When Ellen Pao, a California business woman, faced gender discrimination at work, she decided to do something about it.
She made headlines for bringing a high-profile lawsuit against her employer, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist firm, alleging that they had discriminated against her and retaliated when she tried to do something about it by firing her.
But Pao lost her suit, because like so many of us already know, sexism in the workplace is often a lot more subtle and difficult to prove than one might think.
In the wake of the case, Pao’s story inspired women across the country to speak out about their own run-ins with discrimination.
In an article for New York Magazine, Annie Lowry explained that, what women most often deal with at work is “sexism you can’t quite prove” — a casual decision by your male boss to criticize your assertiveness (and come on now, is that actually something a man would ever be criticized for?), an expectation that as a woman you’ll be the one in charge of refilling the coffee, or even a passing comment from a colleague at an office party that assumes you’re more concerned with family than your job.
“It is pervasive. It is persistent. And it is so, so exhausting,” Lowry explained, “all those subtle hints that you are a little different and that your behavior is being interpreted a little differently. On top of that, it does have profound consequences, if made through a million tiny cuts.”
Pointing to a Harvard University study, Lowry noted that researchers have found a measurable negative impact from gender discrimination in the workplace: “Subtle sexism results in women getting fewer opportunities at work. It hurts their performance. It results in them receiving worse evaluations. It even opens them up to ‘aggression’ in the workplace.”
Speaking to my own friends and colleagues about Pao’s case prompted a flood of similar stories. Although there were certainly many who had dealt with big issues of gender discrimination at work — problems with equal pay, discrimination based on pregnancy, etc. — most of what I heard showed that sexism is usually less obvious.
The sexism and discrimination women face in the workplace is often a compilation of little acts; subtle things that, on their own, seem insignificant, but when taken as a whole, point to how our culture (and corporate culture in particular) still enforces outdated stereotypes and social norms.
One friend confided that her male colleagues often talked down to her, telling her that it was difficult for other men in the workplace to follow her leadership because she was a young woman.
Another friend pointed to a seemingly constant desire by her male colleagues to explain (read: mansplain) to her what “women care about” and why that might be.
And the examples go on and on.
Here are four more common ways women are subtly discriminated against in the workplace.
Descriptive And Prescriptive Bias
Before you even walk into a new job interview, your potential boss might have some preconceived notions about how you’ll do the job or how you’ll interact with your coworkers. And those notions will likely be based on your gender presentation and whatever assumptions they have about that presentation.
For example, if you’re a mother and soft spoken, they might assume you’ll be kind, non-aggressive, nurturing, and quick to care-take folks in the office. And they might use those assumptions to assess whether you’re appropriate for the job — without referencing or considering your actual qualifications.
When they use those gender-based assumptions to make decisions about you, that’s descriptive bias.
Descriptive biases are the prejudices you might encounter based on the stereotypes created by our culture to describe your identity. They are the words society uses to describe a group of people that are then used to inform decisions about them, regardless of if they have any truth to back them up.
Describing the phenomenon in an article for Fast Company, Eric Jaffe explained that for women these assumptions often rely on the notion that “They are caring, warm, deferential, emotional, sensitive, and so on – traits consistently used to describe women for decades. Left alone those traits aren’t bad, of course, but when a woman performs a job traditionally held by men they can become incredibly harmful.”
Jaffe went on to point out that this often leads employers to judge women on whether or not they “fit” or perform well in a given position based on sexist stereotypes that inform how they perceive women in general, rather than accessing a unique person’s actual ability. That might mean your boss passes over you, as a woman, for a math-heavy promotion that is seemingly in the bucket, deciding to chose a man for the spot instead because men are just more math oriented.
Similarly, you may not get a promotion for a competitive business position because women aren’t perceived as aggressive – so the hiring manager assumes you won’t be either.
On the flipside is prescriptive bias, which occurs when you possess traits typically not associated with your gender. For women, that means facing opposition for being assertive, possessing leadership qualities, or being blunt.
Although these traits are highly valued amongst men, especially in the workplace, when women exhibit them they’re often criticized for being too harsh, too pushy, too bossy, or even “bitchy.” Many are advised to tone down these qualities — encouraged to smile more or couch their thoughts inside praise to make them easier for men to take.
It also means that, as a woman, if you don’t bring qualities to your job people identify with femininity or if you bring qualities that are heavily associated with femininity – you may be penalized for it. You’re criticized based on the qualities societal norms dictate you should have, not on what it takes to do the job or how well you accomplish goals.
