Because it's often dressed up as "chivalry," it's not always easy to identify benevolent sexism — the practice of viewing women and men in stereotypical roles that are meant to be "positive," but which actually do more harm than good. You might be wondering how to respond to benevolent sexism at work. This can be tricky, especially if the company you work for doesn't understand why benevolent sexism is harmful, and depending on where you live, cultural norms could further cloud the perception of what benevolent sexism actually is.
Remember that letter to the editor where Wasatch County, Utah GOP Vice Chairman James C. Green lobbied that women should not receive equal pay for doing the same job as men? In his argument, Green said, "Traditionally men have earned more than women in the workplace because they are considered the primary breadwinners for families. They need to make enough to support their families and allow the Mother to remain in the home to raise and nurture the children."
This is textbook benevolent sexism. Although Green's assertion that women are meant to stay home raising the kids seems to be meant as a positive thing, praising women as "nurturing," it still reenforces stereotypical gender roles. What's more, it uses them as the basis for an argument that basically amounts to an explanation of why women don't deserve equal rights.
At work, you might experience benevolent sexism as a male co-worker asking you to fetch coffee when that's not part of your job, or being given more administrative tasks than a male coworker because "women are more organized." Personally, I have witnessed women with MBAs and law degrees being asked to take minutes in meetings because they have better handwriting, or can type faster.
While benevolent sexism is clearly demeaning, it can be harder to speak up about because it's not as overt as hostile sexism, which focuses on insults, intimidation, and harassment. Additionally, the responsibility of educating people about sexism in the work place shouldn't rest on the shoulders of those hurt by it. (Unfortunately, though, it seems like it's up to us to spearhead any real change. Maybe one day we'll get beyond this point. We can hope, right?)
Here are seven ways to respond to benevolent sexism at work, if it happens to you, or you see it happening to someone else.
1. When Someone Says A Woman Got a Job Based On Her Appearance, State The Facts
Maybe you've witnessed your boss or a coworker tie someone's appearance to their job performance — for example, assigning an employee who is considered attractive to meet with clients, and openly stating that said employee's looks were the reason for adding that duty to the job description. Perhaps this has happened to you.
When I was in my mid 20s, and had my first big job, my boss (a man old enough to be my father) made comments to the community that he had hired me because he thought I was attractive. Never mind my journalism degree, extensive writing portfolio, and the fact that I'd started my own magazine when I was 26. After his comments I struggled to rebuild my credibility, and the worst part of all is that I said nothing.
In an article about benevolent sexism on The Muse, Rikki Rogers suggests that responding with facts is the best course of action when confronted with this type of situation. If your boss or coworker ties someone's appearance with their job description you can respond by saying something like: "Jane is qualified because she closed that big deal last year," or "Jane was valedictorian of her university," or "Jane has more experience than anyone else at the table." In most cases others will jump in an add to the list, effectively shutting down the person who suggested "Jane was given a role because of her appearance."
2. When You're Given "Women's Work," It's OK to Say No
The easiest way to shoot down benevolent sexism is to simply not tolerate it. For example, if you're in a meeting where you're the only woman and someone asks you to take notes, or keep time, because "women are good at that sort of thing" (if it's not part of your every day job, and it's not an all-hands-on-deck situation), you can decline.
I was at a team meeting for a former job a few years back and the man in the group (a new coworker I was meeting for the first time) assumed I would be keeping track of what we were talking about, the course of action we would take, and how we would present our findings to the rest of the team. He didn't even ask me — he just told me to do it, and when I protested he shooed me away. While there is nothing wrong with administrative work (it is indeed a skill), being a woman doesn't guarantee possessing said skill. I am terrible at administrative tasks. I'm disorganized, and I can barely plan my own vacations let alone plan a team meeting or a business dinner, which is why I did not pursue an administrative career.
Halfway through our discussion he noticed I wasn't furiously scribbling down everything he was saying, and he asked me why. I calmly explained to him that I had already politely declined to be the note taker, and if he wanted to take notes for the team he was more than welcome to do so himself. He rolled his eyes, but he did start taking notes. Remember, it's your right to say no if you are being asked to do something simply because of your gender.
