Sexism in the Workplace


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Sexism in the workplace is a problem that all employers should be working to eliminate. What can you do to raise awareness and tackle this issue head-on?

Article 6 Minutes
Sexism in the Workplace

All employers have a responsibility to ensure every member of their workforce is being treated equally and not being discriminated against on any grounds.

A key element of this mission is tackling sexism in the workplace. Research has suggested that many businesses still have a long way to go on this front, with a survey by Young Women's Trust in the UK showing that nearly two in five female bosses say there’s sexism in their workplace.

The Women in the Workplace 2020 report from McKinsey and warned of how COVID-19 could hinder progress on gender diversity and equality in business.

In light of these challenges, all employers need to come up with a plan for eliminating sexism in all its forms. That should include raising awareness and understanding of this subject across the entire workforce and showing that everyone has a part to play in combating sexism.

Defining and understanding sexism

The high-level definition of sexism is "prejudice or discrimination based on sex", especially in the form of discrimination against women. But it's important to go further than this and create a more nuanced definition.

This problem can come in various guises, one of the most damaging of which is hostile sexism. This is when people make a conscious decision to speak or behave in a way that reflects negative stereotypes or attitudes related to gender.

Examples of hostile sexism towards women in the workplace might include:

  • Saying administrative or clerical tasks are 'women's work'
  • Asking female participants in a meeting who are in the same position as men to get drinks or take notes
  • Passing over women for promotion on the basis of stereotypical traits such as being 'too emotional'

As Utah State University women's leadership scholar Susan Madsen points out, sexism can also come in forms that aren't quite so obvious or inappropriate, but can still undermine people based on their gender. Benevolent sexism, for example, describes attitudes or actions that appear good-willed on the surface but could still have negative consequences or cause offense.

An example of this is a man being chosen for an international assignment over an equally qualified and competent woman, because it's assumed that the woman would find it harder to be away from her family. The manager who makes this decision might have the best intentions, but the end result is that the woman's career opportunities have been limited because of an assumption that she is less emotionally robust or resilient than the man.

"Learning is the most foundational element of positive change. Things can change, and being aware of the various forms of sexism and how they play out in workplaces today is a great start." - Susan Madsen


Subtle sexism

The concept of benevolent sexism illustrates how discrimination based on gender can be difficult to identify and discourage when it occurs in subtle or apparently innocuous ways.

There are many examples of how this can happen in the workforce, such as:

  • Women's suggestions or ideas receiving less attention than men's, either intentionally or unintentionally
  • 'Mansplaining'
  • Men using 'sweet' but patronizing pet names, like 'honey', 'sweetie' or 'babe', when referring to women
  • Implicit, unconscious biases and double standards
"Unconscious bias is not about 'bad people' who have it and 'good ones' who don't - it's about being aware, learning how to deal with it and creating structures and processes that are less prone to biases." - Rebekka Wiemann, Equal Opportunities Officer, Council of the European Union


The impact of sexism in the workplace

A deeper understanding of how sexism impacts your workplace, individual employees and the entire organization could provide the impetus required to come up with a clearer plan of action.

One of the clearest repercussions of workplace sexism is women not getting the same opportunities and recognition as men, even if they’ve delivered the same results and made the same contributions to positive outcomes for the business.

As well as unfairly limiting women's career development, this is also likely to have an impact on mental wellbeing, engagement and job satisfaction in your workforce. In a study involving 190 women from an Australian trade union representing predominantly male-dominated jobs, organizational and interpersonal sexism were linked to a reduced sense of belonging and poorer mental health. The study aligned sexism with bullying and connected it to feelings of rejection, loneliness and alienation.

From a business perspective, sexist practices are likely to result in inefficient use of your human resources. Capable employees could be cut off from roles in which they’d thrive and people with a lot of potential won't get the opportunities they deserve.

So what can you do about sexism in the workplace?

One of the most important steps any manager can take on their journey to eliminate sexism from their business is to educate themselves and check any unconscious biases or outdated practices they may have fallen into. The European Institute for Gender Equality offers a survey for managers and staff that could give you an insight into how much further you have to go in your efforts to tackle this problem.

Once you know where you stand, you can launch a dedicated communication and awareness-raising campaign that underlines your commitment to stamping out sexism in its various forms. Inform your employees that sexism of any kind is completely unacceptable, and create a dedicated section in your workplace policies (if you don't already have one) clearly stating this zero-tolerance attitude.

It's also important to make operational changes and put clear processes in place to reduce the risk of sexism having an impact on your business. This might include:

  • Collecting clear performance data and using measurable criteria to show how people are performing in their jobs, regardless of their gender
  • Providing training on concepts like unconscious bias and self-advocacy
  • Encouraging women to apply for more senior roles
  • Encouraging men to take parental leave
  • Checking your internal communication to remove any language or images that reflect gender stereotypes

These measures can take you a long way on your journey to combat sexism. However, you should always be prepared to deal with cases of people feeling discriminated against or unfairly treated based on their gender. There should be clear procedures in place to ensure these reports are investigated and the necessary action is taken in good time. These processes should always be kept discreet and confidential so people feel safe to speak up.

Every member of the workforce has a role to play in being aware of sexism and supporting efforts to consign it to history. This includes men, women, company directors, junior team members and everyone in between.

By taking a clear stance on this issue and getting all employees pulling in the same direction, you can build a fairer, more equal and ultimately more successful business.

HR Insights for Professionals

Insights for Professionals provide free access to the latest thought leadership from global brands. We deliver subscriber value by creating and gathering specialist content for senior professionals.


Join the conversation...