Sexism in the workplace can look like a male colleague cracking a joke about his female colleague leaving work early because she has errands to run or when he asks her to “calm down” when they’re trying to make a point.
There are many facets to sexism, but how long have we been using the word? The term “sexism” is widely believed to have emerged during the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1970s. That piece of information means women have only had a word in the last 50 years to loosely describe a range of actions spread across acts (spoken or written), practices, behaviour/gestures that deem them inferior to men.
Sexism is rampant in modern workplaces. Stories shared by users on Twitter and Instagram will affirm that at least a few hundred times a day. In this article, I will briefly try to explain the different kinds of sexism so that we have an easier time identifying what’s wrong and what we can call it.
Expanding the scope of what’s sexist beyond just statements/remarks made at work — it’s also sexist when women are expected to take notes in meetings irrespective of their role in the company or be made to feel inadequate or out of place in a male-dominated workplace. There are also sexist hiring practices, work cultures, and of course, the pay gap.
The Pew Research Center in the United States says that up to 42% of women in workplaces face some form of sexism in the workplace. Let’s understand the nuances of sexism through the following three types: benevolent, hostile and casual sexism.
Benevolent sexism is a set of attitudes that reinforce gender roles and stereotypes but in a way that it “feels” positive and endearing. Telling a woman who is a manager that she keeps her team together like a mother is an example of benevolent sexism. It could also be a male colleague checking in more than usual to see if you need help with your work even though your qualifications are more or less the same as the men in your team.
— Margherita Melillo, PhD (@MargheL90) August 14, 2020
These actions seem to be coming from a place of care but actually work to keep women trapped in their patriarchy-dictated gender roles of how women should behave and how they’re expected to reach out for help and protection because they’re the “weaker sex”.
Men who are guilty of being benevolently sexist think well of themselves because it reinforces their gendered role of being the “protector”. This kind of sexism impacts women because they are deprived of agency at the workplace. It also keeps society’s rules about men and women intact at the workplace.
This one isn’t tough to spot. This is the most obvious form of sexism. An incident of hostile sexism occurs when a man at work makes negative evaluations of a female colleague.
Remarks by men that imply a woman can’t perform a certain task well because she’s a woman. Someone could be guilty of hostile sexism if they purposely exclude women from processes meant for all — meetings, important projects, and the like. It’s important to understand the word “hostile” in hostile sexism is used not literally but to connote an overt, negative and direct form of sexism.
Research studies from around the world suggest that benevolent and hostile sexism usually go hand-in-hand. If you find one, it’s not long before you spot the other. While the former is believed to be used by men as a “reward” for good behaviour, the latter is said to have been used as punishment for “bad behaviour”. Together, benevolent and hostile sexism give rise to what is understood as ambivalent sexism.
Casual sexism, often referred to as everyday sexism, refers to comments, actions, and behaviour often rooted in gender-based stereotypes. This form of sexism, while seemingly harmless, often discounts the agency of women and reduces every action in the workplace to their gender. It could look like a comment that asks a woman to “calm down” in the face of workplace discrimination or a sexist joke which is justified as “just a joke not to be taken seriously”.
These seemingly minor incidents make the workspace uncomfortable for women and denote that the work culture is patriarchal, toxic, and not inclusive of their participation.
Sexist behaviour and attitudes are not just a few isolated actions and behaviour. Sexism at work also translates to a lack of pay, growth opportunities and ultimately leads to stagnation.
Studies show women who are mothers are less likely to get employed, women are more likely to be underpaid in freelance positions and saleswomen are underpaid than men because they are given smaller accounts to handle. All of these facts stem from a sexist understanding of the role and position of women.
For workplaces to evolve, employers need to recognise the damage that sexist behaviour can have on their workforce, especially women, and work towards building a work culture that’s more inclusive and dignified.
By Priyanka Chakrabarty
About the author: Priyanka is pursuing her LLB from St Joseph’s College of Law and aspires to be a human rights lawyer. She is a queer woman who loves to read and passionately document her reading journey on bookstagram.