The Secret Toll of Sexism

2min read

Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported on a troubling study. The study, conducted by the University of Colorado, was looking to examine the longer-term impact of #MeToo, the campaign to expose sexual harassment, abuse, and predation which has overwhelmingly focused on harm by men towards women. While finding that women reported an overall decline in workplace sexual harassment, it also found that there was a growing uptick in plain old sexism.

You know, "women can't drive" sorts of things.

I'm not naive enough to believe that sexism was something we'd closed the door on; it's something every woman lives with, the frustrating background radiation of our lives. The belief that femininity is weak and superficial while masculinity is strong and deep has implications that play out every day; I cannot tell you how many times a service clerk has called me "sweetie" while calling my husband "sir," or how often I was presumed to be my business partner's secretary or assistant. While it's true that sexism can play out as overt as the assertion that women are fundamentally less capable than men, in most cases, it's far more subtle: the devaluing of women, our experiences, our abilities, and our insights purely on the grounds of who and what we are.

There is actually quite a great deal of overlap between harassment and sexism on the misogyny Venn diagram, because both of them are ultimately about power over women. It boils down to strategies of dominance, and the dots that the University of Colorado study are connecting lead to the conclusion that the degree to which men feel less free to sexually objectify women correlates to finding other ways to do the same work of maintaining a feeling of superiority and control: keeping the womenfolk in line.

I'm not going to assert that this is deliberate; sexism is so often a sort of passive reality, the ocean in which we all swim. But I also want to remind everyone that sexism is far from harmless; it does much the same work as harassment, preventing women from ever forgetting that we exist in public life at the pleasure of the men around us. I think about every time I was expected to perform secretarial work when I was a junior trader (which, you may have observed, is not how you spell "secretary") by men with less experience than me. I think about a young woman I know who ended up walking away from a once-in-a-lifetime job due to the incessant dismissal of her abilities and input. I think about women being cut out of decision-making processes, denied promotions because "this is really more of a man's thing." I think about how motherhood reduces women's lifetime earnings potential while fatherhood raises it.

Women, as a class, get a real bum deal.

That shouldn't be controversial. It's not a secret. And yet I see this sort of thing is dismissed as harmless time and time again, as though it all doesn't add up to the slow demolition of as many women as it can. A while back, I spoke with Goldman Sachs about its new diversity plan, and what struck me about it was just how many factors it had identified that restrict the number of women who are able to advance in their careers there, as well as how frequently women just… leave. It's a vicious cycle, to be sure, but it's one driven by the fundamental assumption that women are less capable than men and that, all things being equal, it'd be better to promote a man.

Let's not ignore for a moment the stark emotional damage hearing "you're just a girl" or even "you're really smart for a girl" for an entire lifetime can (and demonstrably does) wreak, preventing scores of women from even entertaining the notion of pursuing careers in business, science, or medicine. Hostile workplaces create conditions where employees simply can't perform; anxiety, stress, fear, and self-doubt all get between a hard worker and a job well done. When we are told what we cannot do, told who we cannot be, are dismissed, belittled, denigrated, it has the knock-on effect of what's called in the social sciences "stereotype threat." Essentially, the anxiety surrounding fulfilling a stereotype makes it self-fulfilling.

We've seen it play out in laboratory settings; in one study, women who were reminded of sexist assumptions that women are bad at math performed meaningfully worse at a math test than those who weren't. Sexist environments, in other words, create what they promise: a world where women don't measure up. But that's something imposed on us from the outside, and it's the reason why the women who manage to overcome the crushing weight of these assumptions are so lauded: because they've done something remarkable, something that very few men ever have to do.

The threat to women doesn't go away with Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK, and sexist remarks aren't harmless jokes. They are a stumbling block placed, deliberately or not, in the way of every single woman who sets out to make her own way in the world. It's harder to fight, and harder to see, but just as invidious.

It's something I believe we can beat. The last few years have foisted women's issues and feminism to the forefront of public conversation, educating millions about problems like these and the ways individuals contribute to them. That's a groundswell that has the potential of creating lasting change. But not if we don't keep it going. I believe we're stronger than sexism, that millions of voices can't be ignored, and that lasting change is possible.

We just have to keep trying.

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4min read

Going Makeupless To The Office May Be Costing You More Than Just Money

Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.

Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.

Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.

As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.

Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.

So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.

Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.

For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."