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Sexism at work

Posted by: Megan Speet

Sexist advertising wouldn’t be out of place in the 70s.

It was common to see statements such as “Keep her where she belongs” above images of scantily clad women, or women in the kitchen. These days, that sort of thing would break Twitter in a matter of seconds.
The Equality Act 2010 made it against the law for employers to discriminate against employees on the grounds of gender. It has always been a man’s world in the workplace, unfortunate but true. But the times have changed. Although women may not yet be seen as equal to men at work by everyone, steps have definitely been taken in the right direction. Now the glass ceiling – the invisible barrier preventing advancement in a profession, usually applied to women and members of minorities – seems to be the last huge barrier to female emancipation in the workplace. However, even though women are working their way to the top, it doesn’t stop sexism at work from happening.

Casual sexism is seemingly on the rise. 7,175 sex discrimination related calls were made to the Acas helpline in a year at the end of March 2016, 14% higher than last year. More than 90% of the calls were from employees and more than 80% were women. 

A recent survey by Stylist found that 87% of women have experienced sexism at work. Women are automatically expected to take minutes in meetings, make the teas and coffees, get the boss’ lunch, essentially, do what are seen as the “women’s” jobs. Even though this is a low intensity form of sexism, women are still getting a disproportionate share of the “office housework”. Another way casual sexism can materialise is down to physical appearance, for example when a man takes the time to check his tie, sort his hair etc for work or a meeting, he is considered diligent in his appearance and well-presented. However, when a woman touches up her make-up and hair in the workplace, she is often considered vain.
Dress code can also present an issue in the workplace; this became apparent earlier this year when a female employee of PwC was told to wear high heels at work with a 2 to 4 inch heel. The employee spoke out about it declaring it sexism, a cause of physical health issues and that high heels shouldn’t be forced upon women because women can still look smart in flat shoes.

Emotion politics is also very much present in the workplace. A 2008 study found that men who expressed feelings such as anger and frustration in the workplace were given higher status among co-workers, whereas women who express the same emotions, were given a lower status and in turn a lower salary, purely putting these feelings down to the women being emotional.

Binna Kandola, a business psychologist and co-founder and senior partner at Pearn Kandola says, “It’s relatively easy to deal with the overt manifestations of what psychologists call ‘old fashioned prejudice’ – for example, the belief that women’s role is in the home looking after the children while men go out to work. But what we refer to as ‘modern sexism’, which is underpinned by the same beliefs, is much more difficult to tackle, because it’s more insidious.” We frequently hear people say that sexism in work is a non-issue, yet these same people oppose the mere principle of policies that have been introduced to benefit women in the workplace, such as extended maternity leave and flexible working, because they then feel like they have to pick up the extra workload. This isn’t just felt by men; it’s also other women who feel the same resentment at having to carry the extra work of the women benefiting from the policies in place.

Women can’t win, we are called selfish if we do not reproduce and then also deemed a “burden” when we need to take maternity leave. Flexible working is also offered to men, but many don’t take it as they see it as career limiting, reinforcing the gender divide as opposed to bridging the gap. Lucy Standing, business psychologist and vice-chair of the Association for Business Psychology says, “Many of the initiatives introduced to make women’s lives easier actually make them even more unemployable.” Recent research from the Equality and Human Rights commission shows that more than three-quarters of working mothers reported a negative or discriminatory experience at work during their pregnancy, maternity leave or upon returning to work.

There is another form of sexism present at work called ‘Benevolent sexism’.

It reflects paternalistic attitudes towards women, implying inferiority. E.g. a manager will ask a female employee how her child is, but will ask the male colleague how the project is coming along. Women feel their hard work is going unnoticed just because she has a child. While she of course appreciates being asked about the wellbeing of her child, she wants to be recognised for her contribution and her work, not just for being a mother.

In this day and age, suppressing biases rather than discussing them makes these biases more pronounced. Challenging bias helps to reduce it. More women are growing in confidence and are able to speak up about their experiences. Steve Williams, head of equality at Acas says, “It could be a sign of something positive going on. Women are daring to challenge the status quo.”

People who say sexism isn’t a problem are also the ones who say you should be able to take a joke or a compliment without being offended and if you can’t, that you should stop being so boring and find a sense of humour. Is it just harmless banter? Should we be upset about it? Should we take it on the chin and let it go as these people suggest? There is no right or wrong way to handle it; it all depends on the individual. Interestingly, what does make a difference is when a man is suddenly forced into a role where he has caring responsibilities or when his daughter enters the workplace and faces sexism issues. One male realised this when he was turned down for a HR Director role on the grounds of gender, even though he was told outright that he was the best candidate for the job. As the HR team was mainly women, he was told he “might have less affinity” with them. Whether you’re male or female, equal opportunities and fairness is a basic human right which everyone is entitled to.


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