We haven’t talked about money here on the blog in some time, mostly because the world has been on fire and/or I was buried under end-of-semester stuff and not talking at all. Today, though, we’re talking about casual sexism in the workplace. Casual sexism is a reflection of misogyny—that is, a culture in which prejudice against women is fine and women as people are unvalued—and workplaces have long been bastions of old boys’ clubs and other sexist practices. The corporate world and tech are particularly bad, but academia, health care and other fields offer no exception. (see part I of this series here). Today we’ll feature stock photos of irritated women for effect.
As a nation, our politics reflect this workplace misogyny; we have only unpaid maternity leave policy at the federal level, which doesn’t mean women feel they can take it given that it is uncompensated. We offer little support in way of child care, and culturally have only, slowly, begun to warm to the idea that women are not always the primary caregivers for children. The lack of real maternity leave and child care policies make it easy to discriminate against women in the workforce, particularly at the non-salaried end (such as retail), and offer easy ways to blame women for things like the wage gap (“see, it’s because she left to have kids!”). Ali Wong in her special “Knocked-Up Wife” offers a succinct and NSFW analysis of our shitty policies and what they say about us. (a TF piece on maternity leave is coming in June or July.)
Casual sexism at work demonstrates the ways in which some men (not all menTM) and also some women contribute to the collection of power in the hands of men. From sexist offhand comments to sexist practices, such efforts can have the impact of pushing women out of the field (oh hai, tech and gaming in particular) because they’re uncomfortable and find an unwelcome atmosphere to limiting their opportunities for promotion because of an unwillingness to offer mentorship or let women into certain spaces in which company issues are discussed, like dinners or even offices (I’m not kidding). Sometimes the prohibition on women in those spaces reflects a distrust of women—that they’re out to get the men, which is another fun layer of sexism that betrays a fear of women in (male) workplaces. Those issues can have a direct impact on salary and career progress, which can then have an impact on retirement. And saving for retirement is so important for women, so this is no small thing.
Annoying Casual Sexism
I sit on various Major University Committees, and in some cases in the chair/vice chair positions. In a meeting where the secretary was not present, the chair of one Major Committee asked me to take notes. Sure, no problem. At a subsequent meeting, the same thing happened. Now I can look at this two ways: it’s nothing, or as the only other woman on the committee (the secretary’s a woman), it’s casual sexism. The person who asked notoriously talks over me, and I don’t think he even notices what he’s doing. When he asked the second time this term for me to take notes—not “can someone take notes?”, but me, specifically—I looked around at the three other members in the room (all men) and asked, “Why me?” One colleague quickly said, “well, because you’re the girl.” The chair rolled his eyes but didn’t argue. I said, “fine, I’ll take your f**king notes, but this is the last time.” He had the nerve to ask later if I’d then transcribe my notes from longhand to a document. I gave him the death stare.
This kind of sexism isn’t particularly harmful, but it’s irritating as shit and feels much like ye old days when women were tasked with jobs like getting coffee, their capabilities and job descriptions ignored. While I was in a position to tell him to f*ck right off, many women aren’t. And so we have a problem. A mild thing, but reflective of years of denigration.
Here’s another one: a lawyer I’m friendly with on ye Twitters reports that all the male lawyers in a courtroom are often referred to as “Mr. So & So” but she’s referred to by her first name. A big deal? Perhaps not, on the surface. But it betrays the way in which men in our culture are held in formal, high regard, whereas we often don’t treat women the same way.
Let’s kick it up a notch.
Via Twitter: “One time, I got invited to a special ceremony thing at work, and I was so excited to finally have my hard work acknowledged. And my male coworkers were like, ‘Yeah, they just invited you because you’re a woman. They need diversity.’” LORD GIRL HOW DID YOU NOT PUNCH THEM.
