At first, things were look­ing woke last year:

Cosmopolitan (Australia) - - Work - – Marisa Meltzer

Big com­pa­nies like Sales­force and IBM took solid strides to cor­rect their gen­der pay gaps and im­ple­ment fe­male­friendly paid­leave poli­cies. Hard­charg­ing women (yasss, Shonda Rhimes and Spanx founder Sara Blakely!) had seem­ingly cleared a path for oth­ers to reach the top. But then came story af­ter story of out­landish male workplace be­hav­iour and crim­i­nal acts. And an Oc­to­ber 2017 so­cial­me­dia phe­nom­e­non – in which mil­lions of women shared sex­ual ha­rass­ment sto­ries un­der the hash­tag #MeToo – proved arse grab­bing (and worse) wasn’t just hap­pen­ing in Hol­ly­wood.

But the ex­plo­sive head­lines mask an­other truth: gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion at work is more per­va­sive than bathrobes and back­rubs. It thrives via soft sex­ism – when, say a male boss sug­gests you’re PMSing when you dis­agree with him or when your doc­tor calls his fe­male nurse ‘honey’.

Soft sex­ism isn’t al­ways in­ten­tional – and women par­tic­i­pate too. How many times have you heard fe­male co­work­ers call their fe­male boss ‘crazy’ or ‘a c*nt’ while brush­ing off a male man­ager’s sim­i­larly diva­ish be­hav­iour be­cause ‘Oh, that’s just Steve?’ One sur­vey found that both women and men would rather work for a male boss – with women show­ing an even stronger pref­er­ence for one.* Women are raised in the same bi­ased cul­ture as men are, caus­ing them to in­ter­nalise – and some­times sub­con­sciously act on – gen­dered dou­ble stan­dards, says Rosalind Bar­nett, a se­nior sci­en­tist at the Women’s Stud­ies Re­search Cen­ter.

But sub­con­scious or not, soft sex­ism’s ef­fects are just as de­struc­tive as overt gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, ac­cord­ing to re­search in the Journal of Man­age­ment. Get­ting left out of af­ter­work drinks, hav­ing your idea ca­su­ally stolen, be­ing un­der­es­ti­mated be­cause you’re at­trac­tive... these things can crush your chances of get­ting ahead. En­try­level women are nearly 20 per cent less likely to be pro­moted than their male peers are, ac­cord­ing to a new study.** ‘Women ac­tu­ally start their ca­reers more op­ti­mistic than men that they’ll have equal op­por­tu­ni­ties,’ says Ur­sula Mead, CEO of InHerSight, a plat­form that helps match fe­male job can­di­dates to com­pa­nies that pro­mote gen­der equal­ity. ‘But by the time they reach the se­nior level, less than a third of women are satisi­fied that they have equal op­por­tu­nity.’

The so­lu­tion, says ex­perts, lies in mak­ing this every­one’s prob­lem. ‘When women are de­meaned in the workplace, they can­not per­form their best, and their en­tire team suf­fers,’ says Bar­nett.

‘We need male al­lies to speak up and take ac­tion,’ adds El­iz­a­beth Nya­ma­yaro, head of the United Na­tions’ HeForShe Cam­paign. Guys call­ing out other guys’ be­hav­iour can be more ef­fec­tive, be­cause when women act, they may be seen as emo­tional (it­self a re­sult of soft sex­ism). Of course, this needs to be paired with up­dated poli­cies, says Face­book COO Sh­eryl Sand­berg: ‘Bias train­ing can help men and women see more clearly the big and lit­tle ways women can be over­looked, un­der­val­ued or mistreated.’ If you’re a boss your­self, look for op­por­tu­ni­ties to men­tor women, since re­search shows fe­male em­ploy­ees re­ceive less of this kind of sup­port than men do. Get­ting more women into lead­er­ship po­si­tions is the best way to change the sys­tem, says Nya­ma­yaro.

In the mean­time, watch out for – and call out – soft sex­ism at your job. And if no one thinks to ask you to af­ter­work beers? In­vite your­self.

THAT FEEL­ING WHEN HE’S LEC­TUR­ING YOU ABOUT YOUR AREA OF EX­PER­TISE

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