Start-ups urged to address “low level sexism”

Businesses are being urged to address “low level sexism” in the workplace, after a Melbourne Business School report found companies only have policies to target “overt” sexual harassment.


The report was written by Victor Rojo, a research associate at Melbourne Business School’s Centre for Ethical Leadership.


It is the second research report to be released as part of the centre’s Gender Equality Project, which looks at the reasons behind gender inequality in the workplace and possible solutions.


According to the report, sexism is “one of the most pervasive and pronounced” indicators of women’s “fit” in their organisation.


“If women feel they do not fit in or are not accepted as equals, they are less likely to stay in their role or in the organisation,” the report said.


The report found sexism, sexual harassment and gender stereotyping are key characteristics of male-dominated work environments.


These characteristics are common in industries such as natural sciences, engineering, medicine, police forces, military forces, information technology, law firms and financial services.


The findings come three months after Melbourne co-working space the York Butter Factory was slammed for a controversial tweet, which was labelled as sexist.


The tweet sent the Twittersphere into a frenzy, attracting a wave of negative reactions, with one tweeter slamming the “sexist, disrespectful, misogynistic” message.


The York Butter Factory promptly tweeted an apology for the “wayward” tweet, insisting it “didn’t mean to offend anyone”.


According to Rojo, there is still a perception among the general population that it’s acceptable to engage in sexual slang and sexist jokes.


“This has negative impact on the health and performance of female workers, and it creates a culture where it’s okay to be a bully,” Rojo told


The report recommends implementing a policy that prohibits all sexual comments, even if they’re made in a joking manner.


“Under our proposed ‘no just joking’ policy, anyone who hears a sexist remark would be expected to point it out, and the person who made the remark would be required to say ‘I am sorry that my comments were offensive’,” it said.


“We believe that this simple intervention can do much to surface and deal with the incidence of sexism.”


According to the report, it would “legitimise a woman’s and other’s right to challenge sexist remarks without being criticised or accused of a lack of humour”.


“Second, it can ensure that if a person who makes a sexist remark starts to say ‘I was just joking’, they should stop and say ‘I am sorry’.”


“This locates the responsibility with the perpetrator and not the target.”


“Third, apologies are a non-defensive response in which the person apologising accepts responsibility for their actions and makes an implicit promise to try not to repeat the behaviour.”


The report encourages senior leaders within organisations to promote this “no just joking” policy, which will lead to awareness and hopefully change workplace culture.


But it also stresses there is a broader reality that needs to be acknowledged in the crafting and promotion of a “no just joking” policy.


“Many men and women have grown up in a world in which sexist jokes were part of their daily social lives and were considered just jokes, even if people were sometimes offended,” it said.


“But, back then, the evidence that stereotype threats and sexist jokes would significantly impede the progress of women in organisations was not widely acknowledged the way it is today.”


“Also, the point needs to be made that the loss of one source of humour is not the death of humour. It merely indicates that it is time to learn a few new jokes.”


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