Six ways everyday sexism creeps into workplaces

By David Donaldson

Wednesday October 25, 2017

On their own they are often little things, like jokes or inappropriate comments based on gender stereotypes. Perceived as too small to make a fuss about, people tend to let it pass. At other times it clearly oversteps the mark.

Everyday sexism may not seem like a big deal to some, but it can create an environment where women feel uncomfortable and are excluded or undermined in the workplace.

Seeing that the problem is often underplayed, the Male Champions of Change have released a report to assist workplaces to eliminate everyday sexism.

We Set The Tone notes many people struggle to understand why this issue is important and explains why we should all care about eliminating everyday sexism.

“Everyday sexism causes harm to all staff, not just women. This includes impeding women’s career progression and preventing men from equally engaging in child rearing,” notes the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

“The benefits of a workplace without sexism are significant, including broadening of the talent pool and harnessing a more diverse range of views that modern workplaces require to achieve success. The report empowers all colleagues to take action, identifying the fact that individual voices do make a difference in eliminating sexism in workplaces.”

In the words of one survey respondent: “I want to go to work, do my job and go home to my family. I don’t want to be reluctant to go to work and be made to feel uncomfortable while I am there.”

So how does sexism manifest in the day-to-day of a contemporary workplace? The report outlines what it sees as the six main ways:

  1. Insults masquerading as jokes. Think twice before making remarks and jokes based on gender — often they are sexist.
  2. Devaluing women’s views or voice. Men should think before they act. Why do you need to interrupt a woman in a meeting? Do you actually need to explain that information to her? Why didn’t you agree with her until your male colleague said the same thing? Why did you presume the guy was in charge?
  3. Role stereotyping. Don’t worry, John will clear up the water glasses following the meeting. Jenny can park the car in the basement — it’s just so tight down there and I don’t want to scratch my boss’s car. These sentences shouldn’t sound weird.
  4. Preoccupation with physical appearance. This includes comments about body shape, size, physical characteristics and clothing. Opinions or comments by others about any of these things are sexist.
  5. Assumptions that caring and careers don’t mix. Having kids or caring for family members have no bearing on a person’s ability to further their career. Equally, a person does not have to explain their decision not to have children to you. Assumptions based on caring responsibilities impact both men and women and are sexist.
  6. Unwarranted gender labelling. My manager Jenny is so bossy. My manager John is very assertive. These sentences mean the same thing but only one is positive.

The report includes a range of case studies of what different workplaces are doing to stamp out sexism, and outlines three steps organisations can take themselves:

  • Everyone needs to know what they are dealing with, including understanding what sexism looks like in their workplace and the impact it has on both staff and the organisation.
  • Everyone needs to find ways to get their colleagues to see and acknowledge sexism. This includes challenging entrenched attitudes and processes that enable sexism to exist.
  • Everyone, but especially leaders, needs to set the tone by creating a workplace where staff are empowered to call out sexism when they see it.

“We would all like to think that we have an environment that is respectful and inclusive, that gender is never a limiting factor, and when issues arise people feel at ease to talk about them. The reality is there is an undercurrent of behaviour that perceives and treats women differently. It often masquerades as a joke. So common in some organisations, this behaviour has become an accepted part of navigating workplace dynamics,” argue the Male Champions of Change.

“We need to lead on this because speaking out about everyday sexism can have consequences for reputations, relationships and careers. No-one wants to be the person who can’t take a joke. Anyone who calls it out risks an accusation of ’political correctness gone mad’.

“As leaders, we know that we set the tone in our organisations and we can take a stand to eliminate everyday sexism in our workplaces.”

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