Are You Undermining Women in the Workplace Without Realizing It?
“I wish more men would offer genuine support with pure intentions — as if we were their sister, who they are rooting for. Look out for us, have our backs, encourage us, support our efforts and be there when we need to bounce something off you. In short, just authentically be in our corner.” — Jackie Ducci, Ducci & Associates
We’ve all seen movies or television shows from the past. In these programs, men, quite openly, treat their female coworkers or employees in ways that they would not today. While it’s true we’ve made much progress, let’s not fool ourselves; everyday sexism still exists. Yet the signs can be so subtle that you may not even recognize them.
The Likeability Penalty and Benevolent Sexism
In an article published by the Harvard Business Review, it was stated that women in management are often described as warm, friendly, helpful and likeable. In contrast, men are referred to as determined, driven and intelligent. Sheryl Sandberg, author of “Lean In”, describes this as the likeability penalty. While psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske refer to men making what they deem as favorable comments about women, such as “authentic” or “genuine” as benevolent sexism — a chivalrous attitude that suggests women are weak and need men’s protection, in contrast to hostile sexism, an antagonistic attitude toward women and a desire to control or dominate them.
The Double Bind
In the same Leanin.org article, it was stated that if a man is successful, his peers often like him more; if a woman is successful, both men and women often like her less. When likeability and success are thought of as positive for men, but negatively for women, this is what is referred to as the double bind. Competent women don’t seem nice, and nice women are not viewed as competent.
Not Letting Women Express Their Views
Have you ever been in a meeting where men seem to control the narrative? Although not as obvious, subtle ways of doing this can be only calling on male coworkers for their insights and not letting a female coworker express her opinion, casually interrupting a female coworker with a question and then hijacking the conversation, or taking her views and later restating them as his own idea. This is not only true for female employees. This happens to women in management as well.
In an article published on Leanin.org, it was stated that women take on more “office housework” service and support work such as taking notes, organizing events and training new hires. Yet, in a performance evaluation study, men who stayed late to help prepare for a meeting were rated 14 percent more favorably than women who did the exact same thing. When both men and women failed to help, the women were penalized with a 12 percent lower rating than the men.
It’s easy to overlook many of these forms of sexism because they are not as obvious. Yet, they can be detrimental to working women trying to advance in their careers. And, according to doctors Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, men who endorse these types of sexism are more likely to engage in and accept the mistreatment and harassment of women at work.
What Can You Do to Support Women in the Workplace?
In a recent article published by Inc.com, research showed that women in leadership roles possess certain unique qualities that make them strong managers and even better managers than their male counterparts. The article stated that “In a Gallup report based on over four decades of research, including the analysis of 27 million employees’ responses, female managers outperform their male counterparts when it comes to driving employee engagement. With that in mind, it is safe to say that men who work well with women and tap the full talents of their teams will also outperform their peers. This is a strong incentive to make sure that the women in your organization succeed. So, how do you do this?
A 2019 article on smartcompany.com outlines a number of case studies regarding what some large employers are doing to tackle everyday sexism, as well as some recommendations for leaders on taking action. Some of the report’s strategies include:
- Do not validate humor that is explicitly or implicitly sexist or offensive by laughing, staying silent or making excuses.
- Call out the joke, for example, saying “What did you mean by that comment?”
- If you miss the moment to call it out, don’t let it pass — ensure both the joker and those who heard it are aware of your stance.
- Ensure equal share of voice at meetings you lead or attend.
- Before closing a meeting or agenda item, ensure everyone has been provided with the opportunity to comment or contribute.
- Ensure all contributions/contributors to a discussion or initiative are acknowledged — beyond the most senior or vocal.
- Adopt the ‘panel pledge’ to ensure high-profile discussions and forums include the voices and experiences of women.
- Question assumptions about the type of work, especially physical, that men and women can and cannot do.
- Be vigilant when introducing women, for example, as speakers or at meetings where comments about appearance can undermine credibility.
- Check whether you are making assumptions about or choices for women or men regarding how they value or prioritize their careers.
- Ensure equal access to flexible work arrangements for women and men within your organization.
- Recognize where gender stereotypes are being applied to assess performance or leadership capability.
- Reframe a discussion anytime an employee or candidate is assessed as ‘too’ anything — ‘too bossy’, ‘too soft’, or ‘too emotional’.
In today’s workplace, gender roles are rapidly changing and evolving. With more women entering the workforce, men need to step up and actively support their female coworkers in the workplace. In my book “Lean On”, I explore the gender bias both at home and in the workplace, the stigma of being a stay-at-home father and the prevailing societal attitudes of what a “real” family looks like.