Sexism. It’s everywhere. And it’s every day.

No matter what your profession, industry or employer, everyday sexism exists.

Aside from calling it out as it happens (which understandably not everyone feels they can do), can anything really be done about it?

According to more than 100 leaders of large Australian organisations, everyday sexism can be eliminated.

Through the Male Champions of Change (MCC) initiative, the 100-plus leaders have committed to taking practical steps to identify and eliminate all forms of everyday sexism. And they want other leaders to join them.

The MCC report, We Set the Tone: Eliminating Everyday Sexism, shares some of those practical steps, as well as the results of what was discovered after canvassing 6000 employees to understand what everyday sexism looks like, including its impact on employees, career advancement and productivity.

Different to sexual harassment, everyday sexism is rarely raised or complained about, according to the report authors. It can be either intentional or unintentional, and is evident in workplace interactions, systems, policies and systems. It ultimately impacts both organisational culture and individual careers.

Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins says people typically don’t raise everyday sexism because it can be seen as too small to make a fuss about. But she said that in her work, including with Victoria Police, the Australian Defence Force, universities and Male Champions of Change, she’s hearing that everyday sexism matters.

“They are out-dated at best, harmful at worst. 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.”

According to the report, everyday sexism at work manifests in six distinct ways.

1. Insults masquerading as jokes

This is the most frequently encountered form of everyday sexism, experienced by women and men, and consists of sexist remarks or jokes, and insulting terms based on gender.

For example:

  • ‘Make sure you wear your low-cut top to meet with that client!’
  • ‘You won’t want to work on that machine … you might break a fingernail!’
  • ‘You’ve got to let her know who wears the pants around here!’

2. Devaluing women’s views or voice

This includes men interrupting or talking over women, men over-explaining things as if women have no knowledge of the issue (‘mansplaining’), and women feeling like their views are not heard or supported until re-stated by a man.

For example:

  • ‘The supplier said: “can I speak to the manager, love?”, referring to the man behind me. I was, in fact, the manager.’
  • ‘If I really want to get an idea up, I brief my male colleague to propose it in the meeting. I don’t like it but it’s a means to an end.’

3. Role stereotyping

This includes making assumptions about suitability for roles and tasks, on the basis of gender.

For example:

  • ‘As the only female at the lunch meeting, I watched the men wait for me to take the plastic wrap off the sandwiches. And take the minutes.’
  • ‘We won’t rotate you to that part of the site … there is too much heavy lifting for a woman.’

4. Preoccupation with physical appearance

This includes comments made about body shape, size, physical characteristics or dress over skill and competence. This form of everyday sexism is especially a problem for women with a public profile, or who are in the media.

For example:

  • ‘I couldn’t take her seriously in that presentation — did you see what she was wearing?’

5. Assumptions that caring and careers don’t mix

These assumptions affect both women and men when it comes to parenting. Women may be subjected to comments that imply poor parenting if they are to prioritise work equally to family, or may have their commitment to work questioned, due to flexibility.

Women may also find they’re expected to explain why they don’t have children. Meanwhile, men may feel discouraged (or even denied) from accessing flexible work due to assumptions that caring is a ‘women’s role’.

For example:

  • ‘When I fell pregnant with my second child I was told that was the end of my career.’
  • ‘When I said I wanted to leave to pick up my kids I was asked why my wife couldn’t do it.’

6. Unmerited gender labelling

This can manifest as women being described as being ‘too bossy’ or too ‘emotional’ or ‘nice’ or ‘not assertive enough’. For men, it could be them being told they’re ‘too soft’.

For example:

  • ‘I was told I needed to man up.’

So what can you do about it?

The report outlines a number of case studies regarding what some large employers are doing to tackle everyday sexism, as well as some recommendations for leaders on taking action.

Some of the report’s strategies include:

  • Do not validate humour that is explicitly or implicitly sexist or offensive by laughing, staying silent, or making excuses;
  • Call out the joke, for example, saying “what did you mean by that comment?”;
  • If you miss the moment to call it out, don’t let it pass — ensure both the joker and those who heard it are aware of your stance;
  • Ensure equal share of voice at meetings you lead or attend;
  • Before closing a meeting or agenda item, ensure everyone has been provided with the opportunity to comment or contribute;
  • Ensure all contributions/contributors to a discussion or initiative are acknowledged — beyond the most senior or vocal;
  • Adopt the ‘panel pledge’ to ensure high-profile discussions and forums include the voices and experiences of women;
  • Question assumptions about the type of work, especially physical, that men and women can and cannot do;
  • Be vigilant when introducing women for example, as speakers or at meetings where comments about appearance can undermine credibility;
  • Check whether you are making assumptions about, or choices for, women or men regarding how they value or prioritise their career;
  • Ensure equal access to flexible work arrangements for women and men within your organisation;
  • Recognise where gender stereotypes are being applied to assess performance or leadership capability; and
  • Reframe a discussion anytime an employee or candidate is assessed as ‘too’ anything — ‘too bossy’, ‘too soft’, or ‘too emotional’.

See the full report here.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda on October 24, 2017.

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