In the wake of the #MeToo movement, feminist discussions of sexism, sexual harassment, and assault are unavoidable. The dialogue has primarily surrounded celebrities (and *certain* politicians), but it has also changed the way we talk about day-to-day misogyny and the near-constant mistreatment that women suffer on a day-to-day basis. This brings up the ever-prevalent, but largely unspoken issue of workplace sexism. Whether you’re a high-level corporate executive, a service industry employee, a nanny, a doctor — people may discriminate, but harassment certainly does not. It’s important to remember that many of these discussions don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the mistreatment experienced by other marginalized groups. Throughout my experiences in the workplace, here are some things myself and countless other women have learned.
Harassment starts as soon as you’re old enough to work
When it comes to statistics about workplace sexism, the numbers can be tricky. Sexual harassment is hard to define, the way people gather these statistics can differ, and most of them depend on the women who even report harassment (a large portion of women do not for fear of retaliation). In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimated that over 25% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, but some statistics have found numbers as high as 85%. This is only counting the women who acknowledged and reported their harassment. Plus, most of these studies cover women who are over 18 years old. However, most women will learn that harassment starts the moment you start your first job. While it varies slightly based on the job or the age of the minor, the minimum age for employment in the U.S. is 14 years old. This is kind of astonishing to think about, especially considering the dark truths about workplace sexism that are only recently coming to light.
It was only until I truly started understanding and recognizing workplace harassment, that I realized I had been experiencing it since I was in eighth grade. Especially as a teenager, it can be hard to understand when a figure of authority is mistreating you. It’s essentially impossible to stand up for yourself. Looking back on it, I realized that as a freshman in high school, I had bosses, customers, and older coworkers who acted completely inappropriately with me. It’s those things that made you uncomfortable, but you couldn’t quite figure out why that classify.
It’s those statements like asking a high school freshman about their love life, commenting on the cut of their shirt, massaging their shoulders, the “just a joke” side remarks, or making unnecessary sexually-explicit jokes. It’s easy to take in stride because when you’re 15 and you think of yourself as an adult — though you still look, act, and for the most part, think like a child. Revisiting these things as an adult makes you realize how naive you were, and how predatory the older men in your workplace were.
If you feel uncomfortable, there’s probably a justified reason
No matter how much we talk about it, the truth is that most workplace sexism and harassment goes unreported. According to the EEOC, around 87-94% of people who experience harassment never file a formal complaint. There are lots of reasons why this may happen. More often than not, women may not even realize that what they’re experiencing is inappropriate. We’ve become accustomed to tiny, day-to-day microaggressions so much that many of the ones we experience go unnoticed. A guy at work says or does something that instantly makes you uncomfortable, but it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Maybe he tells you details of his sexual endeavors, maybe he continues to “accidentally” graze parts of your body, maybe he “jokingly” talks about how all the guys at school must respond to you — it can all seem so casual.
Most women have experienced this — the full-body cringe, the nervous laugh, or that feeling in the pit of your stomach after interactions of this sort. You feel uncomfortable, but it doesn’t seem worth mentioning – let alone reporting. But if the fact that anywhere between 25-85% of women experience sexual harassment at work isn’t enough to convince you, then you can probably trust your gut in these situations. This kind of inappropriate behavior and misogyny are so commonplace that they’re not only ignored, they’re almost accepted in most workplaces. Unfortunately, it’s understandable why a lot of women don’t want to come forward, and the EEOC has some pretty good statistics as to why. Of the people who spoke out against their harassers, an astonishing 75% experienced some form of retaliation – yes, that means three out of four women. Workplace sexism and harassment is happening, but women fear the consequences of reporting, so the harassment continues.
The glass ceiling is a very, very real thing
When talking about workplace sexism, you’ll often hear people reference a “glass ceiling.” Essentially, this means that a woman can only become so successful before being blocked by some sort of ~invisible~ obstacle — sexism. In almost all spheres of employment, it is much harder for women to reach the same levels of success as men. Misogynists rely on the convenient explanation that women are just not as capable as men – they didn’t have as much experience, they weren’t as influential in their department, yada, yada, yada. Any woman who has ever worked knows that this isn’t the case. The more likely explanation is that women constantly face harassment and discrimination that follows them from school to the workforce and from a young age, they are barred from experiences that could make them more “valuable” to a potential employer. Gender-based harassment, from even a young age of 14, leads women to eventually feel like they need to leave their jobs, and it makes it impossible to rise up the ranks when you’re constantly being underestimated and sexualized. A lot of the time, this can even become internalized. Because women fear being viewed as domineering, they’re less likely to ask for raises or starting salaries at the same level of their male peers. Because they are viewed as less competent, they’re less likely to be consulted for important tasks. The reasons go on.
