On sexism in the workplace
By an anonymous alumna
I am by no means a feminist. Nor have I ever taken courses relating even tangentially to women’s studies. In fact, I had never been interested in the idea of sexism at all until I became the object of a very uncomfortable situation. When I experienced sexism first hand in the work place, I was completely taken aback. I couldn’t believe that it was still an issue today, and I definitely didn’t think it could ever happen to me.
I had been working with Simon, a client from the IT department, for several months, and we shared a great working relationship. He was impressed with my work and valued my contributions to the IT team. One day, he asked me to join a team conference call and began introducing me to team members on the phone. He started off the introduction with my name, my consulting company , my role on the IT team and how much he appreciated the good work that I had done for the IT department. Unfortunately, he finished his sentence jokingly, with, “by the way, she is very attractive and single and if you would like her phone number, it is 267-555-1234.” I was mortified and dumbstruck. I don’t remember the rest of the conference call, only that I walked back to my desk with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
For several minutes I sat at my desk feeling uncomfortable, but I was unable to put my finger on exactly why. His comment about my attractiveness was inappropriate professional behavior—in fact, the thought of Simon finding me attractive made me very uneasy. While I appreciated his public endorsement of my work, it was overshadowed by the follow-up comment about my looks and my relationship status. I felt like I was being judged first as a woman, and second as a professional.
Thankfully, my first brush with sexism was not a particularly traumatic experience. I was fairly certain that Simon had not intended to offend me, so I decided to speak to him and his manager myself. Both of them were profusely apologetic, and we all managed to put the incident behind us very quickly.
However, the experience showed me that sexism does still exist in the workplace, especially in male-dominated professions like consulting and investment banking. I began to think more seriously about the ways in which women and men are treated differently in the workplace.
I looked around my client’s office and first noticed that the administrative jobs were held only by women. Secondly, I looked at the female executives and saw one woman married without children and another divorced without children. Does a woman have to put her family and her fertility on hold to devote enough time to advance her career? Without females in high positions of power at my current client, I turned to the Forbes “Top 100 Most Powerful Women” list. I noticed that the majority of the women in the corporate world or in politics looked un-feminine: many of them had short hair and wore crisp, unflattering suits. In general, it seemed that the more junior a woman is, the more she can get away with dressing attractively. Why are some secretaries and administrative professionals able to get away with wearing certain pieces of clothing that a female C-level executive would never touch?
Exterior presentation aside, I then thought about the various character traits of males and females and saw what I consider to be a double standard. Often when a female leader is tough, she is called ruthless, caustic or bitchy; however, when a male leader is tough, he is seen as being decisive, firm or resolute. What can a woman do if she needs to be tough to succeed in her career, but she is perceived as being bitchy rather than possessing valuable leadership qualities? And if a woman needs to be tough and competitive to be successful in her career, does a woman have to act like a man?
Having been on the job for only six months, there were a lot of thoughts and questions swirling through my head. For support, I turned to my most senior female colleague, who assured me that my thoughts were valid in our professional environment today. Moreover, she provided a few colorful experiences from her own career: instances where some male coworkers would stare constantly at her chest regardless of what she wore, where one male coworker joked that she should sit on his lap because there weren’t enough chairs in the conference room and where she couldn’t focus on her work because male coworkers would engage in “locker-room-type” conversations in her presence.
While speaking to a more experienced female consultant was comforting and insightful, it didn’t answer any of my questions. I ruminated for a couple more years before a breakthrough came in the form of a book, Necessary Dreams, by Anna Fels, which has helped me gain confidence as a female professional and become comfortable in my own skin.
