If you knew that today is Women's Equality Day -- the 93rd anniversary of women in the United States getting the vote -- raise your hand. If you raised your hand, you are part of a tiny minority. The very invisibility of this important anniversary is telling. So, too, is a look at where women are today in this country.

I spent many years focusing on women's issues but have not often in this space written about matters of sexism. This essay will be the first of many future ones in which I will address matters of sexism.

Marking the recent anniversary of the March on Washington, a number of civil rights movement leaders recently referred to the way that racism involves oppression of people who are classified as "not white" but in many ways harms whites as well. Similarly, although many of the measurable consequences of sexism reveal oppression of women and girls -- such as who lives below the poverty level or is relatively underpaid, who are the most likely to be victims of violence in the family, who are most likely to carry the double workload of paid employment and primary care of family members -- those whose financial security, sense of identity, self-respect, or power are based on the demeaning and mistreatment of girls and women range from morally, spiritually, and/or emotionally insecure to monstrous.

Both racism and sexism are unforgivable, as are other kinds of bias and oppression, and all are far from eradicated. But it is harder to get people to take sexism seriously than to take other kinds of oppression seriously. In the Voices of Diversity research project that I directed (http://www.hks.harvard.edu/centers/carr/research-publications/carr-cente...), we found disturbingly that both men and women were less likely to consider sexism than racism to be a serious problem and to say that sexism is normal, just part of human nature.

Today I want to focus on a new article from Harvard Business Review by Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb. It's called "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers" (http://hbr.org/2013/09/women-rising-the-unseen-barriers/ar/1) The authors address the problems of women who are admittedly in privileged positions, because they are in or moving toward leadership roles in the workplace. But much of what they say applies as well to women in other situations -- in lower-status workplace positions, in the military, in academia, in their families. They write in detail about what they call subtle gender bias. First, let us note that "gender bias" is an insufficient description, and here is why: What they refer to is mistreatment that is based on a combination of sex bias and gender bias; that is, because of their biological sex, women are assumed and/or expected to act in certain gendered ways. For instance, women are assumed to be unassertive and nurturant, these characteristics being assumed to result from their having developed from two X-chromosomes. However, note Ibarra and her colleagues, what is considered typically female or feminine is often the opposite of what leaders in the business world are expected to do.

One consequence of these conflicting expectations is that women who work hard and have terrific ideas are not considered for promotions if they are soft-spoken and unassertive. But if they voice their opinions clearly and loudly, they are often disliked because of being considered unfeminine, and women who are disliked will fail to be considered for promotions because of that lack of traditionally feminine behavior. Another example of the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma is that women who are supportive and nurturing in the workplace tend to be considered appropriately feminine but not good candidates for leadership positions, but women who are not supportive and nurturing in that setting are more likely than unsupportive and unnurturing men to be considered cold and unkind. The authors write: "Practices that equate leadership with behaviors considered more common in men suggest that women are simply not cut out to be leaders." So women continually confront the dilemma of how they will be perceived and treated if they act like men who are leaders.

It is significant that Ibarra and her co-authors focus on manifestations of sexism that are subtle, because the passage of laws mandating equal pay for work of equal value (though too often ignored) and of hate crime laws and laws against sexual harassment and assault have made blatant manifestations somewhat less likely than before. Although of course it is important to note when any forms of sexism become less frequent, it is crucial to understand how devastating the subtle ones can be. As we found in the Voices of Diversity study, with sexism as with racism, the victims of the subtle manifestations confront thorny dilemmas: For one thing, it is harder to prove that someone rolled their eyes when you voiced an opinion in a meeting than that they said, "Typical stupid idea for a woman to have." For another thing, the targets of subtle mistreatment (what Chester Pearce has called micro-aggression*) are often tormented by self-doubt, wondering whether they are imagining that mistreatment, being "overly sensitive."

Ibarra and her colleagues thus write that it is not enough to tell women what leadership skills and knowledge they need, as if they operate "in a social vacuum." To make real changes so that workplace decisionmakers can create environments that are freer of subtle forms of sexism, they propose three actions, all important and one of which I shall discuss here (though I urge everyone to read their whole article).

They stress the importance of educating everyone about subtle forms of sexism and the fact that they are kinds of sexism and are real, making the subtleties more visible and thus reducing the isolation and self-blame of women who will otherwise wonder if they are imagining them or somehow bringing them on themselves. Thus, the woman mentioned in the article who said, "It is nothing overt. I just feel less of a connection, either positive or negative, with the guys I work with. So sometimes I feel I have difficulty getting traction for my ideas" can know that the nonresponse of "the guys" is real and is more commonly what happens when women propose ideas than when men do. Women who bring up subtle forms of sexism are at risk for even wanting to educate people about how real and hurtful they are, because they are often harmed further by the myth that women speak more than men, and when women speak up on behalf of themselves and/or other women, they are often accused of being selfish, strident, or both, whereas men who speak up on behalf of themselves and/or other men are more likely to be considered appropriately masculine and assertive (I wrote about this in my books Between Women: Lowering the Barriers and Don't Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship.)

To mark Women's Equality Day, I hope readers will consider starting today to notice and speak up about subtle forms of bias wherever they appear. It was a major step to get the vote 93 years ago, but far too much sexism persists, and whether bias is blatant or subtle, it contributes both to the mistreatment and even violence against women and girls and to sickness of the whole society.

*Pierce, Chester. (1970). Offensive mechanisms. In F. Barbour (Ed.), The Black seventies. Boston: Porter Sargent, pp. 265-82, and Pierce, Chester. (1974). Psychiatric problems of the Black minority. In S. Arieti (Ed.), American handbook of psychiatry. New York: Basic Books, pp. 512-23.

©copyright 2013 by Paula J. Caplan                                                 All rights reserved

About the Author

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D.

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.

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