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Sexism in the Workplace: A Guide for Employees

Sexism in the Workplace: A Guide for Employees

A serious issue that unfortunately affects employees worldwide is sexism at work. Though it's often thought of as an issue that affects women, the truth is that male, transgender, and nonbinary employees can also face unfair treatment based on their gender. In this article, we'll take a look at some of the ways sexism at work can impact employees, and we'll discuss strategies for combating it.

What Is Sexism in the Workplace?

Sexism in the workplace is a major issue that affects employees worldwide. It is defined as the unfair treatment of someone based on their sex.

This can include things like receiving employment opportunities based on gender stereotypes, receiving a lower salary than someone of the opposite sex, and so on.

Sexism can also come in the form of sexual harassment, which is any unwelcome or unwanted sexual advances. This can make the workplace very uncomfortable for employees, and can significantly impact their mental health, well-being, and job performance.

Types of Sexism in the Workplace

Sexism at work can take many different forms. From sexual harassment to subtle sexism, it is always a serious issue that can have a negative impact on women, men, and the workplace as a whole. Here, we discuss various types of sexism at work:

  • Hostile sexism. It can take many forms, from demeaning comments and jokes to harassment and sexual assault. This type of sexism is often used as a way to threaten employees and keep them in their place, and it can be very difficult to speak out against.
  • Benevolent sexism. This is very different from hostile sexism, as it can often appear harmless. It mainly affects women as it characterizes them as weak, caring, fragile, and needing the protection of men. This in turn can undermine their professional abilities and prevent women from doing their job and reaching career goals.
  • Ambivalent sexism. Individuals who engage in this type of sexism may see women as pure and innocent in some situations and manipulative and bad in others. They may demonize "unladylike" behavior and glorify "traditional feminine behavior."
  • Subtle sexism. This is often hard to spot but can have a big impact. It can take the form of subtle sexist remarks or using gendered language to describe tasks or roles. This impacts both sexes, for example, men are often expected to do tough and "dirty" jobs as they are seen to be strong and resilient, and women are believed to be better at domestic tasks.
  • Casual sexism. Similar to subtle sexism, casual sexism refers to unconscious bias and gender stereotypes that we may hold about both genders, and that are deeply ingrained in many cultures. It may include men shaking hands with men only at a meeting or a waiter during office lunch passing the food bill to the men rather than women during an office lunch outing.
  • Institutional sexism. Institutional sexism occurs when an organization or institution is segregated unequally based on sex. Institutional sexism can affect both sexes, but it is most often experienced by women. It often manifests in the workplace where women are disproportionately represented in low-status jobs or low-paid occupations.
  • Interpersonal sexism. It manifests in everyday interactions between coworkers. For example, a manager addressing a transgender or a nonbinary employee with a pronoun based on their sex assigned at birth, rather than the gender they identify with, would be an example of interpersonal sexism.
  • Internalized sexism. When employees are experiencing sexism on a daily basis, they may start to develop internal sexist beliefs, for example, you may start feeling incompetent at doing your job if you are a woman or start to develop hate for all men as a result of a negative past experience with a male employee. Internalized sexism can lead to anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental health issues.

Examples of Sexism at Work

While sexism at work can take many different forms, it is often characterized by a lack of equal opportunity or treatment. This can be illustrated through a few examples:

  • An instance of casual sexism could be a man asking to leave work earlier to pick up his kids from school. The boss answers by asking why the wife of the employee cannot do it. This reflects an unconscious belief about men being the breadwinner, as opposed to women, who are seen as the caretakers within the family.
  • "Don't cry like a girl," "man up," or "boys will be boys" are expressions that can constitute subtle sexism at work. This implies that men cannot feel emotions or show weakness, and are forgiven for acting irresponsibly. It also shows that women are often seen as weaker (and not someone men should strive to be like), more emotional, and expected to be more mature.
  • "Mansplaining" - when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending manner is an example of benevolent sexism. It often stems from a belief that women are not as knowledgeable in many subjects, therefore they need guidance and things explained to them by their "more intelligent" male counterparts.

How to Deal with Sexism in the Workplace

Before you start addressing sexism at work, it's important to examine your own unconscious bias about gender equality.

Do you believe that women are equally capable as men? When you catch yourself thinking or talking about gender in these terms, challenge yourself to reconsider your unconscious bias.

In addition, think about the negative effects of sexism. It is not only morally wrong, but it can also have a negative impact on an organization's bottom line.