Most of us have probably heard at least one of the following things at work:
- “You’re really good at [insert skill typically associated men] for a woman! “
- “You’re not like most other women at the office because [insert random quality you possess/don’t have they think is different from all other women].”
- “Wow, I can’t believe you were able to lift that on your own!
- “Could you bake cookies for the party this week?”
This is the type of subtle sexism most of the people I’ve spoken with have experienced. It encompasses all of those things you can’t believe a man actually said to you at work yet couldn’t fully put your finger on why it was inappropriate.
These small acts of sexism are called microaggressions. Defined as “small, subtle, often unconscious actions that marginalize people in oppressed groups,” these acts are typically the result of internalized stereotypes, norms, and assumptions, and you often don’t even realize you’re doing them.
The thing about microaggressions is that they’re often well-intentioned. They aren’t meant to be offensive or hurtful — they may even be meant as a compliment.
But for women at work, they add up, and the end result is often a hostile work environment.
That’s because these “compliments” or statements are often loaded with coded meaning just under the surface that demand women behave and perform in certain ways.
When you tell a woman she did a great job coding that website for a woman, you’re telling her that this isn’t something women are good at it and reminding her that she is in constant competition with other women in the office. When you ask her to bake cookies for the company party, you’re implying that this is the sort of task a woman is expected to take on.
Everytime I hear one of these passing microaggressions, I’m reminded that part of how I’m being evaluated at work, even if it is not intentional, is based on my gender.
Dress Codes (And the Comments That Accompany Them)
I’d be willing to bet that most women in almost any workplace could tell you a story about being made to feel uncomfortable based on their professional attire.
Whether you wear a uniform that just so happens to show off your body (because you have a body and you can’t help how it looks in that uniform), or you face a highly critical level of scrutiny based on how you’re expected to dress — you probably know the feeling all too well.
What we wear to work is so embedded in our company cultures that it is easy to overlook how the outfits and appearance many are expected to have could be sexist. They are often just another aspect of our professional lives in which women face a double-standard and unrealistic expectations.
Women in an office environment may be expected to don any combination of heels, makeup, pulled together hair absent of gray, and fitted outfits (but not too fitted, or else be deemed “slutty”). Because of racism, Black women have even higher expectations — often their natural hair is deemed “inappropriate” or “political” and shamed by their peers.
Men on the other hand often just need to throw on a suit and head into the office.
As Carmen Rios explained for Everyday Feminism, “queer people, women, people of color, working-class people – aren’t supposed to be comfortable when we’re being professional… All of the standards of appearance being pushed on employees in office environments are, essentially, strongholds of white, male standards of power.”
Much like schoolroom dress codes, what is considered workplace “appropriate” is often structured around cultural norms where the ideal is based around the white male gaze. Anything that doesn’t align with it is considered inappropriate, so womens’ attire is expected to conform or else the wearer faces the consequences.
Those could include comments behind your back and to your face, less opportunities, or even formal complaints.
In a less subtle form of discrimination, dress codes can go beyond unspoken rules and even be codified in employee handbooks and policies. Legally, dress codes cannot impose a greater burden based on gender identity – so if your workplace is reaching beyond and forcing you to don an expensive skirt or heels, you may have legal reason to take action.
Much like Ellen Pao, the discrimination many women face in the workplace is subtle and difficult to prove. It is a passing comment asking you to make brownies, an assumption about the qualities women should have that you may or may not possess, or an expectation that you show up to your meeting in a pair of heels.
And it’s the pervasive accumulation of these small acts that make a workplace feel overwhelmingly oppressive.
It is the daily reminder that your gender impacts every aspect of your job and how you are perceived in doing it – while your actual performance is no more than an afterthought. It’s what creates a hostile workplace where you may not feel comfortable being yourself because being yourself isn’t inline with what is deemed as “professional.”
And while Pao might not have won her court case, her story did succeed in prompting conversations about how commonplace subtle workplace sexism is and what its impact is on those who experience it.
And that’s a conversation we need to continuously have if we ever hope to change it.
Ally Boguhn is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a feminist activist and media researcher living and working in Washington, DC. She completed both her B.A. in Communications and Art History as well as her M.S. in Professional Communications at Clark University, where she researched abortion debate rhetoric. Ally is also the founder and editor of Because I am a Woman, a blog devoted to intersectional feminism and reproductive justice. You can follow Ally on Twitter @AllyBoguhn. Read her articles.