By Liz Greene
While we’ve certainly come a long way in the past century, the majority of offices are still hotbeds of sexism. There’s still a sizable pay gap, parental leave is a joke, and don’t even get me started on dress codes. However, another flavor of sexism permeates offices in America — one that is far less obvious. From communication to assigned duties, many workplaces unwittingly maintain sexist practices and policies. Unfortunately, these habits are are so deeply rooted in both our culture and psyches, that most people don’t perceive them at all.
If you were to collect the assorted subtle and seemingly insignificant sexist acts that women encounter everyday, and put them together as a whole, you would see how our culture still enforces outdated stereotypes and social norms.
Take the following three acts of subtle sexism — ask yourself if you’ve seen them in your own place of work, and if so, learn how you can help to prevent them happening again in the future.
Microaggressions, mislabeling, and sexist language is pretty much a daily reality for women — especially in the office. Here are a few examples:
I will freely admit that this is a phrase I say all the time — it’s so ingrained! While most people honestly intend this to be a gender-neutral greeting, it really isn’t. The singular of ‘guys’ is ‘guy’, and you wouldn’t refer to a woman as, “that guy.” A lot of women don’t mind or even notice this, but it’s one of those small language changes we can start to work on now, and hopefully eliminate in the future.
A typical informal analogue to ‘guys’, this term not only infantilizes women, it sounds incredibly patronizing. It subconsciously encourages women to be taken less seriously. The only time you should refer to someone as a ‘girl’ is if she is a female child.
There are so many of these that making an exhaustive list would be damn near impossible.
“Stop acting like a pussy.”
“You throw like a girl.”
“Don’t bother offering him a beer, he only likes girly drinks.”
“Kevin, you need to stop bitching and man up.”
“No one’s going to take you seriously until you grow a pair.”
Notice how these examples all assert that acting like a man is inherently good, and acting like a woman is inherently bad?
How To Change It
First, lead by example. Refer to groups of people as ‘everyone’ or ‘team’. Avoid assuming male (or female) pronouns in your documentation — the singular ‘they’ works just as well. Stop using sexist and stereotypical language in both your professional and personal life — it’s no simple task, but the more you practice, the easier it becomes.
Second, educate, educate, educate. When you hear someone using a gendered term when it’s not necessary, referring to female colleagues as ‘girls’, or saying something blatantly sexist, take a moment to explain how that language affects those around them, and society as a whole.
Offices can definitely resemble oversized households at times. There are break rooms to keep clean, meals to be organized, birthdays to celebrate, etc. Now, take a guess at which employees are often asked to tend to these tasks.
In many offices, female employees are urged to take on housekeeping chores traditionally associated with women. This includes:
- Ordering food for meetings
- Cleaning up after meetings
- Planning parties for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays
- Bringing baked goods to celebrations
- Keeping the office neat and tidy
But these housekeeping chores are not only time consuming, they’re also thankless. A study out of NYU had participants rate male and female employees that did or did not stay late to help colleagues prepare for an important meeting. When they stayed late, the man was rated 14% higher than the woman. When both declined to help, the woman was rated 12% lower than the man. The results showed that work-related altruism is less optional for women than for men, as women have to work harder and help their colleagues more, just to get the same rating as men who do not.
How to Change It
Laurie Weingart, senior associate dean of education at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business has some fantastic advice on avoiding the trap of office housework.
“Maybe you recommend a peer who is a male,” she suggests. “If you’re concerned about raising the sexism piece of it, you can send the same message indirectly by saying, ‘I’m not available to help out this time, but maybe Joe can.’”
However, if the job is a regularly recurring one (say, cleaning out the fridge at the end of the work week), propose a rotating schedule so everyone pitches in equally.
Like office housework, women are often expected to take notes during meetings — and the thankless results are much the same. When women are stuck taking notes, they’re paying attention to information and details, not the people giving the presentation. Since their attention is focused on getting the notes right, they’re not really listening for a chance to contribute. This just feeds into the vicious cycle of women not speaking up in meetings.
How to Change It
Richard Branson has much to say on the subject of women being saddled with notes during business meetings.
“It’s time for men to step up and do their share of support work. On top of counteracting gender bias in the workforce, it will also give men a better understanding of what [is] going on within the business and what needs to be done to make things run more effectively. Mentoring, training and note taking – these are wonderful development areas, which everyone, men and women alike, can greatly benefit from.”
His advice to neutralize the note-taking gender bias is for every attendee to take notes during meetings. “Men shouldn’t take over the note taking from women, everyone should be taking notes.”
Many companies don’t realize that gender bias is alive and well until they closely examine the policies and norms of their organization. Women and men alike can help to open their eyes by standing up for what we believe is right — in the moment when it happens. Let’s end sexism in the workplace, no matter how subtle it is.
Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.