The Dangers of Subtle Sexism

It’s obvious that overt sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace are both obstacles that stand in the way of women’s advancement toward pay equality, the attainment of more senior-level positions, and a generally less toxic professional environment. They remain rampant in some sectors. Even more widespread than these barriers is the subtle sexism that pervades workplaces. This is a particularly insidious problem because many women aren’t even able to detect the ways in which it sustains the system that denies them advancement. And because it’s not as easy to identify, men are often far less likely to step up and act as allies in working to defeat it.

Some of this underlying sexism is just a holdover from the days when it was extremely rare for women to have jobs in professional settings that were not secretarial in nature. Even though times have changed and things continue to improve, a woman might be considered to be the “natural” choice to take minutes during a meeting, despite her rank (or aspirations) within an organization. And, needless to say, when you are occupied with taking notes, you have far less time to take the floor and announce your new marketing ideas or efficiency plans for the organization.

This brand of sexism can also rear its head when it comes to delegating projects. For instance, women are often considered to be more naturally “domestic” or better at planning social events. If you are a woman who is spending all of your time on the party planning committee, that’s less time that you have to engage with a professional mentor, or edge your way into a networking conversation with a superior, or, you know, perform your actual job duties. Making all of the arrangements for the office holiday celebration might be a ton of work, but it’s not something that you are likely to put on your resume unless you’re applying to be a professional party planner. As women are already expected to do much more at home than men are, your ambition-centered hours each day are already too precious and few. Is it fair that you should be stuck spending them on tasks for which you will receive no credit?

It may also be a bit unfortunate, but the Western chivalry that still dominates a lot of male thinking can also play into the notion that women are more “delicate” than men are and therefore need to be coddled or protected. This can rear its head through something as seemingly innocuous as a man not allowing a woman to change out the empty bottle on the office water cooler. The man who rushes in and grabs the jug of water from the woman working to replace it may genuinely think that he is being kind—a helpful office white knight—but he is also sending a message that he doesn’t think that women are capable of heavy lifting. And if he believes it literally, he is unconsciously expressing that he believes it figuratively too.

What is the best way to address this subtle sexism? Awareness on the part of everyone involved is the first step. Women should feel empowered to speak up and not allow themselves to constantly get roped into doing things for which they will not receive meaningful credit. But much of the responsibility for fighting this current situation lies with men who need to examine their outdated and marginalizing attitudes in this regard. Everyone advances when the professionals of today become allies against the biases of yesterday.