A 2020 headline read, ‘The number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 hits an all-time record’. It sounds like a great news until you start reading further. Only 37 of the 500 companies on the list were led by female CEOs which is just 7.4%. But it also marks a considerable jump from its preceding years’ rates which were 6.6% in 2019 and just 4.8% in 2018, i.e., 33 and 24 companies respectively. Another report by McKinsey & Co. on the advancing of women’s equality in the Asia-Pacific region, tells us that just around 25% of India’s workforce is female, and only 5% of them make it to the top. This decline in percentage is due to many women dropping out of their jobs. One of the major factors for women to take this decision is ‘sexism at the workplace’.
It has made its way into the ‘work-from-home’ world as well. Imagine this scenario: In a discussion about hiring employees for a new project, a male committee member says, “I think we should hire more men as this project requires spending extra time and effort“. In this case, it is not very difficult to identify the prejudice. But let’s consider another scenario- there is a need to move some machines for which a person asks for help saying, “I need a few strong men to help me lift this“. Most of the time people will not realize how problematic this statement is. This is an example of ‘gender microaggression’. But what exactly is a microaggression? Microaggression is verbal or nonverbal behavior that, intentionally or unintentionally, can communicate denigratory behavior towards the members of a minority/oppressed group which often goes unnoticed and unreported. In simple words, it is a form of discrimination that is subtle yet harmful. There are mainly 3 forms of Microaggressions: microassaults (purposeful discriminatory actions), microinsults (communicate a covert insulting message), and microinvalidations (dismiss the thoughts of certain groups). Different kinds of gender microaggressions are sexual objectification, second-class citizenship, use of sexist language, assumption of inferiority, restrictive gender roles, invisibility, sexist humor/jokes. According to Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, people typically don’t raise their voice against everyday sexism because it can be seen as too small to make a fuss about, but it matters. As the Women in the Workplace report also reflects, “Microaggressions can seem small when dealt with one by one. But when repeated over time, they can have a major impact.”
Let’s go back to the above example for people who could not identify what was wrong in that statement. When people use phrases like ‘strong men’, it tells that only men are strong and conversely, that women are weak. This statement does not have to be focused on gender at all. It can be rephrased as “I need a few strong people to help me lift this“, and people around can determine for themselves who the strong helpers will be. Few other examples of common gender-related microaggressions are:
- Mansplaining – Explaining a subject to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often oversimplified manner with a presumption that she wouldn’t know about it.
- Manterrupting – Unnecessary interruption of a woman by a man whenever she is trying to convey her ideas or thoughts.
- Bropropriating – A man taking a woman’s idea and showing it as his own hence, taking all the credit for it.
- ‘Boys will be boys’ – A phrase used to dismiss any traditionally masculine behavior and not holding men accountable for their wrong deeds.
- Using differentiated words when describing women and men, such as ‘Bossy’ versus ‘Leader’, ‘Annoying’ versus ‘Passionate’.
The pandemic has given way to a new surge of microaggressions for working women. A law firm Slater and Gordon conducted a poll of 2,000 remote workers and found that 35% of women reported experiencing at least one sexist demand from their employer since the lockdown started. For video conferences, some women were asked to wear more make-up or do something to their hair, while others were asked to dress more provocatively. Their bosses also tried to justify this by saying it could ‘help win business’, or it was important to ‘look nice for the team’. Nearly 40% said these demands were targeted at women, rather than equally with their male peers. Also, a lot of women are being micromanaged by their managers while their male colleagues are not. This sends a message of distrust towards them. Researches have indicated that experiences with these microaggressions, and many others not mentioned above, are related to a negative impact on the standard of living, physical health as well as psychological health, such as unequal wages, migraines, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and body image dissatisfaction. As a result, women who experience such insidious, everyday forms of sexist discrimination, are three times more likely to regularly think about leaving the organization. Hence, sexism can not only impact the individual but also the overall performance and working culture of the organization. Eliminating such behavior at the physical and virtual workplace is extremely important and will enable the organization to break down the barriers for equal access to different career opportunities for leadership for women and will help include diverse thinking, perspectives, and experiences in the workplace at every level. As an individual, the most basic yet effective thing to do would be to develop an honest awareness of our own biases and stereotypes.
“Unless we tackle everyday sexism, the most innovative policies and initiatives designed to advance gender equality and inclusive and effective organisations will not deliver the change we need.” – Kate Jenkins
Here’s a small story of grace and grit which might inspire some, to take a stand against such gender-related microaggressions. Back in the 1970s, when feminism was a word unheard of, an incident took place. A woman saw a job advertisement by a telecom company, which said it required only male engineers. On seeing this requirement, she wrote back a postcard to the company’s Chairman questioning the gender biases. She was then called for a special interview, where they told her their side of the story – “We haven’t hired any women so far”. To which she replied, “You must start from somewhere.” Her name was Sudha Murty, who is now Chairperson of Infosys Foundation.
So, the next time when conversing with a colleague, consider all of this and be kind!
About the Author –
Priyanka is an ardent feminist and a dog-lover. She spends her free time cooking, reading poetry, and exploring new ways to conserve the environment.