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Sexism is Not Extinct: What it Looks Like and How to Respond

Back Article Mar 14, 2019 By Jessica Kriegel

“I don’t think women have to deal with overt sexism in the workplace anymore.” My very kind male friend said those words a week prior to my writing this, as I was trying to pick a topic for this column. It occurred to me that many people may share his view that the age of overt sexism is over. Perhaps they believe that the “Mad Men”-esque days of Don Draper-types telling their secretaries to go get the rolling pin ended years ago.

Even if you haven’t seen sexism in your workplace, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening — and that women aren’t feeling its impacts.

My friend continued to opine that while bias and sexism may still exist, it is now either covert or consciously suppressed, because of the fallout from the #MeToo movement. The reverberations of the #MeToo movement rippled throughout all aspects of life, and were particularly felt in the corporate world. Many of the executives that I coach confided their sense of trepidation as they examined any possible misstep in the changing landscape of business as no longer usual.

One leader, for example, told me he was afraid he might make a harmless comment that could be misinterpreted as harassment. He described feeling like he was walking on eggshells whenever he interacted with women in his office. Inconvenient, perhaps, but such self-reflection and raised consciousness were overdue and a much-needed course correction. I wouldn’t mind if a few more leaders became more conscious during their interactions with their female colleagues.

Does that mean, as my friend asserted, that the #MeToo movement ended the days of overt sexism in the workplace? No. I can think of at least three instances in which I witnessed or experienced sexism in the last year, including one time when a client of mine told me to “smile for me, honey.” So I asked about a dozen of my female friends and associates in Sacramento if they had recently experienced overt sexism, and unfortunately, received a plethora of examples. Here are just a few …

A Lady and a Housewife

One woman who is the executive director of a local association recalled a senior management team meeting she was in with her boss and two colleagues (all men). The purpose of the meeting was to discuss professional development plans, and her boss said to the group, “Think about what you want to accomplish this year. Steve is pursuing his certificate in association management, and Susan … well, she’s getting married, so she might decide to take a cooking class.”

The Beautiful Man to My Right

During a recent board meeting for a high-profile nonprofit in downtown Sacramento, a female board member spoke up about a topic she felt passionately about. The man sitting next to her waited for her to finish her thoughts before saying, “This beautiful woman to my right makes an excellent point”… and then repeated her thought in his own words.

Looking the Part

Another friend of mine works for a local startup as head of logistics and operations. She is also actively involved in her community, spending up to 20 hours a week volunteering for a local sports organization. After spending a weekend hauling sports equipment from location to location, she walked into work on Monday morning and was asked by her (male) boss, “So, do you ever paint your nails?”

Pretty but Not Perfect

After performing outstanding work in her role as the leader of a local nonprofit, another friend of mine walked confidently into her performance evaluation at the end of the year. Her male boss praised her work and acknowledged she had done exceptionally well in the previous fiscal year. She was then surprised to see she had been awarded 99.9 percent of the total year-end bonus available. Her boss explained the decision by saying, “I docked your bonus 0.1 percent because I don’t want you to think you’re perfect. But don’t worry, I’ll buy you something nice.”

Related:The Macro Problems Caused By Microaggression

And to be clear, this list omits the one story that involves language too crass to print. Sexism still happens — both overtly and subtly. So, here’s what we (and male colleagues in particular) can do to help combat it in the workplace:

Trust your gut: If you have a feeling that a comment was inappropriate or sexist, it probably was.

Speak up: Hear something inappropriate in a board meeting? Respectfully call it out and set the tone for what’s appropriate in the office.

Pull people aside: Follow up with a sidebar conversation, addressing it in a timely manner.

Don’t let it become a pattern: One comment may be an accident but two or three may be a pattern. Get HR involved if you’re dealing with a repeat offender.

Be proactive: Facilitate conversations proactively in the workplace about how to create a better organizational culture.

Lead by example: A boss who makes sexist comments allows for a culture of sexism to spread. Be better.

Even if you haven’t seen sexism in your workplace, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening — and that women aren’t feeling its impacts. This is why we must continue to discuss harassment openly. We must also continue the conversation about bias and sexism, not only focusing on the extreme cases of sexual assault hyped in the media, but also the subtle (and not so subtle) ways women are marginalized every day in the workplace. 

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