Changing the oppressive culture of sexism in Corporate America

I‘d like to make one thing unequivocally clear: sexism in the workplace is real, it’s still happening, and we have all probably perpetrated it or been complicit as it happens right under our noses. Maybe we don’t even realize what’s happening is sexism.

Sexism in the workplace does not have to take obvious or overt forms (e.g. hitting on a colleague, cat calling, men getting paid more for the same job). Neither does it require a conscious belief that one gender is better than the other. We’ve learned from the Black Lives Matter movement that the standard dictionary definition of racism simply being conscious beliefs about the superiority of one race over others isn’t the whole story. In fact, Merriam-Webster is updating their definition.

Sexism, like racism, includes unconscious bias and systemic structures that have developed to uphold the status quo, which is largely white and male. I recently attended a thought-provoking virtual seminar held by the University of Michigan in which a prominent scholar in the field indicated that management structures in organizations are based on the same ideas of sustained subservience which stem from historical systems of “property ownership” — you know, back when Black people were seen as property (aka slavery).

This structure relies on the group without formal power continuing to act in subservient ways toward the “ruling class” (i.e. managers and leadership). The fact that talking about sexism and race (and salary) at work is taboo is a way to protect the oppressive classes from being held accountable.

If an issue can’t be talked about, it can’t be fixed.

For example, I have experienced not only subtle, but also egregious acts of sexism and have left two organizations because of it. But during an interview, it’s typically frowned upon to broach the topic of sexism and the general recommendation is to always frame decisions positively. So unless I am dealing with a “woke” interviewer, I risk being automatically labeled a problem employee by telling the truth of my experience.

The more time I spend in Corporate America, the deeper my understanding becomes of the far-reaching effects of gender bias. In my approximately 9 years in the tech sector, I have experienced:

  • Providing solutions or ideas and being ignored, only to have a colleague repeat my idea weeks later as if it was new, and then watch him be taken seriously.
  • Having my own ideas preached back at me by male colleagues as if they didn’t learn it from me.
  • Being told I have the wrong “tone” while male colleagues are allowed to treat coworkers with outright snark and disrespect and they get promoted.
  • Being treated like my perspective is naive because it is different from the status quo, instead of it being seen as thought-leading and innovative.
  • Having what I wore to a customer meeting critiqued rather than any mention of the work I did for them.
  • Being harassed by male colleagues who were protected by the organization instead of the organization protecting me.
  • Being told I have to prove myself to a male colleague with no expertise in my field, when I was simply trying to do the specific job I was hired for.
  • Being told my education didn’t prepare me for the workplace while I watch the company hire men for the same role whose only qualifications are their education.

And this is just what I, personally, have experienced. I’ve heard horror stories from other women who could add much to this list.

What is most interesting is that in my experience, many of the most hurtful and discouraging comments have come from women leaders and colleagues.

For example, it has always been women who have told me my tone is wrong. It has always been women who make excuses for why it was OK for my male colleagues to treat me that way. It has been women in HR who protect the male transgressor instead of me.

Recent research has shown that gender bias is perpetuated the most by those who think it no longer exists. This study concludes that keeping the effects of gender bias in mind when making pay, promotion, and hiring decisions is key to counteracting its negative effects on women. Simply hiring more women is not enough, when they will still be subject to bias unless that bias is consciously challenged.

Could it be that women who have climbed the ladder do not believe that gender bias exists, simply because they were able to make it?

Couple that with the fact that management is largely made up of those who’ve proven that they will fall in line with the status quo, and you’ll get a clear picture of why gender bias and systemic oppression are still challenges for women today.

Women colleagues and friends, why are we doing this to one another?

An idea that I have been putting into practice for a few years now is that women will not succeed without being lifted up by other women (and other people in general). I adopted this idea from many different sources, including the book Feminist Fight Club and the SHE Summit I attended in 2018.

The way I try to live this idea is by deferring to the expertise of other women, and reminding others of their expertise, by making sure I don’t stifle or talk over them, by encouraging them and their ideas, and also by having the confidence in myself as a woman to make my voice heard.

I know many women who do the same, but it seems that the idea of “women supporting women” has not caught on in the majority of organizations.

I dream that one day, women of all ages will realize the disadvantaged position we’ve been put into and collectively help one another to break through behavioral stereotypes and the “glass ceiling.”

In order for this to happen, more women and people in general need to actively resist the structures keeping it in place, including the insidious effects of unconscious biases.

Challenging bias and traditional power structures will likely mean taking action that may not help advance your career — for instance, being that employee who speaks out when they see something wrong, unfair, or discriminatory. Or, being the one who demands leaders be held accountable. Or, being the one who rallies colleagues to ask for better access to resources that are essential for a comfortable workplace. Or, being the person who interrupts your colleague to say “Excuse me, I am not sure Marsha was able to finish her point before you started talking.”

I think a part of the problem is that many employees live in fear of their bosses and/or just want to advance their careers without expending a thought to how unfair the current system is. They unthinkingly become another pawn then player in white male Corporate America.

Anyone who has been in Corporate America for more than a couple years should realize the truth, however. Managers and leaders usually aren’t special, and corporate communications are typically highly edited to present a vague but impressive half-truth rather than the full, authentic picture.

Sure, we have icons like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, etc. But just because someone made it to the C-Suite or manager-level at your org doesn’t mean they have some special ability, level of intelligence, or skill that you don’t possess. And they certainly don’t deserve to be feared or revered simply because of a title.

The next time you’re afraid of your boss, ask yourself this: What has this person done to earn my respect? What impressive display of skill have I seen come from this person? Do I aspire to be like this person in any way?

If you can’t answer those questions with solid examples, really examine where your fear or reverence is coming from.

Once you have removed the rose-colored glasses with which you viewed management, I think more bold and tactful methods to advocate for change will be available to you. Advocating for change in ways that will not be detrimental to advancement opportunities requires more strategic communication skill than simply telling people they are wrong and must change, and certainly requires much more courage than staying quiet and in your lane.

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect individuals to self-sacrifice for the masses, however. I think saying “You need to put your career on the line to effect change!” is not a reasonable request. So, I’m not going to ask that of people.

What I will ask is that even if you are going to play the game because you want to advance, at least keep in mind how you will do things differently, treat people differently, and recognize bias and stereotyping if and when you’re in a position to effect real change.

Keep yourself educated so that when it’s your turn to lead, you’ll be a different kind of leader.

Writing evidence-based, thought-provoking content to spread knowledge and ideas that help people. I hold an MS I/O Psychology and BA Philosophy.