Overt or covert, sexism at work causes real harm

Covert sexism is typically wrapped in normal communication or interactions. Shutterstock

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.

One 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.

What’s harmful

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 harmful.

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.


Read the other pieces in our Gender equality at work series here:

Drinking ‘daughter’ won’t be enough to deliver pay equity

To close the gender pay gap we need to end pay secrecy

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