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Blog Insight & Commentary

Where Sexism Hides in the Workplace

Four examples most of us are overlooking

Stephanie Olsen
Contributor

Woman standing in an office hallway

Sexism is prejudice based on a person’s gender. And in the workplace, it amounts to wage discrimination, sexual harassment, the glass ceiling, women being denied raises and promotions and access to the same opportunities as men, pregnancy discrimination, discrimination based on parental status, and more.

It’s so pervasive, sexism in the workplace occurs in ways that are often overlooked and can start even before you walk in the office door.

Sexism in letters of recommendation

Applied psychologist Michelle Hebl says her discrimination research shows that letters of recommendation written for men are longer, contain more agentic words (independent, initiative and assertive) and fewer communal words (caring, sensitive, kind). There are also more doubt raisers in recommendation letters for women (this woman has the potential to be a good leader, versus, this man is a good leader).

...and in speaking engagements

Sexism continues throughout career trajectories, so top professionals are affected as well. Hebl found that invited speakers to the top 50 universities in the country were 65 percent male and 35 percent female. When women were in charge of inviting speakers, they were two-thirds more likely to invite women.

...and in performance reviews

Even in the military, a setting in which researchers expected to see less gender bias in performance evaluations, sexism was evident. While positive attributes weren’t affected by gender, analysis of 81,000 evaluations found “women were assigned significantly more negative attributes.”

Gendered language was also used in specific attributes, the researchers found. “The most commonly used positive term to describe men was analytical, while for women it was compassionate. At the other extreme, the most commonly used negative term to describe men was arrogant. For women, it was inept.”

...and in media coverage of powerful women

Media coverage of women in politics is different from that of men, writes Jennifer Palmieri, author of Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World and former communications director for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Plus, expectations of women run higher.

She cites the media coverage of presidential candidate Senator Amy Klobuchar’s difficult work environment. Washington is full of tough bosses, and while no boss has the right to mistreat staff, Palmieri says “stories about intimidating male bosses are typically not presented as disqualifying, but as evidence of these men as formidable leaders. These are men who should not be underestimated. These are men who should be respected.”

But there’s more. “There is another, subtler and deeper sexism at work in the reports about Klobuchar,” writes Palmieri. Staff working for women in high political positions internalize their bosses pressure. The pressure comes from those women being “held to different and often higher standards than their male counterparts—by their colleagues, by the media, by the public,” she explains.

It’s the same thing that happened to The New York Times‘s first female executive editor Jill Abramson back in 2014. She may or may not have been a bad boss and difficult to work for, but the way men regularly get passes in the media and public perception for bad behavior and women don’t is blatant sexism that continues today.

“Bad behavior in leadership shouldn’t be tolerated no matter the gender of the executive,” writes Kathleen Davis, deputy editor at Fast Company. “The issue lies in the fact that when men display tyrannical behavior, it’s often shrugged off, and when women do so (and often with much less serious behavior) it’s met with indignation. More often than not it’s also met with defamation of her character.”

Of course, it’s not just women in public positions of power that experience sexism.

...and everywhere else

Researchers analyzed more than 2,300 actual examples of workplace sexism and sexual harassment reported by women on The Everyday Sexism Project. Their findings are disturbing: “Unwanted touching was the highest weighted topic, indicating how common it was for website users to endure being touched, hugged or kissed, groped, and grabbed.”

Many of the women reported assumptions and exclusionary practices too, all based solely on the fact that they are female. Here are some truly egregious examples:

“I provide a product recommendation to a customer and am asked to be transferred to someone who knows more about the product than I do. Male colleague provides exact same product recommendation and the customer is happy.”

 “I work for a tech company where I am the only female on the eight-person leadership team…Recently I learned that my boss [invited] the other seven male members of the leadership team …to join him on a trip to Las Vegas. I was not included on the invite…It was very awkward when this information came out and one of my colleagues said to me ‘Do you want to grow a penis and join?’”.

“My workplace…has hired men from outside the company rather than let hardworking women from inside the company progress as it fits their profile and brand image better. I have seen these three men leave after a short period as they were not cut out for the job.”

What to do when you encounter workplace sexism

Whether you’re a victim or witness, you can take action against workplace sexism. 

Even if you’re unsure as to what really happened, look for patterns; trust your instincts. Call out obvious offences as they happen. If you think it was an honest blunder, speak to the offender privately, but hold him accountable and don’t let him shrug it off.

Document all cases of sexism in case you decide to escalate to HR or take it the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Remember, “if the behavior that creates the uncomfortable work environment is based on discrimination, it is a hostile work environment under U.S. labor law.”

And if you determine that quitting is your best strategy, then plan your exit.

Liz Fong-Jones, an advocate for the rights of technology workers and users, recently spoke to co-host Eula Scott Bynoe and Jeannie Yandel on the KUOW Seattle podcast Battle Tactics For Your Sexist Workplace. They were discussing strategies for quitting your sexist job. Far from being an admission of failure, Fong-Jones says “withholding your labor can be a powerful tool to change toxic workplace cultures and protect your own mental health.”

Before you walk, though, have enough money saved so you can quit without immediately needing another job lined up. It may take a year or two to save enough, and if that seems difficult, she says to think about it in a different light—like you’re saving up for a vacation. “Except a longer term vacation. A vacation from all of the sexism.”

And then use your network of professional women to get information about other companies’ workplace cultures and to discover where you want to work next.

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