Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.
A male friend of ours recently walked into a work meeting where all the other attendees were women. On his way in the door, one of the women waved him down and said with a wink, "Light on the cream and two sugars, sugar." Confused, he looked to the colleague who invited him to the meeting — she finally introduced him as the new manager of corporate marketing.
A note taker was required for the meeting, and because all eyes fell immediately on our friend, he accepted. Yet whenever he raised a point, he was mostly ignored. When he spoke more assertively, he was asked, "What's wrong? Did your hockey team lose last night?" followed by muffled chuckles. After the meeting — which included some fairly heated debate among the women around the table— his director called him aside to give him some "friendly" advice. "You came across a little bossy this afternoon," he was told. "Please try to get along a little bit more. And tomorrow, wear a suit that doesn't fit quite so snugly—the girls were a little distracted by your... attractive build."
Of course we're making this up — how ridiculous would it be for a man to be treated like this at work? For too many women in 2014, though, this scenario remains — shockingly — only a slight exaggeration of everyday life in the work world.
This summer, the U.K.-based organization Everyday Sexism Project published real-life accounts of 10 sexist scenarios still faced by women at work. Being mistaken for the secretary, or asked over the phone if "a man is available instead" are almost comically crude remnants of the Mad Men era. But it's the subtle sexism — harder to identify and oppose in single increments — that accumulates over time to perpetuate a culture where women are held back from progressing toward true equality.
In their book, The New Soft War on Women (Penguin, 2013), American professors Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers argue that subtle biases and barriers are creating a collective drag on workplace equality. Studies show that women are still less likely to be given credit in team projects, more likely to be judged on appearance, assumed to be under-competent until proven otherwise, and paralyzed by an "assertiveness Catch 22," where they're either labelled "bossy" for speaking up or ignored if they don't. The results are lower average salaries for women of equal qualifications, fewer women in executive positions, and both men and women internalizing such inequalities as normal.
Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg helped launch a campaign earlier this year to ban the word "bossy" in reference to assertive girls and women. It's a good place to start — but we clearly have a long way to go. And we need the men in the room to be part of the solution, too.
This week's question: How can women and men combat and prevent subtle sexism in the workplace?
Catherine Ashcraft, senior research scientist at the National Center for Women & IT, Boulder, Colorado
"Men and women can and should work together, including women sharing their discrimination experiences with male colleagues they trust, men talking with other men about these issues, actively seeking the opinions of quieter team members and making sure all employees receive due recognition for their work."
Jennifer L. Berdahl, professor of leadership studies (women and diversity) at the University of British Columbia
"Slow down and question your assumptions. Habitually practice mental gender switching: If this resume had a male (or a female) name, or if this behavior was exhibited by a man (or a woman), would I evaluate it differently?"
Meghan Murphy, founder of FeministCurrent.com, Vancouver
"Ensure that male employees know that sexual objectification or harassment won't be tolerated and that women's concerns about misogyny or sexist behaviour are taken seriously and addressed respectfully."
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