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The Psychology of Sexism in the Workplace

June 8, 2017

I recently met an amazing lady through mutual friends. We hit it off right away as we have similar confident, hard-working, but laid back personalities.  Many of our conversations have revolved around social climates and, in particular, women.  She shares my love of research and mentioned a recent Princeton study about sexism in theater. “In theater?!”, was my initial, surprised reaction.  Isn’t theater and the arts progressive and women driven? Well, I caught myself in a stereotype there. 

 

I have another girlfriend who told me she’s starting to keep a log of sexist acts she experiences at her workplace.  Again, I was staggered; she’s successful, easy to get along with, and I know she has many friends of the same and opposite sex at her workplace.  Needless to say, these latest conversations with friends spiked my interest in this topic.

 

The Princeton study my first friend mentioned sent screenplays to multiple theaters around the United States.  The same play was given different author’s names: 2 male and 2 female.  The exact same play was chosen to be performed significantly more often with the male author’s name on it. 

 

This research from Princeton was a dissertation.  Since I am currently in the process of writing my own dissertation, I know there can be a lot of confounding variables.  However, this is a noteworthy finding! Sexism, while conscious or unconscious, takes place in the workplace; even in the arts in the 21st century.

A workplace is somewhere to be productive, innovative, and move society forward! How can we do this if much of the population is feeling discriminated against. Let’s look at some other recent research: It has been shown that gender-bias in hiring exists, that attributes that make women successful in the work place also make them more vulnerable to sexist-based harassment, and even bystanders of sexist acts in the workplace can have damaged self-esteem and career trajectories. 

 

 

Still don’t think this affects you or anyone you know today? Let’s take a look at the two woman I mentioned before and their personal experiences:

 

Lexi (not her real name) has faced sexism in her workplace.

 

Angela, from Real Life Psych: Thank you for having this conversation with me! We know this is a critical topic. What prompted you to start discussing your experiences at work with others?

 

Lexi: I think sexism always existed [in my workplace], but I have just become more conscious of it, as it applies to me, since the recent presidential election.

 

RLP: What about the presidential election elicited this?

 

Lexi: I don’t know if I like this question.  I, mean, I think part of it was the Billy Bush scandal.  I believe Trump objectives women.  So when I looked at my superiors who supported him, I wondered if they felt the same.

 

RLP:  What specific kinds of sexism have you been subject to at work?

 

Lexi: I’m trying to think of just one example to focus on. Recently, being asked to do tasks that are beneath my pay-grade and education level, because of the fact that I happen to own a vagina. Like, being asked to address and mail something for a male superior who I do not report to. My position is not administrative in the slightest.

 

RLP: You told me about this before. You called him out, right?

 

Lexi: Yes.

 

RLP: What did you say?

 

Lexi: “This is feeling pretty anti-feminist.  Just sayin.” Mostly I just coped an attitude while walking out the door and setting the envelope on his desk.

 

RLF: Anyone who knows you expects a sassy candor.  How do you think this superior would respond if you were a male?

 

Lexi: I think it would be viewed as standing up for myself versus being a bitch.

 

RLP: What, do you think, makes others participate in these sexist behaviors?

 

Lexi: Because they were taught to accept that as normal.

 

RLP: But it’s not.

 

Lexi: I think if I continually express my distaste in a way that is uncomfortable, they will come to realize that I’m not just being lazy or dissident, I just want to be respected for my level of education and the job I was hired to do.

 

RLP: I think that sounds fair. What do you want people to take away from this? Behaviors, attitudes, or otherwise?

 

Lexi: I think just a consciousness.  It’s not necessarily just men these behaviors are coming from. I’m just as easily expected to cook the company-cook-out potato salad from female co-workers as I am from male co-workers. I think I just struggle with what the right reaction is when I see these things happening. Is it easier to just go with the flow or should I continue to say something because I believe it is something to be talked about? Because nothing can change if we’re silent.

 

RLP: Agreed. Back to your list of sexist experiences.  What made you start writing these down?

 

Lexi: In truth, I never hope I have to use it.  Against anyone.  But I seem to inadvertently make the decision that I’m not going to be silent anymore.  By recording these interactions, should there ever be negative connotations to myself, I have back-up; I have proof that it happened; That I’m not just making it up.

 

RLP: That must feel pretty conflicting.

 

Lexi: It feels super conflicting.  I want them to see what they are doing before it tarnishes our relationship.  I just want us to move forward as peers.

Vera (not her real name) works in the fine arts and is quite accomplished in her education and published works:

 

Angela, from Real Life Psych (RLP): First of all, thank you for sharing your story. I think we both agree that sexism is a very important topic.  Tell me, what prompted you to talk about this issue more?