A diverse and inclusive workplace where everyone is treated equally can be profitable. An analysis of a survey of 21,980 firms from 91 countries showed that women in leadership positions may improve the company's performance. 1

How Can We Prevent Sexism in the Workplace?

It's more important than ever to ensure that gender equality is present in the workplace. After all, all employees deserve to be treated with the same respect and given the same opportunities. Here are a few ways to help prevent sexism in the workplace:

Review policies and practices

Make sure that your job policies and practices are fair and inclusive. Provide training for all employees on what constitutes sexism and how to report it. Finally, create an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up about any discriminatory behavior.

Use gender-NEUTRAL language

It can include using terms like "they" or "them" instead of "he" or "she." Additionally, instead of using gender-specific terms "janitor" or "maid", try using "custodian" or "housekeeper". Finally, instead of referring to a group of people as "ladies and gentlemen," try saying "everyone." Using gender-inclusive language can help create gender equality in the workplace.

Speak up when you see it

For instance, if you become aware of someone making sexist jokes, you can defuse the situation with humor. Try challenging such a person with a question, "Are you implying that all women are bad at math?” This would show that you're not tolerating sexist behavior and promoting gender equality.

How to Stop Sexism in the Workplace

It's no secret that sexism is still a major problem in the workplace, despite laws and policies against it. Many employees have experienced firsthand the discrimination, harassment, and mental health problems that can result from a sexist workplace environment. So what can be done to stop sexism in the workplace?

Speak to the person directly

Confront the person who is engaging in sexist behavior. Avoid making assumptions or speaking in vague terms. Instead, explain clearly what you have observed and why you believe it constitutes sexism. It is also important to remain calm and respectful throughout the conversation.

Talk to senior management

Try to identify specific instances of sexism that have occurred. This will help you to make a case for why change is needed. Next, reach out to a trusted senior manager or human resources representative to discuss your concerns. Finally, be prepared to offer specific recommendations for how the company can address this issue.

Take legal action

If you can't solve the issue internally, try a legal route. Keep a record of all the instances of sexism that you experience or witness, including dates, times, locations, and any other relevant details. Speak to a lawyer to get an expert opinion on your situation and find out what your legal options are. You can also start by filing a complaint with EEOC (US) or contacting ACAS (UK).

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Sue Your Employer for Sexism?

In the US, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from being discriminated against in their job based on their sex, among other protected characteristics. As of June 2020, this protection also covers gender identity and sexual orientation. 2

If you are discriminated against by your boss, you can file a charge with EEOC or your state's Fair Employment Practices Agency. You can then sue your employer if you receive a "Right-To-Sue" notice from those organizations.

In the UK, Equality Act 2010 protects employees from being discriminated against based on their sex. This includes workers that went through gender reassignment, too. 3

The procedure in the UK is slightly different - first, you should contact ACAS and then take your sex discrimination claim to an employment tribunal.

What Is Considered Sexist Language?

Some common examples include using the pronoun "he" when referring to a person of unknown gender, using "man" as a generic term for all human beings, and using occupational titles that are traditionally associated with one gender (such as "fireman" or "stewardess").

There are a number of common phrases that are considered to be sexist, such as "manpower" or "you throw like a girl." While these phrases may not be intended to be offensive, they can reinforce negative stereotypes about gender roles.

Facebook executive Deb Liu started collecting objectively gendered terms at work and noticed that most male terms were positive, for instance, "right-hand man" or "poster boy. " On the contrary, female terms were mostly negative, for instance, "Debbie Downer," "drama queen" or "Negative Nancy." 4

What Is Hidden Sexism in the Workplace?

Hidden sexism is subtle. Common examples of it include making assumptions about someone's competence or qualifications based on their gender, using offensive or belittling language towards someone because of their gender, and making assumptions about someone's interests or preferences based on their gender.

While hidden sexism may not be as immediately apparent, it can nonetheless be just as harmful to employee mental health and productivity.

What Is the Difference between Sex and Gender?

Sex refers to the biological characteristics of an individual, such as chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive organs. Gender, on the other hand, is a socially constructed role that is assigned to individuals based on their sex.

It's important to realize that gender and sex are not always aligned. For instance, someone with female reproductive organs can identify as a man, and someone with male hormones can identify as a woman.

The takeaway is that gender is fluid while sex is (relatively) fixed. Furthermore, gender discrimination occurs when people are not treated equally based on their gender identity or expression.


1 Noland et al., 2016.

2 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.,religion%2C%20sex%20and%20national%20origin

3 Equality Act 2010.

4 Peters, 2017.

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