At first, things were looking woke last year:
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