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Repairing a Culture of Sexism in the Workplace

Do a quick Google search for “workplace sexism”, and you’ll see just how much attention the topic is getting these days in national and international news.

The topic came up for EASI•Consult® during a recent meeting to plan for upcoming newsletters. My initial reaction – it was an interesting issue to explore but one best explored by a woman. But the women in the room said – in unison – that the article should be written by a man in order to offer a different perspective.

So, here it goes.

To put this into context, I came into management roles in the 1980s at Anheuser-Busch, an old-line manufacturing company with few, if any, women in leadership positions. White males were certainly the norm.

Interestingly, the women who were hired seemed to feel some pressure to downplay or hide their femininity in the way they communicated on the job. Among the male-centered senior management, this was readily accepted; it was almost as if they did not want to be “tempted” by competent women who were also attractive.  Obviously, this was not an acceptable or comfortable climate, especially when men would not feel the same pressure to dress or behave in a way to downplay their masculinity.

At the same time, there were a lot of casual conversations between some of these senior managers about their daughters, who were just coming into the workforce. They were appalled as fathers at the apparent discrimination they believed their daughters were receiving in corporate America, yet they didn’t see or make any connection between their own behavior at Anheuser-Busch and what their daughters were experiencing in other companies.

Things began to change, though not overnight. Slowly – over the next 15 years – more women began to be promoted, and competent women who also happened to be attractive began to be hired.

Flash-forward a few years to 2000, when I went to work for a technology company outside of Washington, D.C. It was like night and day when compared to Anheuser-Busch (A-B). The management tone was much more democratic and participative. Chain of command wasn’t a concept that was strictly followed. The difference may have been symbolic of generational changes in mindset (I’d say I raised the average age of the company by two years when I joined).

Where A-B had a published “business-casual” dress code, the tech firm had none – T-shirts, flip flops, jeans with holes… there were basically no rules. When I interviewed for a position there, the CFO – to give me a feel for the place – said the women there had the tattoos and the guys wore the jewelry (including facial).

Flash-forward again to 2017 and what is now being reported at Uber, Go Daddy and other technology companies, reveals the impact of the complex issue of sexism. There is a line between an informal, fun and non-traditional workplace culture to one in which employees – and women in particular – experience as hostile and sexist, with its own set of rules and norms.

Simply being a “cool” place to work doesn’t make you progressive in terms of gender equality, and being too laidback or casual can often break down traditional forms of office etiquette that actually prevent inappropriate behavior or comments. More simply put, a workplace in which everyone “hangs out” during and after work – often with drinking involved – can lead to some blurred lines where advances may be made or “jokes” told amongst friends that are harmful to women, and women may not feel comfortable reporting it because they’ll be seen as “unfun” or unable to take a joke.

Changing this kind of atmosphere to a truly equal and objective one based on each employee’s contribution – and his or her comfort level in feeling supported to make that contribution – is a multi-year endeavor.

And it must start with the most senior level employee. That person should be the one to state clearly what behavior is acceptable and what is considered unacceptable. Employees will watch carefully to see if the senior person’s behavior matches their words; words are important but behavior must match those words. Anyone who violates the expected behaviors, no matter what position they hold, must be dealt with appropriately up to and including termination.

This process needs time to play out over several business cycles. Who is being hired? Do they exemplify the stated norms and behaviors? When positions become open, do they select the “best” candidates, both technically and in relation to the expected behaviors? How are you doing in terms of female representation in the senior part of the organization? Do the best performers get rewarded accordingly in the performance management system? How does that look from a gender perspective? What are new leaders taught in their leadership training about establishing and maintaining a high-performance work environment?

It will only be in the experiences employees have and the stories that employees tell – stories that become the folklore –  regarding “how we do things” that will, over time, change the culture.

One would hope that in 2017 an employee can show up and fully contribute without his or her gender impacting the reaction to that contribution.

David Hoff is the chief operation officer and executive vice president for leadership development at EASIConsult®. EASIConsult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASIConsult specialties include individual assessment, online employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASIConsult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.

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