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Psychology of Sexism In The Workplace

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Psychology of Sexism In The Workplace

Moving Away From Life on Mars!

Whatever term we use, sexism, male chauvinism, or any other name, the manifest inappropriate behaviour in the workplace creates a toxic culture. This culture will encompass ideologies and methods for controlling, restricting, suppressing or denigrating woman, with a view to avoid competing with them in an open market of effective goals and objectives set against genuine talent, and skill.

Despite evidence of a more enlightened workplace, a Guardian article from August of 2016 revealed a polling of 1,553 women. It found 52% experienced unwanted behaviour at work including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes.

It’s important to continually explore this aberration in the workplace. And, whilst it can arguably never be wiped out completely; a continued pragmatic exploration of the symptoms, causes and combative actions should ensure individuals in the workplace are empowered to respond.

First lets consider some basic psychological processes. There is something of a “halo effect” involved in sexism. What if a man assumes a woman is always caring, feminine and nurturing; and, that man encounters a woman who operates outside these parameters? Certain men who have been deprived historically of these perceived behaviours may manifest some form of abuse, because they let the halo of an expected feminine side blur the manifest reality.

Further, we could argue sexism is a projection of insecurities of a whole gender. What one gender has, the other doesn’t and vice versa, and each yearns for what the other has. One way of feeling better while having insecurities is to put down the other party and/or elevate our status. Demeaning somebody on the basis of sex instantly demotivates him or her.

Ultimately, sexism is just another form of prejudicial bias that can range from being overtly aggressive, like physical abuse, to milder forms, i.e. discrediting someone’s contribution in a given work environment, denying autonomous decision making, micromanagement or unreasonable delegative practices. It is these more subtle behaviours that are harder to prove and attribute directly to the potential existence of a sexist persona. Nevertheless, these attitudes may be a lot more pervasive than we think.

A useful ‘litmus test’ is to examine attitudes to role expectations. For example, what would your gender expectation be in relation to the role of firefighter or pilot? The rise of feminism exposed the bias that a lot of people have ingrained in their minds, The most common case is that someone is not intending to be sexist or prejudiced, but perceived gender difference is so ingrained in our history that it is difficult to escape.

However, even if we acknowledge a sexist bias this is not the same as correcting or removing that bias; it is just the first step.

The language used to describe people across the genders is also very revealing in terms of underlying prejudices. It has often been pointed out there is no male equivalent to the words slut or bitch, despite the latter being used across genders in sub-cultural contexts. However, it could be argued the harsh language, whilst totally inappropriate and upsetting, is easily manageable with the right workplace policy and cultural norms. It is the more subtle descriptives that can easily be denied. Just as subtle prejudicial behaviours are hard to attribute to sexism, so is subtle prejudicial language.

Having recruited 1000’s of people, I’ve heard woman described as “short tempered,” “overly assertive” and “irritable,” whereas men are often simply dismissed as arrogant.

All too often, I’ve seen women colleagues accused of bad or inappropriate behaviour, while their male counterparts, engaging in similar behaviours, are given a pass. Vision is all to often clouded to the degree that the subtle (and not so subtle) sexism that takes place every day goes undetected.

We now turn to the management of this virus. Firstly, If things are happening that make you feel uncomfortable, make a note of them, and send them to a colleague you trust. You will be in a better position to defend your corner subsequently if matters deteriorate.

A key impact of this unwanted attention is feeling isolated and targeted, especially if the person inflicting this insecurity on you is in a senior position. Don’t! Involve someone, and never let fear take hold. Right and fairness can and does prevail if you fight the virus with the appropriate medication, and do not rest until the perpetrator is held formally to account.

Given this analysis, the fact is, in the present climate marginalisation of women in the workplace is easier to get away with than direct sexual harassment. Insecure men need to demonstrate their dominance in the work environment. They will often achieve this goal by silencing and ignoring women, reducing women’s power and effectively shutting them out of decision-making.

Very common tactics involve negative statements about performance right through to accusations of promiscuity and not talent driving success. If negative statements or perceptions are challenged then the counter is negative performance descriptions, often via formal performance management processes, i.e. “combative,” “pushy,” “belligerent.” Considering further common behaviours, anger will be tolerated in men, whereas a woman expressing anger will be seen as “out of control.” And, assertiveness in men has the potential to be relabelled as “tough minded” in woman.

Also in relation to perceived aggression, woman are often discouraged from discussing their titles, positions, or pay in the workplace; with these behaviours being viewed as “too aggressive.”

Finally we only need to examine the continued media focus on wage inequality and disproportionate differences between the number of woman and men in top leadership positions as potential manifestations of unconscious gender stereotypes. Given this situation, it could be argued that sexism in the workplace is almost institutionalised and a reflection of the current corporate status quo. Given this possible negative reality, the only real combative is daily pragmatic direct action.

  1. If someone says or does something that is sexist, ask that person if he or she would have done or said the same thing if you were a man. “Do you call Dave in the office ‘sweetheart,’ too?” Use humour but make your point that you’re being treated differently.
  1. Monitor if certain delegated tasks are a good use of your time, and make your supervisor or colleague realise that he or she isn’t being equitable in distributing office tasks.
  1. Some people are more likely to be defensive and angry when called out in front of a group. If you feel that a colleague is being sexist or disrespectful, pull him or her aside to discuss the matter privately. The person you’re talking to may appreciate the feedback; sometimes people do say things without thinking, and really don’t want to be offensive. A friendly reminder about what is and isn’t OK may be all that’s needed.
  1. If people in your office are making sexist jokes, sometimes simply not laughing will be enough to make your position clear. Make eye contact with the jokester and keep an impassive expression. That moment of discomfort may make him or her take a moment to really think about what’s being said.
  1. When someone makes a sexist comment, try responding by innocently asking him or her to repeat it. Sometimes being forced to say the comment again — separate from the immediate context that led to it — will make the person realise just how inappropriate it was in the first place.
  1. Finally, keep a record in the event that the situation escalates and you do need to go to HR or even consult a solicitor.

Keep up the fight against this invidious behaviour and we collectively ensure that if there is life on Mars, we can do our best to ensure those that have landed on Earth can be sent back there.

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