I was having an email exchange with a friend the other day regarding the most recent episode of Mad Men, which I had not seen. His last comment took me aback. He said:
The sexism-in-the-workplace angle is interesting, but I wonder if it ever really was that bad or if they’re just exaggerating it for dramatic TV effect.
I don’t think he said that to get a reaction, as I believe he simply does not see sexism in the workplace. If you don’t see it, can it really be all that bad?
Of course it can. It made me realize that if something is not overtly experienced by an individual, how real is it to them? If a man doesn’t have to experience overt (or covert) sexism in an office environment, how can they understand what women endure (and still endure) regularly? If a sexist tree falls in the forest and a man isn’t there to fondle it, did it actually happen?
My first experience in a sexist work environment was in my first office job. I had a boss who told me that he thought it would be hilarious to glue little mirrors on the tips of his shoes, follow the women in the office and look up their skirts. I remember laughing, because I was young, embarrassed and he was clearly in an authoritative position. What could I do? Also, I liked the guy. He was funny, smart and a raging sexist.
While the overt sexism of the 1960s and ’70s office does not exist as much in 2015, it is still here. It’s just more covert. Less pay for the same job, fewer promotions for women than men, and, until relatively recently, women were unable to sue for gender pay discrimination after a very tight deadline: 180 days after receiving her first unequal paycheck. The law, now known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was signed by President Obama and has changed all that.
The accomplishments of men are instinctively trusted while women typically have to prove they’re worthy of a promotion that is rightfully theirs while not seeming too concerned about interoffice relationships. In an article on a 2013 study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, there’s this quote:
The anticipation of social backlash or pay discrimination is taxing for women and undermining of their human potential.
We have come far from the days of being overtly sexualized — now we’re just covertly dismissed. Instead of being treated like faceless sex holes to put things in, we’re screwed by unequal pay and a chronic inability to climb the corporate ladder. In 2013, the Huffington Post published “11 Ways the American Workplace Is Still Really, Really Sexist.” It included this:
Women face a variety of unconscious stereotypes in the workplace that hold them back, like: They don’t need more money because they’re not the primary breadwinners, they can’t do certain jobs that are considered ‘men’s work,’ their supposed to act a certain type of feminine in the workplace, they’re not committed to their jobs because their the primary caregivers to their kids. In addition, office cultures are often dominated by norms better suited to men.
Latent sexism is not just an issue for women. It undermines the very financial success of this country. Women still make 25 percent less than their male colleagues and no one seems to take pay disparities very seriously, regardless of the economic impact it produces. Imagine the spending power if we made the same amount!
As we enter the 2016 Presidential Parade of Politikers, we will see this covert sexism enter into the race. How long before the press, and most notably, that Vortex of Spinning Blondes and the Men Who Sit By Them — a.k.a. Fox News — starts to criticize Hillary’s Clinton’s hairstyle, choice of clothing, family, granddaughter, age, looks and personality, all couched in innocuous talking points. Outside of the GOP and Fox’s fanatical Clinton-hatred, watch how they will (not?) give her policy choices equal time with her pantsuit choices. Carly Fiorina may also experience some of the same thing, but I think because she is running as a Republican, she may be seen more as a man and therefore the scintillating discussion of her favorite cookie recipe will be diminished. Remember, Clinton’s is chocolate chip — very nonpartisan.
I’m sure you’re all wondering why I didn’t mention a certain Mrs. Palin in my discussion of political sexism. That’s because she deserved every sling and arrow she got. She did a major disservice to all women when she tried to represent what a strong female candidate should look like while being intellectually incurious. She was and is an embarrassment who should never have been elevated to become a vice presidential candidate and I thank God every day she failed. By comparison, Fiorina and especially Clinton have had astonishingly accomplished careers. They’re both smart, ambitious women who deserve to hold the place they do and are more than competent to run for the highest office in the land. I may not always agree with these ladies, but I have the upmost respect for what they have earned over their long careers.
So we have 18 months to watch how the press treats these women. Will my scorecard fill up with questions on their favorite cookie recipe? Or how they balance home and career? Will I get to watch the men asked about their recent haircut or new suit? Or will my scorecard be chock-full of checkmarks next to policy-driven issues, foreign and domestic? We’ll see.
As for my friend who wondered if sexism is still alive, the answer is yes. It’s not quite as rampant, its bite may be less painful, but sexism is so hardwired into the male mind, it will take generations to excise it completely.
We need more men to stand up and have the courage to pay women equally, to grant deserved promotions, to look beyond their role as a mother, to treat each woman individually and with respect. I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime, but for my still-young nieces, I hope they one day consider sexism an urban myth.