The “Mad Men” era is still with us!
Put your hand up if you have been subjected to sexism in the workplace. Yes we all have in one form or another, but most women don’t even recognize it. Take, for example, the latest female chief executive who was blamed when things went wrong at the company (think Marissa Mayer) and was promptly replaced by a male who was paid twice as much as her. Was that just a poor performing CEO being replaced or really sexism?
When you think of workplace sexism, what does it look like? Is it a male executive who expects more from his female staff and is constantly moving the goal post? While that certainly is an example of sexism and one we may believe has long since died off, far more insidious forms of sexism are alive and well in the American workplace.
They come into play when women, particularly those highly-capable women headed for the c-suite, exhibit what used to be considered male attributes, such as competence, assertiveness, decisiveness, rationality, and objectivity.
Not so long ago, overt gender bias was a perfectly acceptable office practice. (Think every single episode of Mad Men.) That sort of in-your-face sexism is not as prevalent in today’s work environment. But remember it was driven away by fear of lawsuits, not good business practice. Today we are given the false impression it no longer exists.
I remember early in my professional life having to justify why I should even interview for a leadership role over my male counterparts. As I moved up the career ladder, it became apparent that there were two sets of rules; one for men, another for women. Even as a senior executive, I knew when I needed to take a male partner with me to close the business deal, and even let them take the “lead” in the eyes of the client.
There has been behavioral evidence compiled over the past three decades that continues to suggest workplace gender bias not only persists but also thrives in ways many of us don’t even realize, particularly for women in male-dominated professions.
You remember watching Anita Hill describe what it was like to be sexually harassed by her superior? We watched Hill’s testimony in front of an all-male Senate committee; we came to understand implicitly that this was what lay ahead of us in the work world. It was clearly shocking at the time but has it really ever gone away?
So when I asked if sexism had affected women’s careers, many of my female colleagues shared stories of harassment, as though anything less than being openly ogled or physically groped didn’t count. The most insidious kind of sexism is also the hardest to identify—the small “micro-aggressions” that are evident in the meetings and interactions that make up our workdays. Some of the women I spoke to said they had encountered some kind of sexism in their career but the vast majority of them believed that it didn't directly impede their advancement—and all of them said they had expected to experience some sexism over the years. Expected! Think about that a moment
One of my friends and colleague in the TV business has her body scrutinized daily by her male boss, with remarks about her being a “hot Latina!” That same friend was passed over for a promotion in favor of a less-accomplished male colleague and then passed over a second time for no apparent reason. She left the company and a culture that didn’t value her. Another friend of mine who is a lawyer and partner in a major law firm was told to “hold off pregnancy” for awhile, and another corporate colleague routinely was asked when she was “leaving to have babies.”
Overt workplace sexism may generate higher visibility, and the occasional harassment lawsuit, it’s the sexist jokes and comments around the office that can do real damage to a woman’s path to success. When a woman is labeled “tough, strong, decisive, or aggressive.”
I feel guilty admitting I was disappointed that these women who chose to leave the promotions they worked so hard to achieve, and then I thought: Even if you are qualified, maybe even are the smartest, best, and hardest-working employee at your company or within your department, why would you want to stay in an environment that doesn’t value you as a leader and employee. The upside is that these colleagues just didn’t accept sexism or condone the sexual harassment that is still the norm for far too many men in power today.
So, how do we fight sexism in the workplace?
To their credit, some organizations try to combat workplace sexism through training programs and policies that favor gender equality in the workplace. But, the jury is still out on the long-term effectiveness of such initiatives.
Francesca Gino, a Harvard Business School professor, conducted a survey finding that diversity sensitivity and training may be a good first step but, according to her research, “This awareness…can help people reflect on how to redesign processes so they more effectively counter biases. But others’ research shows that diversity training alone is ineffective in countering biases that taint decisions in organizations.”
It is becoming more evident that sexism in the workplace is getting the attention of corporate America and top management and boards, particularly in more progressive organizations. But the move toward eradicating, or at least significantly reducing, gender bias in its most insidious form is slow. In the meantime, what can we women do to counter its effects on them?
Of course, report egregious examples of workplace sexism to Human Resources and leadership. But, not all examples will rise to that level. When those are encountered, they should not go unaddressed either.
At the very least, they can be treated as infantile remarks – the kind an 8 year-old nephew makes when he sees a nude photograph – with a rolling of the eyes and “really?” or “I can’t believe you just said” comment.
When someone remarks that you or a female colleague is being “emotional,” you might remind him that your colleague is “passionate” about the subject, contrasting it with his rather passive interest…perhaps he should not be included among those working on the project, presentation or strategy development.
One very effective way to call out someone making an offensive, sexist statement is to make him explain to those present what he means by it.
These are, of course short-term fixes at best. How can women both raise management consciousness and combat gender bias and sexism in the workplace? There are at least two ways in which women can “fight back.”
First, “e pluribus unum (out of many, one).” This is a collective way to support those on the receiving end of sexism, and to offer potential organizational ways to identify and combat it.
By coming together, women can support each other and present a clear, unified voice to guide management in an unthreatening manner. It is a way to recognize sexism when you see it and formulate recommended corrective measures to management.
But, it isn’t just a matter of coming together in a “bitching session.” It is a place to share experiences and formulate a way to identify sexist situations and present these examples to the organization…even present potential ways to address this challenge (have you read the book or seen the movie “Hidden Figures”?).
The second approach is an individual one that each woman has to develop for herself.
Keep in touch with colleagues from other organizations, even former classmates. And, don’t forget social media. Membership in LinkedIn groups and other forums will let you know you are not alone and may even provide insights into what other organizations are doing.
I have written before about, and strongly believe in the necessity of, finding a sponsor who can guide, critique, and help move a career in the right direction for leadership and career success.
What both mentors and sponsors have to do with addressing workplace sexism cannot be underestimated and should be embraced as important mechanisms for both combatting this problem and moving a woman’s career ahead.
What I find fascinating is that this current generation of women is feeling empowered to stand up and shout about sexism and gender bias. But I can’t stop thinking just how much those women would have achieved if they hadn’t been told that their job “was always intended to be performed by a man”.
There is a reason Hidden Figures has been one of the top-grossing films and Academy Award nominee: beyond great performances, this is a story of empowerment, of black women overcoming the double barriers of race and gender.
The entire movie sends a clear message: when it comes to driving for success, neither skin color nor gender should matter. The only thing that can make a difference is performance, the great equalizer!