Laws preventing sexual harassment have been around a long time. Most employers do an excellent job of creating anti-harassment policies and committing to sexual harassment prevention training.

Sometimes though, sexism isn’t as straightforward as it seems. In many cases, people don’t even realize it’s happening because it’s so subtle. But subtle sexism is still a major problem.

It can lead to a hostile work environment, dips in productivity, staff turnover and worst of all-a sexual harassment claim.

So what is subtle sexism and what can you do to make sure it’s not happening at your workplace? That’s what we are going to go over.

What is Subtle Sexism?

For example, if a women got a job at an accounting firm 50 years ago, she would only have the option of working as a secretary-not a manager. Now, however, she can hold a management position, but during meetings with her male partners, she is still expected to take notes, make coffee and clean up.

Why? Because those administrative tasks of taking notes, making coffee and cleaning are all things associated with low value work that has traditionally been the domain of women. And still expecting a woman to do these things because she is a woman and that’s what they’ve traditionally done is the definition of subtle sexism.

One of the main problems is that the majority of the time this subtle sexism is the result of unconscious bias and gender stereotypes. Men aren’t aware they are expecting these tasks to be done by women, and women aren’t aware the reasons they are doing them is because of a stereotype.

Examples of Subtle Sexism

Reporting on a study, CNN Money points out several examples of subtle sexism that women and men have experienced at work:

  • Comments that women are not as good as men at certain things (math, sports, cars, leadership)
  • Hostile remarks about women as a group, such as that they are too easily offended or exaggerate problems at work
  • Seemingly benign comments about women, such as that they are naturally better at cooking, shopping, arranging potlucks, catering or events, or even child care
  • Unwelcome remarks about a woman’s body or clothing
  • Using derogatory terms to refer to women or men

If women experience some of this behavior often enough, it has the potential to create a hostile work environment and be seen as unlawful harassment.

The Express Tribune makes the case for why women perform these supplementary roles outside of their job description is because when they don’t they are less likely to be seen in a favorable light or considered for promotions; a situation that doesn’t ring true for their male counterparts.

The article’s author also makes the point that, “Women holding positions of leadership are routinely taken less seriously than their male counterparts. In fact, an assertive nature is considered unbecoming and irritating when displayed by a woman, even in a non-professional setting. Women are expected to be more feminine in their approach, smiling and forwarding their opinions amicably.”

So if these things happen in your workplace, an employee has a good case for discrimination based on sex.

How to Prevent Subtle Sexism in Your Workplace

Training All Employees

First of all, employees need to take sexual harassment prevention training-especially supervisors. This helps to educate workers on their responsibilities, and it also helps to protect your business.

Employees should also receive unconscious bias training. It will help them recognize the biases they might have and learn how to combat them.

Everyone Pitches In

Setting up for a meeting? Have everyone pitch in. Need notes taken during a meeting? Make each person take turns. Planning for a holiday party? Have both women and men on the committee.

The goal is to have everyone at your workplace contribute equally so that no one is singled out and made to do extra work.

Evaluate Based on Performance

Performance evaluations can be challenging for mangers and supervisors. It’s hard to separate feelings about a person from the work they are producing, but it needs to be done.

Check out some previous blogs we’ve written on how to master a performance review and methods for conducting a performance review.

Policies that State Unacceptable Behaviors

Another thing you can do is update your policies-code of conduct, employee handbook, etc.-to clarify acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. For example, make it clear that it’s not OK to use derogatory language to refer to men or women.

Also, use the policies to make it clear that your company values respect and that employees that don’t act respectfully will be subject to discipline.

What’s the Next Step?

If you want to learn more about unconscious biases and how they might be affecting your workplace, download our whitepaper, Managing Unconscious Bias: Your Workplace Advantage.

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