What do Cuba, Ecuador, Mozambique, and Bangladesh, all have in common? It might surprise you to realize that they all rank higher than the U.S. for having a smaller gender gap, and for being better places for women to live, work, and thrive.
There’s a widespread misconception that the U.S. ranks in the top 20 countries for gender equality. In fact, it was ranked 51 out of 149 countries in 2018 by the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report[i], which measures economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. That’s right – the U.S. didn’t even make the top 50.
As members of the U.S. business and non-profit world, we must confront the fact that our companies do not operate in isolation. We exist and act within the larger sphere of our cultures, our biases, and our social constructs. Chances are, there’s sexism at your workplace. It could be openly reinforced through workplace norms, or quietly ingrained in the foundation of the company culture.
The 20th and 21st centuries have brought greater awareness to gender inequalities in the workplace, from calling out discrimination to identifying pay gaps, to labeling abuse. Today, there is less tolerance of sexism in the workplace than fifty years ago. But as awareness has grown, workplace sexism has become more subtle.
It may be referred to as “subtle”, but this form of sexism is anything but gentle in impact. It continues to hold women back from thriving at work. It prevents them from being given the same level of respect, from being paid what they deserve, from being able to have children without being penalized, and from being promoted as readily as their equally talented male counterparts.
According to Fast Company, “behavioral evidence compiled over the past two decades suggests workplace gender bias not only persists but thrives in ways many of us don’t even realize, particularly for women in male-dominated professions. These stereotypes are so embedded in the cultural brain that we often serve them without being aware.”[ii]
Companies have a responsibility to identify workplace sexism. For anything to change in our society, it has to start at work. We must strive for more equal, healthy, productive, and fair workplaces. And this starts with asking ourselves difficult questions that underline subtle forms of sexism. Examples include:
- Who is expected to take notes during meetings?
- Who cleans up after meetings and company events?
- Who gets coffee and refreshments for clients?
- Do meetings take place around the desks of male colleagues more than female colleagues?
- Is it common for a male colleague to listen while another man is speaking, but then interrupt a woman while she is speaking?
- Do you witness male colleagues shake hands with other male colleagues, but not female colleagues?
- Who gets credit for great ideas and successful projects?
- Do you see or hear men frequently commenting on the appearance of female coworkers?
- Who is able to get away with not following workplace rules and expectations?
- Does your workplace track pay by gender, and is it transparent?
- Are women given nicknames that suggest childlike or gender-specific characteristics?
- Do you ever see male coworkers lecturing female coworkers?
Honest reflection is the first step. The second step is taking action. From the institutional side, consider establishing transparent salaries, which has been proven to motivate employees, increase productivity, decrease discrimination, and decrease the pay gap (see recent New York Times article[iii]). There are also workshops to learn more about addressing sexism in the workplace, management training courses, offering approachable online resources for employees to report sexist interactions to HR, circulating frequent surveys to track employee experiences with sexism, and initiating regular conversations about sexism in the workplace.
From the interpersonal side, next time you witness or experience one of the 12 situations above, speak up. It’s never easy, but saying, “What did you mean by that comment?” or asking coworkers to take on their share of cleaning and note-taking can make a world of difference in changing the norms of an office environment. When you raise an objection, it changes the dynamic.
Ultimately, nothing is set in stone. Workplaces can evolve with the times. It’s up to us, as members of the business world, to make changes that will overflow into all other aspects of our society.