Opinion: workplace stereotyping and casual sexism impact mental health

By Maureen Kyne

Monday October 19, 2020

Adobe

Local and state government workplaces comprise an extremely diverse range of professions and roles. From that compendium is a ripe breeding ground for casual sexism and vocation stereotyping.

Across civil engineering, town planning, maternal health, aged care to landscaping, numerous roles have been historically beset with gender bias. Whilst hiring and workplace ‘traditional role’ stereotyping is shifting, it is still covertly and overtly prevalent.

The underpinning culture of stereotyping and resultant exclusion intensifies casual sexism at levels that range from mildly annoying to illegal discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying claims.

Mental health impact

From either end of the spectrum, the impact on wellbeing and mental health is unquestionable. Notwithstanding, there is immeasurable financial consequence from a decrease in productivity and competency together with an increase in sickness and absenteeism.

In the newly released Allianz Future Thriving Workplace report, it was revealed that the cost of workplace mental health injuries has increased by 80% in the past three years. Findings showed workers compensation data on work-related harassment and pressures were the main causes of primary psychological claims. The report listed the following behaviour breakdowns that resulted in claims.

  1. Ineffective or unfair management (39% of employees impacted)
  2. Workplace culture (33% of employees impacted)
  3. Bullying and harassment (24% of employees impacted)
  4. Organisational structure (24% of employees impacted)

These behaviours impact state and local governments equally. Having worked with many councils, I feel it a fair hypothesis to suggest the impact is even greater than commercial and private enterprise due to casual sexism and role stereotyping. Without prevention and mitigation, WorkCover claims and injury will increase.

Of specific relevance, here in Victoria is awareness of the recently introduced Industrial Manslaughter Laws and the urgency to address and eradicate the risks. And what manifests as daily stressors that are not mitigated can escalate over time to a serious breach of workplace safety.

Defining casual sexism

Casual sexism generally has a low intensity sprung from illogical outdated stereotypes. It is mostly covert, though can be clearly overt. It takes on numerous forms, including communicating and treating a person differently because of their gender. It also displays in unrealistic expectations and demands related to gender. Sexism can be cloaked in seemingly harmless jokes, progressing to serious sexual harassment.

Turning a blind eye without mitigation and redress is foolish at best and at worse, legally dangerous. Younger staff members are particularly at risk, as they are often too afraid to complain or speak up for fear of retribution. Leaders and managers must be aware of their own and staff members’ behaviours, including:

  • Condescending language of a personal inappropriate nature
  • Exclusion of activities and team events
  • Gendered allocation of work responsibilities
  • Relentless sexism jokes and jibes that seemingly are accepted by the victim
  • Double standards of expected/tolerated behaviours of one gender over another
  • Inequality of pay or bonus rewards
  • Maternity and paternity restrictions impacting career progressions
  • Inappropriate jokes that belittle attributes of one gender. This is equally male to female and female to male
  • Jekyll & Hyde behaviours of flattering compliments and workplace bullying
  • Assuming attributes or character based on appearance and clothing

Normalised behaviours and attitudes

Much of what is casual sexism and stereotyping is ‘normalised and ingrained behaviours’.

Conditioning through early development years, school environments, community, friends, family, workplaces and social media factor strongly. And it can be particularly generational. The accepted norms and language of Baby Boomers is often different to the Millennial generation, and this impacts uniquely.

And within those considerations of generational and ingrained factors are guides to how the recipient addresses and thwarts the behaviour. Intent and motivation is key to correlating how to respond and/or to take it further. Irrelevant of whether the intention was to cause harm or not, the behaviours are unacceptable and the communication of such is critical immediately. Behaviours that are inappropriate need to be communicated and, if continued, official reporting undertaken.

Responsibility to address

Clear policy is the foundation that supports the core values and liabilities. But a policy without ongoing training and action is a Trojan horse.

  • Leaders and managers are custodians of their staff and have a huge responsibility to protect them and integrate safety within their departments and the wider government.
  • Taking ownership of that responsibility without fear is key. There must be no illusion that self-evaluation and the ability to have difficult conversations and take action is key. Leaders, HR and directors must embrace their role with full accountability. Ignoring staff who treat others poorly and illegally is illegal in itself. You must step into your own role and own it.
  • Training and awareness is key. Build a training and cultural program to show the impact and mental health implications of casual sexism and stereotyping. Call the elephants out in the room.
  • Encourage a culture where it is safe to speak up. Give younger staff and both genders a clear message that they have legal rights to expect a safe workplace and to speak up and out when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe in any way.
  • Implement a ‘bystander policy’. This is an important strategy fir addressing unacceptable behaviours culturally and give legal responsibility to act. It is not acceptable to witness and not intervene. This factors into legal evidence if a workplace claim goes to court and workers are subpoenaed

Summing up

Every worker has both a human and legal right to feel safe and valued in their workplace. Mental health injuries and risky workplace behaviours will escalate further due to the implications and stressors from COVID, without doubt. Prevention is the longer-tail goal but immediate addressing of legal liability and injury is imperative.

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