Work Like a Girl: Inequality in the Workforce

Skylar Wooden and Katie Butler

December 26, 2016

People love to say, or blindly believe, that sexism in the workplace is no longer relevant. When people around you believe that, you start believing it yourself…until you ask a handful of your female friends about how they’ve experienced workplace inequality. When these situations are happening, they seem like normal occurrences that aren’t worth mentioning. In hindsight, they’re incredibly offensive.

You would like to think that if you were in an openly discriminatory situation, you’d defend yourself. Hopefully, you do, but you’ll rarely be prepared. If we hope to be the solution to workplace sexism, it takes more than research. We have to fight the issue from the inside. When women are made to feel inferior, it’s up to us to push back if we’re looking for change.

Here are three stories that showcase the unflattering side of professional settings:

*Hint: The offenders in these stories are anything but professional.

Saxon M., 26

“The morning of my first company-wide meeting, I had a lot of excitement and anxiety. I was fresh out of college and eager to establish myself as a capable and enthusiastic young professional, especially as the small company I was working for was mostly made up of middle-aged men who had spent decades in the industry. I remember taking an hour to get dressed, littering my bedroom floor with cardigans and dress pants that didn’t seem to make me look old enough or confident enough.

As the meeting began, all of the employees were split into groups to play various board games as an icebreaker. Seated at a small table, with the game of Life in between us, we all took turns introducing ourselves—name, age, hometown, etc. After I introduced myself, I instantly received the following comment from the man next to me: “Saxon, does your mommy and daddy know you’re here?”

The comment was met with a few chuckles and then the circle of introductions moved along. As I reflect on this now, it’s obvious to me that I should have been very angry. I should’ve fired back with a clever retort; however, I remember intense embarrassment was the only thing I felt.

I remember thinking I should have worn a different blouse.”

Elizabeth B., 24

“I frequently go on business trips for days at a time. On one in particular, I was working with three men. The entire time they were being crude and were talking in a way that some would pass off as “guys being guys.” They repeatedly told me how fortunate it was that I didn’t get offended by anything that they said.

Seeing as this wasn’t actually the case, I was extremely uncomfortable. They talked about their girlfriends in a derogatory and demeaning way. Every other word was offensive. In business, it’s hard to feel like you’re supposed to roll with the punches and “be one of the guys.” I shouldn’t feel like I have to let them be degrading in front of me just so I’m not singled out as the bitchy prude who’s left behind.”

Sarah S., 25

“I was 20 years old when I began working as a hostess at a restaurant. On my first day, one of the managers pulled me aside and warned me that some of the male servers and cooks might flirt with me, but that they were just “messing around” and didn’t mean anything by it. Being as young and naive as I was, I believed older men and women when they told me that cat calls and being hit on were “just compliments.”

What followed in the next four months was something that I would not recognize for years—very intense, very disgusting sexual harassment. Servers, cooks, bartenders, and even the manager who warned me of the flirting, constantly commented on my appearance. I was told by my manager that I was the most “bangable” hostess on more than one occasion, and a few of the cooks would ask me every day if I was still with my boyfriend, waiting for the day when I was no longer under a man’s protection so they could start their pursuit.

While comments like this made me uncomfortable, I laughed it off, telling myself that they were just complimenting me, that I should be grateful for the attention. If I could go back now, knowing what I know, I wish I could have realized how inappropriate my entire experience working there was. When I finally left that job, I felt such an immense relief, which I thought was because I was leaving the stress of restaurant work. I know now that it was because I was leaving the sexism of that industry behind.

When sexism is part of your daily reality from childhood, it can be very difficult to identify and to call it for what it is. I often look back on that time in my life and am disappointed in myself for not speaking up when I was uncomfortable, but then again, I am even more disappointed in a society that allowed me to believe that that kind of treatment was okay, and even desirable.”

Workplace sexism is alive and well, friends. Thinking otherwise is wildly unproductive. Even if you haven’t personally experienced sexism at work, fight for the girl next to you who has. If you truly don’t believe it exists, that’s okay, really. But remember this: you will lose nothing by working toward an equality that you already believe is there.

If any of these stories hit a nerve, take a look at Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Sandberg has brought to light stories and facts that will shine a bright light on the sometimes dark side of women in business. If you’re looking for your next motivation to advance your career, Lean In will light a fire. Maybe you don’t have the time to devote to reading right now. You can skim our review of her book.

Even if it takes decades, we’ll get there. We’ll get there a hell of a lot faster if we work together. Do you have a story about workplace sexism? Check out our next post on mastering work-life balance!

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