Women & Careers: Have You Heard About Friendly Sexism?

I have an incredibly sexist male boss who is a case study for what not to do with female employees. He is why Human Resources exists.

The other day I had a situation come up with a male client who was questioning a price quote my boss had given him for an upcoming project. I confirmed to the client that he did indeed have the correct figures. The client wanted to speak with my boss, who told him the same thing, word-for-word.

When I expressed my frustration to my boss, he said that John* needed to hear confirmation of the numbers from him — that it had nothing to do with me. Then he explained that “if there had been a problem with detail, the client would have preferred to speak with me. Because I am a female, I am the more compassionate, warmer personality of the two of us. It’s just how it is, and I shouldn’t take it personally. That it is how people are.” What I was encountering was benevolent sexism.

This same boss also feels that women should not hold sales roles, despite the fact that we act in that capacity every day. He thinks that women should only have support roles. And he refuses to hire women for positions that are on track for sales development. When I asked him about it, he said that I was “too old to move into a sales role” (not that I wanted to). Then he said, “no woman should have a sales role.”

Still, I wondered later about a more advanced project manager role than the one I currently hold, and he told me that “a man had to do it because there was a physical aspect.” He lied — our corporate office has several female senior project managers. He was trying as hard as he could to make the job seem impossible for a woman to do.

I heard a great quote from a female executive recently who said, “when you look around the room and there’s no job you want to do — it’s time to leave.” I feel that way. There’s no place to grow and I am planning my exit. I am exactly the disengaged employee that the article I’ve cited talks about.

My experience is explained here in a study entitled Interrupting Sexism At Work: What Drives Men To Respond Directly Or Do Nothing? by Negin Sattari, Ph.D., Emily Shaffer, Ph.D., Sarah DiMuccio, Dnika J. Travis, Ph.D. In their report:

It is easy to mistake benevolent sexism as flattery because of the seemingly positive nature of the stereotypes. For example, someone may state that our world is fair and that men and women hold different places in our societies because they have different characteristics and capabilities. In this scenario, they might justify the underrepresentation of women in positions of power by saying that women are naturally more gentle than men and lack masculine qualities such as competitiveness or aspiration for power and dominance that are necessary for business success. Yet, these traits deemed necessary for business success or leadership positions are shaped by the societal roles that have been traditionally filled by men or women and are not inherent to an individual on the basis of gender.

Or how women executives in an office often get asked to pick up the food for a meeting or make the coffee — simply because they are women. In this Forbes article entitled, How To Address Subtle, “Friendly” Sexism At Workauthor Sian Beilock writes,

Benevolent sexism, which is sometimes described as “subtle” or “friendly” sexism, is often ignored.

We simply don’t talk about it enough.

That’s why many of us don’t know how to respond when a colleague apologizes for cursing, asking forgiveness from the only woman at the conference table (which implies she is delicate and in need of special protection). And it’s why we don’t know what to do when one of the women at a weekly meeting is described as a “meticulous notetaker.” This description, more often than not, happens before she gets saddled with typing up and distributing meeting notes — and inevitably — other “office housework” in the future.

I can validate that when this happens — you feel sh*tty. It makes you feel demoralized and demeaned, even if the offender did not mean to offend. However, that seems to make it worse because you realize you have “an uneducated offender.” Whenever I’ve been in the position of educating my boss in any matter, particularly where he has offended me — it does not bode well for me. His ego gets bruised, that I had to correct him. It is not fun and extremely stressful.

Nonetheless, studies have shown that if the behavior is not addressed and is allowed to continue, it only gets worse for the target — you. You will feel less engaged as an employee.

According to Beilock in Forbes, there are three steps in dealing with the situation (the linked article goes into more detail on the steps):

Permit yourself to be offended.

Call benevolent sexism out for what it is.

Counter subtle sexism. Speak up — and defend others when it happens to them.

I personally am looking ahead to my near distant future. Far, far away from where I am right now.

*John is not his real name.

Jennifer Friebely is a New York-based content writer, marketer, and speaker covering stories from personal development, bully bosses, the Law of Attraction, marketing, and productivity to politics and music to whatever idea strikes. She has a 30+ year background in marketing and advertising and holds a BA in Political Science. Email her at jenny@on-call-marketing.com or visit www.successpicture.com.

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