How has your work environment contributed to sexism?

The pandemic has reminded us that gender equity is far from achieved in the workforce. We wanted to revisit a few ideas about how work environments stop people from calling out sexism, the kinds of sexism that appear in the workplace, and how you can disrupt sexism on multiple levels.

Reflect: What is the Purpose of a Land Acknowledgement?

Fighting sexism is as much about one’s environment as one’s personal actions to fight it. Catalyst (2020) found that people are less likely to interrupt or redirect sexism if they perceive their organization as competitive or silencing. Overly domineering and isolating environments not only contribute to women’s negative experiences, but it also reduces the likelihood of men attempting to disrupt abuse. How would you describe your work environment? Is it open to challenge and calling people in or are people afraid of speaking up?

Learn: Sexism in the Workplace

For many women, such as those in male-dominated fields, the culture of their work environment makes them feel as though they are in the midst of a “masculinity contest” (Berdahl et al., 2018). This masculinity contest creates an atmosphere that can become rife with ambivalent sexism that ranges from hostile to benevolent (Connor et al., 2017). Hostile sexist attitudes, such as beliefs that women are inherently inferior to men, contribute to overt harassment and gender-based violence (Mastari et al., 2019). Benevolent sexism, however, dehumanizes women through insidious stereotypes that women are pure, innocent beings that are closer to nature, which is to be dominated by humanity (i.e., men); those with these beliefs often support policies that negatively impact women who do not follow traditional gender roles (Salmen & Dhont, 2020). Sexism is also mediated by other identities, such that Black women who experience sexism also contend with racism (e.g., Black women forced to be strategically unemotional to avoid the “angry Black woman” stereotype; Doharty, 2019)

Change: Everyday ways to dismantle sexism

  • Get confident in your disrupting abilities: Men who vocally show their allyship in the workplace buffer anticipated organizational hostility and isolation for women (Moser & Branscombe, 2021) - more so than when other women speak out about gender issues. However, many people may not feel confident in their ability to react to a situation of overt sexism when they see it. Refamiliarize yourself with methods, like the 5 D’s of Bystander Intervention, and think about how you might engage in these strategies. Practicing can help you become more confident!
  • Designing against sexism:Think about the undertones of the simple, everyday processes that you or your colleagues go through. What kinds of behavior or beliefs do they value? In her 2020 talk, Sara Stanford details how applications, evaluation processes, and other cultural levers undergird organizational gender bias. Rather than simply hiring more women, Stanford encourages all employers to comprehensively assess daily processes for unintended gender bias. As Sara Stanford says, “you don’t need to harass a woman to limit her career.”
  • Examine the culture you create: What expectations do you have of people around you? What about those you supervise or advise? The other half of being an ally is creating a space that is open to calling people in when they are biased/discriminatory. Foster vulnerability and collaboration in your environment so that people can feel more comfortable speaking to one another to combat existing sexist beliefs. Catalyst (2020) provides more information on creating an equitable culture that is conducive to transformation and growth around sexism.