These experiences aren’t just anecdotal, it’s a universal trend. According to a survey by LeanIn.com, entry-level jobs are pretty egalitarian, 54% men, 46% women. However, once we look at the highest positions within a company AKA “The C-Suite” (Chief Financial Officer, Chief Executive Officer, etc.), the percentages change to 81% men and 19% women. You can pretty much see where the glass ceiling cuts women off.
You’ll ultimately be judged by your appearance
As mentioned previously, most women are sexualized by bosses, coworkers, customers, etc. the second they enter the workforce. Since the moment I started working I have regularly dealt with men who stare at my body, remark on the length or cut of my clothes, and make generally-inappropriate comments about my appearance (positive and negative). As a 15-year-old, I was often asked by age by middle-aged men my age, who expressed their disappointment in learning I was a minor. As a 22-year-old, older men let me know that they dislike my nose ring. Either way, discussions of my appearance seemed unavoidable by men who, in large part, have their remarks go unchecked.
In a patriarchal society, a woman’s looks are everything. Her competence, intelligence, and worth are usually assessed within seconds of being seen. Without getting too science-y, this is actually a well-known psychological phenomenon called the “halo effect.” Basically, when we perceive someone as attractive, we make positive assumptions about their other traits.
Because the workplace is already male-dominated, men don’t need to rely on their looks to gain credibility. An article from Look.co.UK details multiple women’s experiences with appearance-based discrimination and sexism. Academia is a great place to see this in effect. You can find most male professors rocking running shoes, an unshaven face, or a ripped blazer — while almost all female professors will almost always be immaculately groomed, in a strictly business-casual outfit. In fact, you can even see the glass ceiling in this same department. In my experience, there were way more women teaching elementary and middle school education, a few more men thrown in the mix during those formative high school years, then in college, it seemed to be a pretty equal field as far as male and female professors go. Of course, all of the department heads were men.
You’ll have to prove yourself every step of the way
But women can vote! There are women CEOs! A woman was almost president (*sob*)! This must mean that people finally understand that women are just as capable as men! The age of equality is NOW! Sadly, this is very much not the case. Women have a harder time doing their jobs every day, simply because they’re women. Sure, there have been strides made in gender equality. But has it been enough to even out the playing field? Even without the countless forms of discrimination, harassment, and discouragement stopping them, women are often viewed as incompetent based on their gender – and it’s all done on a subconscious level. Basically, the kind of mansplaining and constant objections you received in your intro-level philosophy class don’t end when you graduate. But don’t take my word for it, check out this study:
One male supervisor noticed that his female supervisee was taking way too long to complete her projects. They couldn’t figure out why, until one day, he experienced an unusually nasty correspondence with a client. The client second-guessed everything he said, questioned his expertise, and was blatantly rude. That’s when he realized he was on his female co-worker’s email account, meaning all of his emails were signed with “Nicole.” Upon giving his actual name to the client, their interactions went smoothly.
You’ll be expected to juggle a million balls
Overall, dealing with workplace sexism means accomplishing an inhuman amount of tasks at the same time. You’ll have to prove your worth by producing perfect-quality work in half the time expected. Take criticism with a smile and never question the opinions of your male co-workers that are most definitely 100% right (lol), all of the time. Wear makeup, but not so much that you draw attention to yourself. Look professional, but not prudish. Basically, walk a tightrope and do the same amount of work – at the same quality – as your male peers who can get away with way more without others even batting an eye.
Reach for the stars, but don’t assume that you’ll get paid more along the way. Keep your head down and laugh it off when Dave from sales makes lewd gestures at you from across the office. Take the time to really get to know every middle-aged customer who hits on you while you’re trying to do your job. Get the high-level job you’ve been working towards for years, but be cool when people still assume you’re a total moron. Once you can do all of these things, being a woman in the workplace will be a breeze.