Integrity Risk and the Use of Social Media in the Workplace
Identifying the Signs of Workplace and Corporate Bullying

Sexism is Alive and Well in the Workplace

Discrimination against Women Occurs on Many Levels

I have blogged before about sexual harassment in the workplace. In this blog I look at the practices, and resulting ethics, of sexism.

Sexism is both discrimination based on gender and the attitudes, stereotypes, and the cultural elements that promote this discrimination. Occupational sexism (also called sexism in the work place and employment sexism) refers to any discriminatory practices, statements, actions, and so on, that are based on a person’s sex that are present or occur in a place of employment.

Given the historical and continued imbalance of power, where men as a class are privileged over women as a class, an important, but often overlooked, part of the term is that sexism is prejudice plus power. Thus feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have.

The following situations have been reported again and again to the Everyday Sexism Project, which was an attempt to gather stories of sexism, and it is pointed out in a story in “The Women’s Blog.” There were some 25,000 entries spread around 15 countries that were submitted for review. When I read the list I was constantly surprised by the examples of sexism that still exist in the 21st century. It made me stop and think whether gender bias will ever go away in the workplace. Here is the top ten list and the examples of comments submitted by the respondents.

1.     Being mistaken for the secretary

"Although I've been a senior figure in client meetings, when all other attendees are men it's regularly expected that I'm the one to take notes and distribute drinks."

2.      Being mistaken for the tea lady

"International visitors from company's head office came for a meeting at which I, the only female in management, had to report. I walked in with my report and they asked for coffee, white with two sugars."

3.      Being called a “good girl”

"Being told I'm a 'good girl' when offering ideas to senior management. Have to resist the urge to bark. A raised eyebrow and 'I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that' worked with one. The other just repeated it.

4.      Being accused of menstruation when voicing a firm opinion

"My colleague had to chase up someone in another department for not meeting a deadline for paperwork to be submitted. When she went to speak with him about it his response was: 'Is it your time of the month?'

5.      Being asked if ‘a man is available instead’

Working in a law office, I've had plenty of people on the phone demand to speak to a man instead of me. “Nothing personal but we'd prefer a man."

In the past it was not uncommon when women’s ideas were stolen by men. This one respondent gave her example as follows: "A female friend of mine in an office meeting proposed a logical, simple solution to a recurring issue. Blank stares from the group and a 'We've never done it that way' from the senior (female) manager. A male colleague then makes the exact same suggestion and the room nods enthusiastically and congratulates him on the idea."

6.     Having an idea ignored only to be repeated by a male colleague five minutes later to interest and applause

7.      Being asked about childcare plans

"During my interview for my current position I was asked if I planned on having any more children and what my childcare arrangements are. Each time the question was preceded with: 'I'm probably not supposed to ask this but ...'

8.      Being considered a ‘maternity risk’

"I had an interview for an office job for a small company when I was in my early 20s. The senior partner who owned the company told me they wouldn't hire me because I would probably get pregnant and go on maternity leave, and that if I repeated what he'd said he'd deny it."

9.     Being accused of ‘baby brain’

"I was told on my first day back [from maternity leave]: 'You'll never be the same for us now you have baby brain.'"

10.  Avoiding wandering hands

"I was 22, just graduated from university and working a three-month trial period at a very small company – just me and the boss (married, with kids my age). One day I was busy with filing, and the boss came up behind me, wrapped his arms around me and stuck his tongue on my ear. I shoved him away and told him not to do that again. Ended up being fired a week later because I wouldn't have an affair with him."

According to Rebecca Savastio in a piece for the UK publication The Guardian, there is no escape from sexism in the workplace even if that sexism gets expressed in subtle ways without the conscious knowledge of the perpetrators. Women in positions of power are often marginalized, interrupted, dismissed and ignored by their male counterparts and even other women. Further, women are greatly penalized for exhibiting behavior that is viewed as angry, aggressive or assertive while their male counterparts get rewarded for the same behavior.

While some may think that workplace environments have been improving for women over time, that is not so. According to a study from an employment firm in the UK, Millennial women suffer to a great degree from gender inequalities in the workplace, and one of the primary causes is a lack of workplace visibility. Women’s opinions and voices are routinely oppressed, and this problem is increasing rather than diminishing.

As I have blogged about before, the “Glass Ceiling” is alive and well and women hold a disproportionately low percentage of top positions, as I have blogged about before. According to a Fortune magazine study, women currently hold 5.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 5.4 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions.

Women are uniquely the target of sexual harassment, sexism in general, and employment sexism. They still have a hard time making it to the C-Suite. It’s no wonder this still is the case given the gender bias that exists on so many levels. This is an issue of ethics because fairness dictates that equals should be treated equally; unequals should be treated unequally. Since women are more than capable of achieving a high level of success and competing on a level playing field with their male counterparts, the gender bias that exists holds them back from leadership positions and progressing beyond certain levels. It prevents organizations from taking advantage of talented professionals.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 10, 2014. Dr. Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Professor Mintz also blogs at: