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What Organizations Can Do to Curb or Eliminate Not-So-Obvious Sexism


What Organizations Can Do to Curb or Eliminate Not-So-Obvious Sexism

A woman struggles to open a pickle jar, and a strong man comes to her rescue.

Although it’s a cliché, there’s some underlying truth to it, according to a Sept. 9 Harvard Business Review report by Kristen Jones and Eden King.

They describe a new poll by the Pew Research Center that suggests more than half of men think sexism is a thing of the past. However, only about one-third of women agree. The researchers contend that one reason for the disparity may stem from misunderstandings about the kinds of behavior that represent sexism. It can take obvious and not-so-obvious forms. The not-so-obvious sexism, they say, can be particularly damaging in the workplace.

Here are some examples:


You’ve all seen anxious young parents protecting their children by limiting their exposure to risk. The same thing happens in the workplace as managers see women in need of such protection, so they limit their exposure to risky or challenging work. Surveys in the oil and gas and healthcare industries show that women received fewer challenging developmental work opportunities than men. Follow-up experiments, the researchers said, confirmed that managers who engage in “benevolent sexism” protected women from challenging assignments and gave the work to men. Although it seems nice, these behaviors make it difficult for women to advance.

In the same survey of oil and gas and health care industries, supervisors gave female managers less negative feedback than males. However, constructive criticism is seen as essential for increased performance and learning.

Other experiments showed that men and women who were helped because “this kind of thing can be hard” felt worse about their own ability than participants who were not helped. The researchers said women are more likely to be the recipients of unwanted help and are more likely to suffer from the negative effects of patronizing, yet seemingly positive, behavior.


What can organizations do to curb or eliminate the not-so-obvious sexism?

Here are some tips from the Harvard Business Review article:

  • Attempts to support women at work may be most effective when they occur in response to a request. The researchers refer to this behavior as “enabling, rather than restricting autonomy.” For example, don’t assume that a woman will pass on an assignment involving travel; ask.
  • Instead of telling a woman that she should take an extended maternity leave, “inquire as to how long she would like to take.”
  • Don’t create drama around what you think is a challenging assignment. Clearly explain the task, any travel involved, etc., and offer the work to any of the qualified candidates in your organization.
  • Do a self-assessment of your behaviors. Are you treating people with courtesy, or are you being overly protective?
  • Ask your diversity champion to tackle this topic in training and ongoing discussions about inclusion.

The researchers wisely noted that women can get by with a little less of patronizing and unsolicited help.

Be inclusive!

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