3. When You're Called "Aggressive" & Your Male Coworker Is A "Go Getter," Call BS
Women are often labeled "aggressive" or "bossy," while men are called "go getters." This is a common scenario, and a prime example of benevolent sexism, that's been playing out in the workplace for decades. Gay McKinley's blog post, "How Can A Woman In Business Ever Feel Good Enough?" details benevolent sexism stereotypes like: A businessman is good at details while a businesswoman is picky; he is confident while she is stuck up; and he follows through while she doesn’t know when to quit. Sound familiar?
Women have to work twice as hard as men (for less money) because in addition to doing the actual job women also have to tap dance around these stereotypes. The recent viral Twitter thread of how a man finally understood sexism after switching email signatures with his co-worker for a week is a perfect example of what women are up against every day. So what can you do about it?
If you have an human resources department ask to make an appointment to review the sexual harassment policy. If the policy does not cover benevolent sexism ask why, and request sensitivity training for all employees. Many small companies or startups don't have HR departments. In this case your best bet is going to your boss with detailed, documented examples of your experiences of benevolent sexism at work, and copies of explanations and definitions of benevolent sexism. While it shouldn't be your job to educate your boss, or HR, sometimes it's necessary.
4. When You're Given Additional Work Because of Your Gender, Stand Up For Your Time
If you find that you are consistently being delegated tasks that are not part of your job description, like planning lunches or typing up meeting minutes, simply because of your gender, it's time to take a stand. Your time is valuable, and you likely already have a full workload.
Because benevolent sexism is so ingrained in our culture, some people aren't aware they're doing it. If you don't feel comfortable going to HR or your boss to specifically discuss benevolent sexism, here's something else you can do instead.
Let your boss know that X task has been delegated to you X amount of times during a particular time period. Give your boss a rundown of your current workload and say that in order to prioritize your work it would be great if tasks that are not specific to your job description could be rotated among the team members. While you're happy to help share the load, it's not realistic for you to take on these new tasks and still give your full attention to your work.
5. When A Man "Protects" You From Hearing Bad News, Let Them Know That's Not OK
One part of benevolent sexism is the belief that women should be cherished and protected by men. The stereotype that women are overly emotional keeps some men from relaying information both in personal and work relationships. Not working with all of the information puts women at a disadvantage, and it's simply another way for men to control the situation.
If you learn that someone at work withheld information from you because they thought you might get too upset, or they apologize to you for using profane language "in front of a lady," Rikki Rogers suggests in an article about benevolent sexism on The Muse saying something like, "No need to apologize. There aren’t any children in the room,” because it calls out the condescending undertones of the remark without extending the conversation further.
Additionally, let your coworker know that their perception of how you might react to bad news, or profanity, is simply that — their perception.
6. When You Are Held to A Higher Standard Than Your Male Coworkers, Get Your People Together
NPR reported that in a 2016 study on gender and ethics, researchers found that women receive harsher punishments than men for ethical violations at work. In an interview about the study with Broadly, Tristan Bridges, a masculinity scholar and a professor of sociology at the College at Brockport State University of New York, said, "When people transgress some social norm or expectation in a way that is inconsistent with how we expect 'people like them' to act, sometimes that can result in harsher penalties."
Additionally, Bridges referenced another study where transgender men revealed a deeper understanding of the reality of unequal treatment between men and women in the workplace. "Transgender men were able to recount, in vivid detail, for instance, how coworkers treated them differently after they became socially recognized as men," Bridges told Broadly, adding that the employees were treated markedly better after transitioning.
So, what do you do about this? I don't have a magic wand for this one. One proactive thing you can do is gather your female coworkers together and talk about your shared experiences. If it's happened to one woman, it's likely happened to most women. Keep a written record of each time this has happened, and if you feel safe enough you can present it to your boss, or HR. If not, lean on your coworkers for support.
7. When You're Treated A Certain Way Because Of Your Gender, Flip The Script
Sometimes no amount of talking will get someone to see your point of view, or examine their own behavior. If you're constantly dealing with someone at work who is asking you to do something specifically because of your gender, maybe it's time to flip the script.
When a male coworker asks you to fetch coffee, take notes, or plan a lunch, you can respond by saying something like: "Sure, just as soon as you take out the trash, fix the leaky faucet in the kitchen, and hang all of the new pictures in the office."
Hopefully you're coworker will see how ridiculous his request is when you mirror your behavior back to him, but if not repeat numbers one through six.