The book presented several studies that demonstrate empirically what we have known all along: that society views men and women differently and that men and women are raised differently in order to conform to those societal norms. In one study, both men and women were asked to designate personality characteristics as either masculine or feminine. It was no surprise that characteristics such as ambitiousness, assertiveness and aggression were masculine traits, whereas agreeableness, compassion and sensitivity were feminine traits. However, for a female professional, this results in a serious identity issue.: Traits like ambitiousness and assertiveness are critical to success in a consulting career, and yet as a woman, I felt uncomfortable expressing them because I felt that it undermined my feminine identity. I felt that I could not succeed as a woman and that somehow I had to act like a man.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. I overcame my identity issue by rejecting these societal definitions. Instead of thinking of personality characteristics as either masculine or feminine, I thought of them as job requirements. Ambitiousness and assertiveness became requirements to success in the consulting world, just as sensitivity and compassion are requirements in the profession of midwifery.
Another study described in the book further explores socially defined masculine and feminine characteristics, demonstrating that boys are raised to value themselves based on their success in the workplace (as defined by job position, money, status, and ambition), whereas girls are raised to understand that agreeableness and beauty underscore their self-worth. This has two effects. First, this type of upbringing can lead some women to be “too nice” in a workplace in which success requires assertiveness. One former female partner at McKinsey once told me that she often found women shooting themselves in the foot when presenting ideas: women often started suggestions with a qualifying phrase such as, “maybe this is just a silly idea,” whereas men would just spit the idea out.
Moreover, the tendency to be agreeable hinders women from asking for promotions, additional responsibilities, higher pay or whatever resources they need to succeed. While men seem to have no trouble asking their boss for these resources, women often work away quietly, believing that the results would show for themselves. The fact of the matter is that in the corporate world, if one does not ask for a promotion or higher pay, one may not receive it even if it is well deserved.
Secondly, when girls are brought up to believe that beauty is key to their value, they are being asked to work on an aspect of themselves is that more nature than nurture. Conversely, rewarding jobs, increased salary, higher social status—aspects that boys and men use to evaluate themselves—can be achieved through hard work and determination, and are more nurture than nature. When there is only so much a woman can reasonably do with the beauty that she is endowed with, it limits her ability to achieve self-confidence.
The desire to be beautiful can also lead women to unintentionally dress inappropriately in the workplace. This is a relatively common faux-pas that I have seen among new female analysts in consulting. There is no such thing as “business sexy” because there can be no “sexy” of any sort in professional attire. As a female professional, I believe that it’s important to dress well and look professional, but definitely not “sexy” or too fashionable. The outfit should make the wearer look like someone you would select to manage millions of dollars and lead teams in charge of your resources.
As a consultant, I never know the personal inclinations of the different people that I meet each day, as every client and every project is different, so it is important to be professional and put my best foot forward every time. While the vast majority of people that I have met do not harbor one iota of sexism, the remaining few range from being unaware of their behavior to holding traditional chauvinistic perspectives. Unlike fifty years ago, when sexism was more obvious, today’s version of gender-based discrimination is most often insidious and subtle. It may be look that makes you uncomfortable, a joke that pushes the envelope slightly too far, or exclusion from a round of golf where the men talk business. Whatever the form it takes, women find themselves forced to overcome the sexism by proving their worth in a way that men do not.
I have dealt with inequality in the workplace by segregating the personal from the professional. My professional persona is an exterior that I have developed and fashioned into something that works for me. She dresses well, without looking like Donatella Versace in a suit; she is open and friendly without broaching topics that are personal, political, or religious; she speaks wisely and projects confidence and experience; she delivers excellent work and exceeds the client’s expectations. In my personal life, I can be exuberant and sexy and anything that I want to be, but the characteristics that I display at work are merely those that are required of me to succeed in my career, regardless of whether they are considered masculine or feminine by society’s standards.
When women first broke down the barriers to voting, to working, to entering university, sexism was openly hostile and widely accepted. If you’ve been following the award-winning TV drama “Mad Men,” you’ll have a pretty accurate image of women’s place in society in the ‘50s and ‘60s. While gender equality has improved dramatically in only five decades, my personal experiences and those of other female professionals, especially those working in male-dominated professions like consulting or investment banking, reveal that we still have a ways to go.