*This week I’m touched by the trending hashtag, #MeToo, and the stories behind them. This post is in honor of every woman who has been sexually harassed or assaulted.
A white, middle-aged man recently told me, “People need to be less sensitive.” This was in response to me saying it is NOT okay to call women at work girl, honey, sweetie, cutie, or other diminutives along with other recommendations for breaking down stereotypes and improving communication at work.
I finished reading 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say last Thursday. I wish I had Dr. Maura Cullen’s wisdom before that conversation. Dr. Cullen explains the “Piling on Principle” (difficult for some members of privileged groups to understand). Piling on is like having stubbed your toe first thing in the morning. People keep dropping stuff on it and kicking it inadvertently all day. The intent is not to invoke harm; these are accidents.
Impact doesn’t care about intent. It hurts whether we meant to drop the cellphone on her foot or not. Impact is compounded by a bad day or lifetime of hurt and disadvantage.
Not “Just a Joke”
Telling someone, “be less sensitive” or “it was just a joke” is piling on. Calling a woman girl, honey, or sweetie pie may seem a way of making the workplace more casual. But these words are condescending and disrespectful.
A woman experiences inappropriate terms of endearment as paternalistic. If she’s been told she got her job to meet a quota or it’s otherwise been implied that she isn’t good enough and that toe really hurts.
Respect for women is the first, crucial component to ending harassment and abuse. Changing our words changes our hearts.
Stereotypes of Women at Work
There are four primary stereotypes of women at work. They include sex object, mother, child, and Iron Maiden.
The prevalence of the impact of the “woman as a sex object” stereotype is clear by the recently trending hashtag, #MeToo. From celebrities to the mom next door, women are sharing their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
According to a study by Rundblad in 2001 half of women who work outside the home have been harassed at work. I asked this question while speaking at an event where the audience was 100% female. Every. Woman. Raised. Her. Hand. Every. One.
Women as “mother” means women are expected to handle the emotional labor in the workplace. This manifests as everything from compulsory daily greetings to making coffee and planning parties to supporting an emotionally distraught coworker of either sex.
Women are regularly defined by their relationships. In sports, it is likely for a woman’s marital status and whether she is a mother to be mentioned. This is rare for male athletes. They are defined by activities, accomplishments, and positions.
Woman as “child” behavior masquerades as protecting women. Of course, this is synonymous with impeding her from attempting higher-risk and higher-reward activities that could launch her career trajectory.
For years women have been told to act like men at work. Those who do receive the label, Iron Maiden. (Iron Maiden is the more appropriate term that identifies a stereotype of women at work. The other one would make my list of things not to say at work.) This label is attached when a woman is either too sensitive or too outspoken. If a man did the same thing, he would likely be called “assertive” or even a “good leader.”
Don’t Say This
Changing our view of women starts with our vocabulary. Save terms of endearments for friends and loved ones. Don’t minimize the authority of women by calling them girls, honey, or sweetie. Would you call a man at work, “boy?” Never.
In most cases, restricting physical contact at work to a handshake, is advisable. Don’t comment on a woman’s physical appearance at work. (Or at least learn the distinction between a compliment and sexual harassment.) P.S. Cat calls are NOT compliments. Neither is rubber necking or looking a woman up and down.
Eliminate harmful words and phrases. Don’t say, “Every“ or “That’s just like a …”
Challenge stereotypes people express. If someone says, “All…” You reply, “That may be true in some cases, but in my experience…”
Take a Global Perspective
Broaden your perspective. Likely your view of gender roles has been shaped by the region you were raised in and your parents (possibly outdated) opinion of gender roles. These facts come from Julia T. Wood’s Gendered Lives.
- Agta people in Philippines and Tini Aborigines in Australia see keen hunting ability as a feminine trait (Estioko-Griffin & Griffin, 1997)
- Tahitian men tend to be gentle, mild-tempered, and non-aggressive. It is entirely acceptable for them to cry, show fear, and express pain. (Coltrane, 1996)
- Mbuti pygmies in central Africa, don’t discriminate strongly between sexes. Males and females gather roots, berries, and nuts, and both hunt. (Coltrane, 1996)
Whoever drinks the coffee should make it. Whoever dirties the dishes should clean them. Everyone should say good morning, support coworkers in times of distress, and learn about gendered communication styles. Don’t hesitate to offer high-risk, high-reward tasks to women.
Challenge categories people assign you to. Enhance appreciation for complexity, validity, and diversity of communication styles. Enhance insight into your own gender, cultural expectations, and how you choose to present yourself.
Words of Wisdom
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Awareness of injustice is crucial to change.
You can argue semantics, but just as faking a smile can make a person happier, eliminating harmful words, phrases, and stereotypes can improve our view of and respect for women. Decide that you will commit to using the language that women, that everyone deserves.
The gospel account of Luke puts it well, “The person faithful in what is least is faithful also in much.”
*Next week we’ll talk about stereotypes of men at work.