 

Vera: I never believed sexism was a big deal in theater - it's easy to feel that way when you're not directly discriminated against. I fully believe in meritocracy, but over the last year I was presented with essays and studies that suggested certain types of people never get the chance to prove their merit. It's hard to believe open discrimination exists in such an inclusive environment like theater, so - while it certainly does exist - I chose to focus on what I believe is the bigger problem: unconscious bias, something all of us harbor. 

 

RLP: We both read The Lilly Awards, “The Count”, which I encourage my readers to take a look at.  What are your takeaways from their findings?

 

Vera: "The Count" study was both surprising and not. It's amazing to think that only 20% of produced plays are written and directed by women. Take a look at the plays being produced, though, and it makes sense. Theaters - particularly small, community based - have a responsibility and financial duty to bring in money and audiences, so they frequently produce shows that are well known and liked - a lot of Oscar Wilde and Neil Simon. Recently, Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage - two incredible female playwrights - got on Broadway for the first time in 30 years. Why did it take so long to get Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights on the biggest stage in the country? I don't know that there's a clear answer, but it's about time!

 

RLP: What specific sexism have you faced in your own work?

 

Vera: I don't know that I've ever experienced open sexism in my own work, but as a playwright, these numbers really stand out to me. I used to think - and still do - that my work can and should stand on its own, but according to the evidence? It won't be as easy as that. That's why it's really great to see theaters understand that disadvantage and step up to level the playing field. 

 

RLP: What do you think allows for sexism?

 

Vera: I think unconscious sexism, along with any bias, comes from a lack of understanding. I haven't always recognized a bias in theater against women because I was never directly affected, and I think that’s where a lot of it comes from. Men don't understand the cat calls and harassment that women have to deal with on the streets, because they don't see it. We have to open our eyes and see the evidence around us. It's not enough to have one female playwright or director in an entire season - not when the majority of our audience is female, not when half the population is female. 

 

RLP: What do you feel we, as women, need to do to reduce sexism in the work place? What do you think men can do as well?

 

Vera: Women need to support other women. One woman's success does not dampen our own, and snide comments, undermining other women's authority, does not set a good example for men. When we raise up, offer a hand to those around us, we can only help ourselves. Too often - and I'm as guilty of this as anyone - we judge other women for their bodies, for their fashion, attribute their success to anything but their ability to do the job. We're only mirroring what we've seen, but that means we need to be that much more aware of our own behavior.

I wanted to end here. Lexi and Vera made some excellent points to drive this post home.  However, just today, as I was about to publish this post, I experienced sexism against myself at my job.  I was scoffed at when offered to help a man with an assessment (in which the subject matter was something I had experience in) because he said he would “rather speak with a male” about it. My feelings were the same as above: shocked, stunned, annoyed, angry. What did he mean? Why did he think I was not able to assist? Was this his intention, to make me feel this way? My initial shock disarmed me from responding and asking these questions directly. The women I interviewed are right.

 

Through research and personal testimony, we can see that sexism not only exists, but effects our workplaces and lives.  So what do we do about it? As Vera mentions: education. You took a good step today just by reading this blog.  You are aware of the issue. As Lexi mentions: say something.  If you witness a sexist (or racist, or ageist, etc.) act in your workplace, report it. Even better sometimes, if you are comfortable enough, talk about it with the offender. As both my participants here mention: be conscious. We’re human, we have unconscious biases, but we can change them.  If you say or do something sexist, own it, and apologize. Respect for self and others goes a long way, especially in the workplace. 

 

 

Resources:

 

Bradley-Geist, J. C., Rivera, I., & Geringer, S. D. (2015). The collateral damage of ambient sexism: Observing sexism impacts bystander self-esteem and career aspirations. Sex Roles, 73(1-2), 29-42. doi:10.1007/s11199-015-0512-y

 

Glassberg Sands, E. (2009). Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater. Princeton University Department of Economics.

 

Koch, A. J., D'Mello, S. D., & Sackett, P. R. (2015). A meta-analysis of gender stereotypes and bias in experimental simulations of employment decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(1), 128-161. doi:10.1037/a0036734

 

Leskinen, E. A., Rabelo, V. C., & Cortina, L. M. (2015). Gender stereotyping and harassment: A 'catch-22' for women in the workplace. Psychology, Public Policy, And Law, 21(2), 192-204. doi:10.1037/law0000040

 

Norman, M., Kron, L., George, M., Stump, R., Jordan, J., & Xu, L. (2016). The Count. Retrieved from http://thelillyawards.org/initiatives/the-count/

 

Soffel, J. (2016). 13 quotes on women and work. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/03/quotes-on-women-at-work/.

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