Overt or covert, sexual harassment at work is cause
It is fairly common for media to report incidents of overt sexism and
sexual harassment at work. Colleagues demanding sexual favours and
verbal and physical abuse are examples of behaviour that have been
called to account.
But the nature and impact of sexist actions that are more subtle,
insidious, and frequent are less well-understood.
Many of us have heard a co-worker ask a female colleague returning
from maternity leave if she thinks she can manage the dual role, or
simply ignore women during work meetings. These examples of so called
"low level" or less severe sexism are often considered harmless because
of their inferred lower potential to cause immediate trauma.
It is common to think that less intense, though more normative
sexism, does not affect women's occupational well-being, partly due to a
human tendency to believe that causes have a proportionate effect.
Following that logic, subtle forms of sexism will only lead to minor
negative outcomes, if any.
When we think of these experiences as less severe, we are probably
considering their apparent intensity, and forgetting how widespread,
frequent, and unchallenged they are.
of the reasons why covert sexism is so effective at causing harm is
because it is typically wrapped in normal communication or interactions.
For instance, when people make sexist jokes they might indirectly
offend the subject of the joke. On top of that, if someone dares to call
out the sexist nature of the joke and tries to explain why it is
problematic, the joker can always say "I was just joking, don't you have
a sense of humour?"
Such reactions challenge the social skills of the person who finds
the joke offensive by implicitly stating, "What is wrong with you? How
come you can't see I am just joking?"The result? The target is insulted
once more and the offender is able to neutralise the target of the joke
and whoever called out this micro-aggression.
In my current research, I wanted to test if these apparently less
severe forms of sexism are actually less detrimental to women's work
life than types of sexual harassment people commonly identify as
Via a meta-analysis, I compared the impact on women's occupational
well-being of more frequent but less intense sexism (such as making
sexist jokes and comments, ignoring women's opinions during meetings,
suggesting women are not well suited for male-dominated occupations),
with other experiences that are considered more extreme and problematic
at work, for example distribution of sexist material, unwanted touching,
or threatening retaliation for lack of sexual favours.
The results show that all these forms of sexism were equally harmful
to women's occupational well-being. Mental and physical health problems,
lower life satisfaction, dissatisfaction with jobs, organisations and
relationships with colleagues were the result.
Far from being a second tier issue, all the forms of sexism evaluated
were as detrimental to women's occupational well-being as other job
stressors that are often considered major problems at work, such as
inter-role conflict, role ambiguity, and job overload. This has enormous
implications for organisations wanting to attract and retain a healthy
female talent pool.
What can we do about it?
Legislation has made illegal some explicit forms of harassment such
as sexual coercion and unwanted sexual advances and most organisations
have clear policies and practices to prevent and manage these events. A
bigger effort is required to identify and manage more insidious sexism.
The first step in this process is to acknowledge that there is no
such a thing a "low level" or "less severe" sexism. The use of these
labels maintains the view that they do not cause harm. Perhaps we should
talk about "covert sexism" and identify all its dimensions.
Recent research has described forms of sexism that frequently go
unnoticed, such as infantilisation (treating women as if they are not
competent adults), work/family policing (questioning mothers capacity to
be effective workers) and gender policing (questioning women who do not
display gender stereotypical roles).
In social and professional contexts, we need to help people identify
the different facets of sexism and their harmful effect. Some people
still do not understand what sexual harassment is as defined under the
Sex Discrimination Act 1984. A clear knowledge of different forms of
sexism and the negative impact of hostile work settings is central to
changing individuals' attitudes.
Finally, a bystander approach is an effective tool to manage covert
sexism. Preventing work places (and societies) that are hostile towards
women is everybody's responsibility.
When people observe instances of sexism they typically feel
uncomfortable yet unsupported to act, and lack the social skills to
manage the situation without making it escalate.
Two levels of action are required. Leaders are the first points of
intervention; it is their duty to be an example of civility, to create
work environments where diversity is welcomed, and to challenge
instances of sexism. This kind of intervention will help create a
supportive work context to tackle sexism.
Next, training could be delivered to develop the skills of all
workers in how to manage interactions in which they have to identify and
challenge sexist actions
(Victor Sojo is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow,
Centre for Ethical Leadership at University of Melbourne and this
article was originally published in The Conversation)