'Benevolent' Sexism Still Common on Job

Winnipeg Free Press, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

'Benevolent' Sexism Still Common on Job


While catcalls and overt comments aimed at female co-workers may have gone the way of the switchboard and manual typewriter, research shows that there is still sexism in the workplace. And while this brand of sexism is much more difficult to detect than what used to be so prevalent in the workplace, it is just as harmful.

It's called benevolent sexism and while most of us do not even recognize it in our everyday lives, we encounter it on a regular basis.

On the surface, these subtle signs of sexism may appear to be harmless. It could be insisting on carrying a box or installing new software for a female co-worker. It could be a comment about how women are good at nurturing and care-giving. It could be assuming that a female will take minutes at the meeting, will shop for office supplies or will organize the staff potluck because "women are naturally good at that sort of thing."

As you can see, this kind of sexism is quite ambiguous, so it's easy to ignore them or chalk them up to just kidding around.

It should not be mistaken for the mostly well-liked admirable behaviour. But soon, these types of comments pile up and become a burden for the person on the receiving end.

Benevolent sexism has a long-range negative effect and impedes women's advancement at work. Offering to assist female co-workers with traditionally male tasks generally reinforces the notion that women are weak and men are more competent.

When women shrug off these occurrences and get used to expecting help from their male colleagues, they may become unsure of themselves and doubt their ability to get the job done. At the same time, compliments on stereotypical female qualities (soft, emotional, mothering) underscores the false perception that women are not as suitable for powerful positions. In my July 7 article Firms need to develop talented women I spoke to this often controversial topic.

The bottom line is that subtle, benevolent sexism is dangerous because it may be covering more hostile aggression. When widespread, it signals that condescending comments, negative attitudes and broader forms of gender discrimination are acceptable, which they most certainly are not.

To a degree, men face subtle sexism too. It can include fielding "jokes" about being inept at planning the office Christmas party or being inadequately equipped to parent without assistance.

Think about the decision we are each faced with when accepting help with a complex task. If a female worker accepts help, she is perceived as friendly but lacking certain competence. If she refuses, however politely, she risks being viewed as cold. …

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