Subtle Sexism: Men Are Rational and Women Are Caring

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Civil Rights and Equal Pay Acts of the ‘60s helped make overt sexism in the workplace largely a thing of the past. It opened the door for women to step into non-traditional roles and the pay that came with them. But what about subtle sexism? What about well-intended bosses and co-workers … or even female professionals themselves … and lingering gender stereotypes?

A recent conversation with my 27-year-old niece, a chemical engineer, opened my eyes. In her attempts to enlighten me about an occupation I know little about, she described pipeline pigs and corrosion … and her day-to-day activities and working environment. When she relayed a conversation with her boss that began with him saying, “I don’t mean for this to sound sexist ….” I was surprised and dismayed. He was actually eliminating some fieldwork from her job because she’s a woman. She didn’t really see the harm in this … and even admitted that working outside in the heat didn’t really appeal to her all that much ….

As a woman, it’s possible you have no interest in working in one of several remaining male-dominated industries: utilities, construction, logging, oil or gas extraction or mining. But what happens when your occupation, say administrative assistant, IT professional or engineer, puts you inside one of these industries?

Modern workplace gender bias generally takes two forms, suggests The first is descriptive bias, where certain characteristics (caring, warm, emotional, sensitive, intuitive, etc.) are used consistently to describe women. Obviously, these are not bad characteristics, notes Fastcompany, until a woman works in a male-dominated industry. Then they can become incredibly harmful, especially when you compare them to the male descriptive stereotypes: competent, assertive, decisive, rational, objective.

Prescriptive bias is the second form of gender bias. As women work to succeed in these largely male-dominated industries and professions, they are called to push past these stereotypes.  And when they do, they are given lower status: Pointing out accomplishments shows a lack of humility. Tough negotiating for pay or a vendor contract shows a lack of passivity. Even showing anger displays a lack of warmth. 

A study on gender stereotypes published in in March 2016 compared opinion data collected in the early 1980s with data collected in 2014. Despite the 30-year span and women’s increased participation in nontraditional roles, results were stable across most components (traits, occupations and physical characteristics). Gender role stereotypes actually increased. “These results attest to the durability of basic stereotypes about how men and women are perceived to differ, despite changes in the participation and acceptance of women and men in nontraditional domains. “Because gender stereotypes are apparently so deeply embedded in our society, those in a position to evaluate women and men, as well as women and men themselves, need to be constantly vigilant to the possible influence of stereotypes on their judgements, choices, and actions,” reports Psychology of Women Quarterly.

One missed opportunity to do fieldwork in the hot sun obviously isn’t going to change the course of my niece’s career. And everything about her boss seemed kind and well-intentioned. But what will happen five or 10 years down the road, when there’s an opportunity for a promotion, and she’s missing field experience? How will she stack up next to other candidates who’ve had that experience? Will it matter to her? Only time will tell—but one thing is certain, she won’t be able to step back to 2016 and recapture a missed opportunity.

Agree? Disagree? Add your insightful comments here.