Let’s break this down. When people—men in particular—say things like this, they’re a) knocking the work this woman has done at her job and b) assuming she hasn’t done any and c) implying women aren’t capable of doing such things, because they’re only there to diversify the joint. In such circumstances, how does one find allies, mentorship, promotion? It’s a difficult atmosphere to work in.
And akin to my story in round 1 wherein the chair from the above vignette kept asking if I was ok after I expressed anger with something dumb that he did, we get this gem: “One time I got mad at work and my male coworker was like ‘awh, are you on your period? Need a midol?’” Men who get angry at work are evidently justified and righteous, women are hormonal. One of my favorite fun facts is that the word ‘hysterical’ comes from the latin ‘hyster-‘—related to the uterus. Men have been assuming women must be crazy because of their reproductive system for thousands of years, and ‘jokes’ like this maintain that stigma. To be a woman is to be hormonally emotional, in this line of thinking, and such an attitude dismisses any actual points or complaints they may have, while vindicating men’s own. We know that ambition is seen as positive in men, shameless in women; aggression follows similar path.
Workplaces that subscribe to this kind of thinking can sharply limit women’s ability to grow. Simultaneously, even mediocre men are elevated to higher positions because of this and related phenomena.
“I’m in management at a large corporation. Every year we have an exercise where we rank every single employee for leadership and performance potential. The intent is to have a list of ‘future leaders’ to feed the executive pipeline and ensure those individuals receive good job assignments and training opportunities that will enhance their career growth. Each manager nominates a handful of individuals for consideration on this elite list. As a large management team, we review the individuals one-by-one and determine whether or not the individual is qualified to be on ‘the list.’ Managers will speak out for or against individual candidates and state their thoughts and opinions on past performance, future abilities to take on a larger role, etc. Time and time again I have witnessed less qualified male employees deemed high-potential and ready for inclusion on the list. Women with better qualifications (more work experience, more leadership roles, etc) are far more likely to be deemed ‘not ready yet’ and placed on the watch list for the following year.”
Systemic problems can be the consequence of this: promotion limited, salaries thus limited, retirement projections limited, the whole ball of wax. Until we change fully to a culture that embraces women as leaders—and we aren’t there yet, as the last election reminded us in so many ways—this is how it’s going to be. It’s also why when women are promoted to managers or in key departments, they’re still not always treated or regarded with respect, both inside and outside their companies, and often by other women.
“Had the most ‘self hating female’ tech on my vendor support call. She kept demanding for ‘Someone in IT’ to come on the line, even tho I kept on telling her that *I* am IT. Because, you know, IT is only men. As soon as my (male) NE came on the line, she’s suddenly respectful. Now my teammates (I’m the only female on my team) are telling me about all the vendors and project managers for other companies who refuse to accept a woman engineer from our company as point of authority.”
This story is a consequence and a symptom of our larger problems with women and work. You’ll find women in tech on twitter all the time talking about how they love what they do but the culture therein is not conducive to keeping them. We all wanted to be treated with respect and paid what we’re worth, and it doesn’t always or even often happen in some fields. And when women don’t support each other, we have an even bigger problem. Misogyny is often internalized by women, who then help maintain the system.
But wait, there’s more.
Maybe you were there in February when PF Twitter exploded about the Mike Pence rule for working with women. He won’t take dinner alone with women, for fear of….something. A doctor in these twitter circles felt that approach was wise. Here, you can see it yourself.
Let me break this down. Most women are not out to get men. Claims that women fake allegations about harassment or assault are generally bullshit, as we’ve discussed here before. This man—and undoubtedly there are others like him—is in a position of power that contains mentorship opportunities and responsibilities. If he primarily mentors men because he is unwilling to build relationships with women for fear of what those women might do to him, he’s maintaining the patriarchal system in multiple ways. How widespread might this phenomenon be? I’m hoping it’s not, but combined with the more annoying-but not-hostile sexism, the walls, my friends, are hard to scale.
So what can we do? How do you cope with or fight casual sexism in the workplace? Let’s hear your thoughts.