We’ve all be in those terrible hours-long sexual harassment training courses at some point in our careers. So it’s old news: sexual harassment = wholly unacceptable. But sexism in the workplace is (maybe unfairly and definitely unfortunately) more of a gray zone: less “unacceptable,” more “uncool.” And gray zones are hard.
Since Career Contessa is a women’s career advice site, it’s a topic we wanted to cover in detail. So, with the help of our editor, Kit Warchol, here’s everything you need to know about sexism in the workplace.
What Is Workplace Sexism?
To face a problem, you have to know what that problem is. And defining workplace sexism is pretty difficult.
We’ll start by splitting the term in two:
For all intents and purposes, this is the more serious form of sexism. It’s the sexism that makes the headlines—the scandals in congress, the Tinder lawsuit that led to a feminist dating app, the much protested gender pay gap in Hollywood. Overt sexism is the stuff we all talk about so often, we’ve started to make those sexual harassment videos the butt of our jokes. That’s not to say we don’t take it seriously. Unwanted sexual advances or harassment, we know, cause harm to our well-being and sense of place in the office—which is why overt behavior is commonly assumed to be the most damaging type of sexism.
That brings us to casual sexism, and this is where things get more interesting. Casual sexism could also be called latent sexism—it’s so ingrained in company culture that it often passes by unnoticed. Maybe you don’t even notice it’s happening to you, but just experience a subtle feeling of alienation or even impostor syndrome. Think: “harmless” sexist jokes, “mansplaining,” or even those times when your boss treats your male colleagues marginally differently than you. You can read more about the nuances of casual sexism here.
But for Women in the Workplace? The Difference Doesn’t Actually Matter
You might have noticed we used the term “assumed” in our definition of overt sexism as in it’s commonly assumed this sexism is most damaging. That’s because a recent study found that casual sexism produces just as much of a negative impact, or maybe even more. That means that we need to challenge even the most latent behaviors, literally, for our health.
4 Ways Women Can Deal With Sexism In Their Own Offices
1. First and Foremost, Don’t Settle for Double Standards
That is to say, if your boss calls all your male coworkers by their last names but calls you by your first (or God forbid, “Toots”), speak up. Ask why. It can feel scary, but often the double standards are so ingrained, people don’t realize they’re enabling them. Asking why brings perspective into the situation, forcing the offender to consider their actions publicly. In fact, Bustle suggests that you might want to “ask that person if he or she would have done or said the same thing if you were a man.”
By calling him or her out (in a clear, but non-abrasive way), you bring light to the issue and force them to assess their own behavior. Sometimes, sexism really is just someone being insensitive or self-unaware. Still not cool, but speaking up will solve that issue. And if it doesn’t? We’ll be real with you: speaking up now means that you’ve created a paper trail of sorts, so that you can lodge a formal complaint later if necessary.
2. Find Allies in the Workplace
If there are other women in the office, speak to them about their own experiences. How are they feeling? Resigned? Alienated? If it’s clear that there’s a deeper issue with company culture, it’s worth bringing up to your HR department. Even if your experiences are different, it helps to discuss things with coworkers, especially if they’ve had more experience in the industry or have been working at the company longer. It puts things in perspective. Speaking to other women also means you’ll have someone more objective to consider your problems—it’s easy to feel like you’re being overly sensitive when you’re one woman facing a fraternity-style workplace.
But the concept of an “ally” goes much further than simply comparing and sharing experiences. The most crucial element is to build power in numbers. A true ally will join you when you protest. You’ve probably seen this at one point or another: one person speaks up having been offended by a comment. An awkward pause ensues. Then others begin to speak up, like “Yeah, that really was uncalled for,” “She’s right, that makes me uncomfortable, too,” etc. Hopefully this is done as constructive criticism, but honestly? Sometimes people are jerks and the quickest way to stop them from repeating the behavior is to publicly call them out for it (we’re a selfish bunch—embarrassment goes a long way).
3. HR: That’s What They’re There For
HR doesn’t need to be a last resort. In fact, they’re there for advice so consult them. It doesn’t hurt to bring these items up in meetings with your boss either, especially during an annual or performance review if it’s a long-term overarching issue in the work environment. It helps to present a possible solution when you bring up such a touchy problem. If you feel like women aren’t getting adequate representation in your office, suggest organizing a women’s panel/organization that meets monthly (companies like Nike have instated these to encourage diversity and open dialogue) or that your company implement a training or mentorship program for women to combat the inequality and improve office culture.
4. But If It’s Overt Sexism? You Must Speak Up
Let’s be clear: sexism in the workplace is an unacceptable, but broad term. It’s one thing for your coworkers to not invite you to lunch (again see point #1: ask why). But if you’re being sexually harassed or feel uncomfortable at your work? Do not pass go—head straight to HR.