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Why is sexism still a problem in today’s workplaces?

Experience of male and female colleagues who swapped email signatures is part of a larger problem
Gender, diversity
The "Fearless Girl" statue facing the Charging Bull erected to honor International Women's Day in Lower Manhattan in New York City. Shutterstock: Christopher Penler

By Brian Kreissl

By now, most people have probably heard the story of Nicole Lee Hallberg and Martin R. Schneider. They are the female and male resumé editors who switched email signatures for a week as an experiment to see if clients would treat them differently.

While it wasn’t exactly a scientific study, Hallberg and Schneider found they were treated differently by their clients. While Hallberg had a relatively easy week, Schneider found things were a lot more difficult.

One client in particular totally changed his demeanour when he thought he was dealing with Schneider after initially dealing with Hallberg. From “mansplaining” simple terms and general condescension to being questioned about everything and whether he was single, Schneider was shocked at the difference in the way he was treated as “Nicole.”

While it could be explained away as the isolated experiences of two individuals in one organization, empirical studies have confirmed the existence of sexism in the workplace and society in general.

One study of an online class found students consistently rated “male” instructors more highly than “female” ones, regardless of their actual gender. Another study of male and female applicants for technology vacancies found the percentage of women called for interviews rose from five to 54 per cent once gender identifiers were removed from their resumés.

The position of women in the workplace

Sadly, we still live in a world where women in the workplace are harassed, patronized and treated as if they’re less qualified than their male counterparts. Women still earn less than men for doing substantially the same work and are underrepresented among the ranks of senior executives and board members.

Women who do manage to get ahead are often labeled as “abrasive” or “aggressive” (or much worse) in spite of the fact that the same confident and assertive behaviours are praised and sought after in male leaders. There is also no doubt women are more often judged based on their appearance than men.

In spite of the fact I am a man, I have a lot of empathy for the position of women in the workplace. Having a daughter, a wife and many female friends and current and former colleagues — and having worked in HR — I have a great deal of respect and admiration for women and probably understand their perspective better than most men.

My mother also instilled in me a sense of equality, fairness and respect between men and women. My brother and I were always encouraged to help out around the house with chores growing up, and I am completely comfortable cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and ironing.

Gender bias in the HR profession

I actually believe the human resources profession often doesn’t get the respect it deserves at least partially because of sexism. After all, by far the majority of HR practitioners are women and many of the negative comments I read about the HR profession are gender-based.

However, I can also appreciate some of the struggles women face in male-dominated industries and professions having worked in a female-dominated field like HR. The truth is working in HR as a man these days isn’t always easy.

It can often feel very lonely being the token male in an HR department, and male HR practitioners don’t always feel like their thoughts and opinions are taken seriously. We also sometimes feel like employers envision a woman as the ideal candidate when recruiting for HR vacancies. Because of that, we can understand what many women must go through in the workplace.

Nevertheless, I don’t believe reverse discrimination is the answer, nor do I believe carving out female-dominated enclaves within organizations is right either. Men and women need to work together in organizations and in society, and stereotyping certain types of work as either “male” or “female” doesn’t help anyone. People should be free to choose the type of work that interests them the most even if it is dominated by another gender.

We also need to be aware of our subconscious (and sometimes conscious) biases regarding gender. Women themselves are sometimes even guilty of making things difficult for other women.

For example, it is quite surprising how many women say they would prefer to work for a male boss. That type of thinking needs to change before we can ever achieve true equality in the workplace.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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