WOMEN

Casual Sexism In The Workplace May Affect Women More Than We Realize

Misogynist jokes and comments might not be as "harmless" as people claim.

09/01/2015 11:46 am ET
Ron Chapple studios via Getty Images

Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you

The Background

Women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, but their ubiquity doesn't protect them from gendered discrimination and sexual harassment, especially in male-dominated work environments. And women don't have to face outright sexual coercion or blatant bigotry to know what this is like -- when so-called "harmless" sexist jokes and comments are tolerated, the female workforce suffers the consequences.

The question is: When it comes to the impact on women's psyches, how do the subtler, more pervasive experiences of sexism compare to the more intense and sexually violent, albeit rarer, forms of gendered harassment at work? In a new study, researchers from the University of Melbourne explored this question.

The Setup

Researchers analyzed 88 workplace studies published from 1985 to 2012 with 93 independent samples and 73,877 participants. While going through all of this past research, they were specifically analyzing three things as they applied to female participants: occupational well-being (like their job satisfaction, relationships with co-workers and physical/psychological health), harmful workplace experiences (like instances of various forms of harassment and sexism) and job stressors (like tedious tasks and job uncertainty). 

Then, the researchers used meta-analysis techniques to identify patterns in the 88 studies as they related to those three variables.

The Findings

After analyzing data from the 73,877 workers, the researchers found that sexist work environments negatively affected women's occupational well-being (duh?). But here's where it got interesting: The more common, less intense forms of gender harassment (like office cultures where sexist jokes are tolerated) "appeared as detrimental for women's occupational well-being" as the less frequent, high-intensity incidents (like sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention).

Given these findings, the researchers state that employers should avoid distinguishing between types of sexism -- there is no lesser evil, it seems.

"Such distinctions may perpetuate the view that some harmful workplace experiences (e.g., sexist jokes and remarks, ignoring women during meetings) have a lesser impact," they write. "They are in fact as detrimental as other well-recognized forms of mistreatment at work." 

The Takeaway

While overt sexual harassment can make headlines, this study suggests that daily sexist jokes and comments made by co-workers can also chip away at a woman's well-being. It's not all bad news, though. According to the researchers, their findings can be used to spark progress: If employers recognize the detrimental effects of the more subdued, pervasive sexism, women may be motivated to make formal complaints and organization-wide actions can be taken.  

With 72 million women serving in the American workforce as of 2010, a joke is not "just a joke" if it means that a single one of them has to face sexism on a daily basis just to make a living.

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