Does Sexism Harm Women If It's Covert And Subtle?

Research examines the impact of less visible sexism at work.

Posted Mar 12, 2016

It's pretty clear that our workplaces are steadily evolving towards environments of greater equality. That is, organizations in which men and women are valued, recognized and rewarded for the capacities most crucial to an organization's success. For example, the ability to work collaboratively, particularly with others who differ from oneself - whether because of gender, cultural and ethnic backgrounds; or sexual orientation.

This is an ongoing, gradual transformation, however, with many subtle obstacles rooted in personal and institutional prejudices and barriers. So it's important to document and raise awareness about attitudes and behavior that continue to undermine individuals and teams in organizations. One current example is revealed in this study that examined hidden sexism in the workplace. It found that that frequent sexist comments as well as a management culture that covertly demeans women are just as damaging to women as overt acts of sexual coercion, sexually-tinged conduct or sexist behavior towards them.

Such hidden, embedded sexism, according to the research published in The Psychology of Women Quarterly may go unnoticed. That is, "Norms, leadership, or policies that reduce intense harmful experiences may lead managers to believe that they have solved the problem of maltreatment of women in the workplace," according to the authors.

But, they emphasize, "... the more frequent, less intense, and often unchallenged gender harassment, sexist discrimination, sexist organizational climate and organizational tolerance for sexual harassment appeared at least as detrimental for women's wellbeing. They should not be considered lesser forms of sexism."

That's academic-language for saying that covert sexist attitudes, conduct and policies are as damaging as overt, actionable behavior in organizations. Some specific associations documenting that harm found in the analysis of 88 studies of a 73,877 working women include:

  • Sexism and gender harassment were just as harmful to working women's individual health and work attitudes as common job stressors such as work overload and poor working conditions.
  • When women are the targets of sexism and harassment in the workplace, they are more dissatisfied with supervisors than co-workers.
  • There was a trend of a more negative effect of sexism and harassment in male-dominated workplaces, such as the armed forces and financial and legal services firms. However, the authors suggested this required further research.

The authors added that organizations should have zero tolerance for "low intensity" sexism, the same way they do for overt harassment. And they pointed out that the effectiveness of a zero tolerance policy requires educating workers about the harm that covert sexism does - and not only for women; it damages the overall organizational climate, as well.

I think all organizations would do well to heed and act upon such findings.

Progressive Impact

Center for Progressive Development

© 2016 Douglas LaBier