Ever-present sexism gremlin
It’s no secret that women have had more than a fair share of workplace challenges, especially in terms of pay inequality, limited promotion opportunities, and overt sexism in many situations.
There is a fair amount of literature, research, and training to help deal with those challenges, but there is certainly a lot of work to do. (Check out some of that research on pay inequality here: https://iwpr.org/issue/employment-education-economic-change/pay-equity-discrimination/)
Helping vs hurting
And while many men endeavor to be comrades to the women we share our workspaces with, sometimes a well-meaning statement can actually be quite damaging to our female colleagues.
Frankly, (us) men need to be better allies to our female team members, and there are a few fronts from which we can start to do that. One of those areas is tackling the issue of benevolent sexism.
Benevolent sexism, is an (often subtle) approach to which we characterize women as something that needs protection.
This manifest itself in a lot of different forms.
Statements on how women have “motherly instincts” are more caring, compassionate, “make good secretaries or nurses”, they are so much more beautiful, etc. – and this type of sexism ultimately serves to put women in a subordinate status. What makes it so insidious, is that it sounds so nice.
Glick and Fiske coined this term, and their research supports that this type of sexism is just as problematic as that overt, and sometimes violent, hostile sexism.
Now the question going forward is what can you do?
As men, how are we supposed to confront this in the workplace?. Because sexism is a man’s problem as well – harmful male stereotypes are built on sexism towards women. Here are a couple of recommendations from this guy to my fellow men:
1. Admit it when there is a problem.
The first step is recognizing that even if you believe you were trying to be “nice” and that people should “just take a compliment”, that you have demeaned your colleague and done a professional and likely personal disservice. Be accountable.
2. Focus on her competencies.
All of us want to be taken seriously as professionals. Focus on the quality of the work, not just things like “you’re so sweet, what a team player”. Research shows women are more often described as communal, rather than focusing on their own skills and abilities. [Office1] When you describe or praise your female colleagues, focus on their competencies and what they are bringing to the table.
3. Appearance is not the start.
Avoid an over focus on appearance, looks, and perceptions of attractiveness.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Marcus, and this is my colleague, Brenda.”. What’s wrong with this sentence? The answer: Brenda is also a doctor in this example. When Dr. Marcus introduces by her first name he has undermined her credibility and authority as a medical professional. Provide the same level of respect you would give your male colleagues by honoring credentials, licenses, and education.
5. Respect boundaries.
Being a woman in the workplace does not mean there is an open invitation to be overly casual, informal, or not observe the same personal space boundaries that you would with a male colleague, regardless of position.
Off ya go
There is more to be said to this message, but these are five things to start with. Let’s take an approach that successfully allows us to recognize the incredibly valuable contributions from our female colleagues, and start telling the nicely dressed, but utterly atrocious colleague called benevolent sexism that it has no place in our organizations.