Sexism in the workplace
by Joseph Hughes, Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 09:16:32 AM EST
Having now worked in both the public and private sector, I've been exposed to office settings of varying type and size. What I've found is that no matter where I've been, sexism has been a pervasive problem. And while the nature of sexism has evolved over time, not only does it still exist, but it's also as dangerous as ever.
As big a problem, to me, as the sexism itself is the lax attitude men have displayed toward policing bad behavior among themselves. Sexism that discriminates against women isn't solely a "women's problem." It's everyone's problem.
The biggest threat I've found is male employees' sense of entitlement toward climbing the corporate ladder and their overwhelming distaste for the female peers who happen to advance ahead of them. When passed, these men, many of whom already harbor sexist attitudes (see my definitions for The Varsity Club and The Pervert here), grow even more bitter, feeling as though their colleague got the job simply because of her gender. Feeling hurt, they often try to put their coworker "in her place," undermining her efforts and stabbing her in the back.
The same things happen when male employees see female coworkers show assertiveness that would otherwise be rewarded if shown by their male colleagues. When these women subvert already painfully old-fashioned gender roles, many men react unprofessionally. What's more, I've seen men in those situations reward more "demure" female colleagues with better assignments, more work and preferential treatment, while those that showed initiative went unappreciated. Needless to say, this behavior can quickly ruin and office and prevent it from doing its best work.
What I haven't seen, sadly, is more being done by men - myself included - to bring these instances to light. Because again, workplace sexism and sexual harassment targeting women isn't solely a women's issue. When these problems persist, when they're allowed to fester, they slowly poison the office climate. The esprit de corps that good offices develop goes bad. Lines of communication break down. Trust is lost. Confidences are broken. Careers are hurt. Individuals suffer.
It doesn't have to be like this. Being an enlightened office means more to me than participating in workshops or pledging to extend equal opportunities to all. It's about fostering a climate that allows people to feel safe, comfortable, appreciated and ready to do their job and do it well. It's about rewarding hard work and promoting those who deserve it - no matter who thinks otherwise. It's about providing support to your colleagues and celebrating their achievements.
Will it get better? Possibly, though the climate in which we're raising those who will follow in our footsteps isn't very conducive to progress. Men are still being taught that being macho and showing strength are proper ideals and woman are still being forced to aspire to an almost unreachable definition of womanhood that emphasizes beauty over brains. While I'm most certainly oversimplifying the problem, it's easy to see how the struggles we faced during our youth continue to haunt us as adults.
As I said when I discussed racism, we (especially men) need to do more than simply note sexism when we see it. We must expose it, shine a light on it. Looking the other way only lends our tacit approval to these terrible behaviors. Honesty, furthermore, is a good first step toward a better environment. Most of us, including me, have exhibited sexist behavior. But if we can admit to our problems, we can fight them more easily. The longer we wait to face sexism head-on, the longer it will take to beat it back.