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The Handford Parish Council viral zoom meeting showcased everyday sexism at work

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A video of a chaotic parish council meeting went viral last week. After ten months of living and working through a pandemic, many of us could relate to the new challenges we face navigating an online world full of technology blunders and mishaps.

But in amongst these more comical moments there is one element that wasn’t all that new to many of us watching.

The way in which some of the men mocked, derided, shouted and undermined Jackie Weaver, chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, as she attempted to do her job is an example of everyday sexism that is rife across many workplaces – virtual and physical.

 

 

What is everyday sexism?

Sexism is expressed by words and behaviour that make women feel inferior. The intention behind these words and behaviour is to intimidate and silence women. The problem is often worse for BME, disabled, young and older women who are at the intersection of other prejudices, such as racism, ableism or ageism.

When men feel threatened by a woman who challenges the status quo, men who hold sexist views respond with aggressive and hostile behaviour. This is because sexist men hold the view that women are fundamentally different and inferior to men, whether it’s our intelligence, behaviour or aptitude.

What is more telling about the endemic nature of sexism in workplaces is that many people watching and sharing the video didn’t see it. This is because sexism is so every day. So normalised that it is rendered invisible or considered too small to make a fuss about.

If a workplace has a culture of sexism, or one in which sexist behaviours and words go unchallenged, the effects are toxic. Not just on the retention of women workers but also on the wider work environment and levels of moral and productivity.

 

How can you spot everyday sexism?

Sexism can show up in a variety of ways in the workplace, here are four of them.

  • Harmless remarks or banter that are insulting and belittle women. Telling a woman to “calm down dear” when she contributes to a discussion. This taps into a well-trodden trope of women as too emotional or incompetent to make decisions or rational contributions to discussions and debate.

 

  • Devaluing women’s voice or views. For example, talking over women in meetings, ignoring their contributions in discussions or excluding them from decision-making. This all sends a subtle but significant signal that women are not valued equally to men.

 

  • Making assumptions about aptitude, skills, and suitability for roles. In a group of men and women, is it women who are asked to take the minutes, prepare the teas and coffees, or do other tasks that are considered too menial for men to do? Women are often stereotyped into performing these duties because of their relation to unpaid domestic work in the home.

 

  • Having pet names or nicknames for female members of staff. Are women referred to by pet names such as ‘sweetie’, ‘darling’ ‘love’ or by other nicknames while men are referred to by their actual names? Infantilising professional women by using pet names has the impact of publicly diminishing and demeaning women in comparison to their male peers.

 

 

How can you challenge sexism in the workplace?

Studies show that when non-sexist men fail to challenge sexist behaviour or remarks, it emboldens and empowers sexist men and causes an increase in their hostility and aggressiveness towards women.

It is vital therefore that organisations have a zero-tolerance approach to sexism in the workplaces and that unacceptable behaviour is challenged as soon as it occurs. Everyone in the organisation should feel empowered to do so.

It should not and cannot be down to the individual on the receiving end of that behaviour to challenge it. There are three easy steps HR can take to create a safer, sexist-free environment.

Have an anti-harassment policy in place that specifies what expected standards of behaviour are, gives examples of sexism and how to challenge and report them. This policy should be drawn up in consultation with a trade union, where applicable.

Introduce a safe and robust reporting mechanism that provides multiple people for women and witnesses to report sexist behaviour to. Specifying one line manager is not enough, power imbalances are at the root of sexist behaviour. Staff should understand how reports will be responded to and reassured any reports will be taken seriously.

Take regular anonymous climate surveys that focus on understanding incidences of sexual harassment and sexism, and to what extent there is a workplace culture that tolerates it.

Creating meaningful change means creating a safe, inclusive culture and that works starts at the top.

Leaders are instrumental in setting a consistent tone, narrative and actions from the top that send the signals throughout the organisation that sexism is not tolerated.

The must therefore be held accountable and responsible for ensuring sexism is effectively tackled, prevented and responded to. Women workers deserve nothing less.

Sian Elliott is women’s equality policy officer at the TUC