Sari had been working in book publishing for a long time. And she was the first to admit: She preferred to work with women. In her experience, women were far superior to men as editors. They were better suited to collaborating with writers. They were more patient, more nurturing. "Women can coax far better material from writers than men," Sari told me plainly. "It's just a fact." She believed it to her core.
Which is why by the time Sari ascended to the position of editorial director of a large publishing group, the majority of her hires were women. And in cases where she did hire a man, or perhaps inherited one, she admitted she was harder on him than she ever would be with her female employees, questioning his decisions or micromanaging him until she felt he'd adequately proven himself. "I have this feeling, this belief, that since male editors are often so arrogant, their own egos clash with the writer's and prevent great material from happening," she told me. "And I can't have that happening with any of my projects. So I end up pushing and pushing and keeping constant tabs, jumping all over a guy for even the tiniest misstep. It's exhausting, but that way, I can avoid one mistake from turning into many."
When I suggested to Sari that she was behaving in a pretty obviously sexist manner, she was shocked. In her mind, she was simply reacting to facts and patterns she'd seen over her long career. "Sexist?" she asked. "It's not like I'm asking them to move furniture while the women sit around painting their nails. They're men -- they're not babies. They should be able to put up with some strong direction." And that, of course, was exactly my point: By banking on the fact that men should be "tough enough" to handle her criticism and demands, she was piling on them her own bias. She was treating them not as individuals but as a collective group defined exclusively by their gender. Reverse the roles -- imagine Sari as a man and her "problem" employees as women -- and it's easy to see how Sari's prejudicial treatment was influenced by gender in a way that made it difficult for the men who worked for her, more than the women, to please her, and ultimately to succeed.
We don't tend to think of women as sexist, largely because historically, sexism has been something perpetrated by men towards women. But sexism refers simply to unequal treatment in relation to a person's gender. It often involves a power dynamic -- common in the workplace -- and can happen to, and be inflicted by, anyone. Many feminists have rejected the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power than men have. Except we know that's changing, most notably at work, as more females rise to management positions, a trend that will only continue to grow, since women now comprise the majority of college and graduate students nationwide.
The rise of females in power positions may be one reason that more and more men are reporting having experienced discrimination at work -- even more so than women. A 2006 study commissioned by staffing agency Kelly Services found that nearly 35 percent of men said they believed they had experienced discrimination over the past five years at work compared with 33.3 percent of women. Of course, like Sari, many women may be surprised to find that they can, in fact, be sexist, or that the "preferences" they hold in the workplace may actually be dangerously prejudicial. In many cases, such sexism is what researchers have dubbed "benevolent sexism," a less overt form of sexism that often plays on stereotypes such as the idea that men should always open doors, or that women are more nurturing and kinder than men. They are comments or attitudes that are seemingly positive -- such as, a man can surely handle criticism -- but serve to cause feelings of unease, or lead to unequal treatment. And, according to study conducted at the University of Florida, such sexism is practiced by men and women in equal measure.
Tracy, a regional manager for a large department store chain, would not have said that she believed women were inherently more talented salespeople than men. But she often managed her employees according to that notion, assigning men to easier shifts, which often had them working during the day -- and earning less commission than their female counterparts -- or holding extra trainings exclusively for male sales staff on topics like "What to Wear to Work" and "How to Talk to Women." At the same time, Tracy did acknowledge that she tended to favor her female employees -- especially single mothers who were working to support a family. "Giving the women the better shifts felt like female solidarity, like I was performing a necessary duty," she said. "Women so often get a raw deal, I figured what's the harm in doing my part to advance the female movement?"
Except, of course, that idea is sexist, too -- that women need help. Tracy's intentions were good, of course, but the result was still the same: She was using her position of power to keep one gender down and/ or lift the other up. But speaking up, lobbying, or otherwise going above and beyond for a woman, when you might not have done the same for a man, is a subtle way of reinforcing the idea that women need to be spoken up, lobbied, and gone above and beyond for. It's not taking them seriously.
Practicing a non-sexist work environment means treating people equally regardless of gender. Ultimately, Sari realized that much of her attitude towards male editors was an outcome of her own struggle to succeed -- something she always assumed was harder because she was a woman. Likely she wasn't wrong, but the answer isn't to pay the sexism forward. "I maybe had a bit of a chip on my shoulder," she said later. "I had to prove myself coming up as an editor, and now that I was in charge, I wanted men to know what that was like." Given that so much sexism is benevolent, or unintentional, ending the cycle means paying attention, and recognizing that sexism is sexism and, in any form, is damaging to the idea of gender equity. It's also about recognizing that the best workplaces are built on the ideals of hard work, talent, and dedication -- three qualities that know no gender.
This first appeared on Forbes.com.