 percent women; in 2019, that figure had increased to 40 percent due to blind auditions (on InHerSight, we call that anonymous hiring), writes musician Kate Hamori at Classical Music Indy. Women conductors haven’t fared so well. “Out of the 537 orchestra members in the League of American Orchestras, only 60 are directed by women,” writes symphony orchestra violinist Shreya Dudej.

Read more: ‘Bro Culture’ Is Bad for Employees & for Business. Here’s Why These Toxic Environments Are Still So Common.

In medicine

Every woman can relate to having their health-related complaints not being taken seriously. One form of dismissal by way of covert sexism is gaslighting, which may be done consciously or unconsciously, and by a person of either gender. “A triage nurse may not deliberately tell a woman who comes to the ER complaining of chest pain that it’s all in her head, but she may notice that she’s very anxious and subconsciously make that assumption,” says Dr. Jennifer Hermina Mieres at Northwell Health, who focuses on gender-specific cardiovascular research.

It’s not just patients who suffer from covert forms of gender bias. According to one 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, systemic sexism means “women surgeons continue to face gender bias and various obstacles to career advancement, including lower rates of surgical residency completion, board certification, and professional advancement.”

It’s ongoing, too. Findings by Physician Just Equity, a team of experts assembled to support physicians experiencing bias, harassment, discrimination, or retaliation through workplace conflicts, include:

  • In 2018, full-time women surgeons earned approximately $75,000 less annually than full-time men surgeons.

  • In 2019, 29 percent of surgical residents reported sexual harassment during training, with the perpetrator being supervising surgeons the majority of the time.

Read more: We’re Over It: 9 Stigmas in the Workplace That Have to Go—Now

In marketing

The marketing industry is not exempt from overt and covert forms of sexism: “Between 1980 and 2010, women in commercials were shown in workplace settings only 4 percent of the time,” writes Mara Altman at The New York Times. Most frequently, they were shown in kitchens. Little has changed since then.

And those messages based on covert sexism are damaging. Jane Cunningham, one of the authors of Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist And How To Fix It, told Altman: “There is a really big body of work around the impact of marketing and just how powerful it is — young women are consuming something like 10,000 messages a day from brands. Think about the collective impact that can have when the same things are being said over and over again, which are usually: ‘Be thinner, be blonder, be more feminine, be hairless, be whiter.’”

Read more: 4 Implicit Association Tests That Will Change the Way You Think in the Workplace

Beware benevolent sexism

One pernicious form of covert sexism is benevolent sexism, which is practiced by men and women alike. Examples of this are when someone assumes a person is a nurse, assistant, or secretary—not a doctor, executive, or manager—based solely on their gender. Benevolent sexism can be extremely harmful. 

A 2020 study found that benevolent sexism is “often responsible for sustaining male dominance, and interfere[s] with women’s restricting pregnant women’s choices.” 

In 2019, another study calls it “an inconspicuous mechanism that perpetuates gender inequality. It has been shown that benevolent sexism encourages women to prioritize relationships (family, children, etc.) over pursuing educational or professional goals and undermining women's perceptions of their competences and performances.” Witnessing benevolent sexism at home and in society undermines girls’ confidence in themselves and their abilities.

About our source

Jacquie Abram is the co-author of Hush Money: How One Woman Proved Systemic Racism in her Workplace & Kept her Job. She had a career in higher education that spanned nearly two decades but which was derailed several times by covert racism in the workplace. The same things happened to her two daughters when they began careers of their own. Abram pulled herself out of corporate America, and wrote the novel inspired by true events and co-authored by her daughters. She hopes it provides employers with a better way to understand racism, gives employees a better way to fight and survive the battle, and shows allies the full impact of modern-day racism.

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