‘Whenever I was asking questions, he was telling me to stay in my place’, confessed a very good female friend of mine some time ago. ‘I wasn’t allowed to know more than he considered adequate. He took all the decisions and all I had to do was to agree with him and follow his rules. He wasn’t interested in any of my ideas or opinions, actually he was angry if I said I had something to say. My men colleagues always had the chance to present their views on every matter. We (the women) have never done that. When I realized this, I quit the job. It wasn’t easy, but I couldn’t stand anymore this discriminatory attitude of my boss’. I was angry to hear that hostile sexism still exists in a so-called democratic environment, but felt happy to know that women realize their unfair status and seek social change.
Few days ago I was talking to the same friend, who found another job. She is working as a junior assistant, although her education, experience and competencies recommend her for a higher position. It’s not easy to find a job nowadays, especially in the area you like, so I didn’t pay too much attention to this aspect until she told me that she is really appreciated at this workplace as she gets a lot of positive feedback whenever they have the staff evaluation and she feels relaxed as she doesn’t have to solve difficult tasks. In that moment I realized something was wrong. Who would value ones’ skills and knowledge, but not give the chance to really use them? Who would hire an expert and let her waste time with average responsibilities? The things got clearer to me, when she added that one of our men acquaintances, who got hired in the same period as she did, already got promoted two times. He wasn’t a brilliant student, nor a skillful person, so how come he succeeded and she didn’t? I knew that she wasn’t the kind of person who just gives up easily. She dreamt big and worked hard to achieve her professional ambitions. I remembered she quit her job in a time of crisis because she was discriminated and she wanted to make a difference. So, what changed?
I found the answer in the “Gender & work” study from the Harvard Business School (Peter Glick, 2013), which brings into attention the fact that nowadays sexism against women in the workplace is much more subtle. While normally we think that only negative stereotypes and hostile positions towards women cause discrimination, this research shows that also attitudes that simultaneously idealize but subordinate women as men’s dependents have the same effect, although at first glance they look favourable. The concept of “benevolent sexism” (BS, Glick & Fiske, 1996, 2001) best illustrates this situations and is the answer to my friend’s case and many other women that found themselves in the same situation. It has its roots in traditional gender stereotypes and helped me understand the on-going discrimination against women in the workforce process and its evolution. While experiencing hostile sexism, my friend’s motivation to succeed and her desire to prove oneself were extremely high. She had the strengths to leave that place and start from scratch. But facing the new form of discrimination, disguised in a kind attitude and a pretty comfortable but insignificant position, she didn’t even notice that it reduced her resistance to inequality and rewarded her for conforming to old stereotypes and status. She unconsciously stays “in her place” because she accepted it to be hers. The combination of positive feedback with less challenging assignments suggests that, rather than being favoured her manager patronized her. Such subtle discrimination undermines women’s ability both to develop and to demonstrate work-relevant skills. This is how women are denied various opportunities to use and improve their competencies, and to achieve success.
Discrimination at work has a wide variety of forms, and occurs in all kinds of settings. The inequality of opportunity is the result of treating people differently because of their features and reinforces disrespect towards Human Rights. As the International Labour Organization states, the elimination of discrimination is an indispensable part of any viable strategy for poverty reduction and sustainable economic development. My friend is one of the many people discriminated at work. Of course, although this text refers to a specific category (women), it can be extrapolated to any person who is denied the right of equal opportunity in employment, because of race, age, gender, sexuality, belief or disability. If it happens to you or to someone you know, please take a clear stance in order to condemn this attitudes.
By Diana Adela
** If you are interested in the “Gender & work” study (Peter Glick, 2013), you can read it here: http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/conferences/2013-w50-research-symposium/Documents/glick.pdf