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.

3 Min Read

Help! Am I A Fraud?

The Armchair Psychologist has all the answers you need!

Help! I Might Get Fired!

Dear Armchair Psychologist,

What's the best way to be prepared for a layoff? Because of the crisis, I am worried that my company is going to let me go soon, what can I do to be prepared? Is now a good time to send resumes? Should I save money? Redesign my website? Be proactive at work? Make myself non-disposable?

- Restless & Jobless

Dear Restless & Jobless,

I'm sorry that you're feeling anxious about your employment status. There are many people like yourself in this pandemic who are navigating an uncertain future, many have already lost their jobs. In my experience as a former professional recruiter for almost a decade, I always told my candidates the importance of periodically being passively on the market. This way, you'd know your worth, and you'd be able to track the market rates that may have changed over time, and sometimes even your job title which might have evolved unbeknownst to you.

This is a great time to reach out to your network, update your online professional presence (LinkedIn etc.), and send resumes. Though I'm not a fan of sending a resume blindly into a large database. Rather, talk to friends or email acquaintances and have them directly introduce you to someone who knows someone at a list of companies and people you have already researched. It's called "working closest to the dollar."

Here's a useful article with some great COVID-times employment tips; it suggests to "post ideas, articles, and other content that will attract and engage your target audience—specifically recruiters." If you're able to, try to steer away from focusing too much on the possibility of getting fired, instead spend your energy being the best you can be at work, and also actively being on the job market. Schedule as many video calls as you can, there's nothing like good ol' face-to-face meetings to get yourself on someone's radar. If your worries get the best of you, I recommend you schedule time with a qualified therapist. When you're ready, lean into that video chat and werk!

- The Armchair Psychologist


Dear Armchair Psychologist,

I'm an independent consultant in NYC. I just filed for unemployment, but I feel a little guilty collecting because a) I'm not looking for a job (there are none anyway) and b) the company that will pay just happens to be the one that had me file a W2 last year; I've done other 1099 work since then.

- Guilt-Ridden

Dear Name,

I'm sorry that you're wracked with guilt. It's admirable that your conscience is making you re-evaluate whether you are entitled to "burden the system" so to speak as a state's unemployment funds can run low. Shame researchers, like Dr. Brené Brown, believe that the difference between shame and guilt is that shame is often rooted in the self/self-worth and is often destructive whereas guilt is based on one's behavior and compels us to do better. "I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it's holding something we've done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort."

Your guilt sounds like a healthy problem. Many people feel guilty about collecting unemployment benefits because of how they were raised and the assumption that it's akin to "seeking charity." You're entitled to your unemployment benefits, and it was paid into a fund for you by your employer with your own blood, sweat, and tears. Also, you aren't committing an illegal act. The benefits are there to relieve you in times when circumstances prevent you from having a job. Each state may vary, but the NY State Department of Labor requires that you are actively job searching. The Cares Act which was passed in March 2020 also may provide some relief. I recommend that you collect the relief you need but to be sure that you meet the criteria by actively searching for a job just in case anyone will hire you.

- The Armchair Psychologist