When a male colleague compliments you on your looks, you may like it. Who doesn’t like a compliment? It makes you feel good; boosts your self-esteem. In fact, a well-timed compliment can make your day when you’re feeling blue. What’s the harm? It may not seem harmful at all, until you realize that you only receive superficial comments about your appearance, never about your work. And though you may welcome the attention, over time you become frustrated and discouraged because no one takes you seriously. These comments about your appearance can be, in fact, a form of benevolent sexism.
In the workplace today, hostile overt sexism is rarely tolerated. But that sexist mentality, based on gender stereotypes, remains alive and well in the form of benevolent sexism. And what makes it so insidious is that it is disguised by what appears on the surface to be a simple positive remark or situation.
Your increased awareness of how benevolent sexism manifests itself in the workplace is critical for your ongoing success. Why? Because it’s often a trap. You enjoy these positive compliments and attention, may even encourage them, until you see clearly how this can sabotage your ambition.
Here are some examples of the good, bad, and ugly ways benevolent sexism plays out in the workplace.
You’re asked to plan a department or company event.
The Good: You feel good about being tapped for a project that will give you visibility in the organization, and you believe you’re up for the task. You receive some recognition of a job well done. In fact, you do such a great job that the following year you are asked to plan the event again. Kudos to you!
The Bad: Your reputation becomes that of a doer, someone who gets things done, but who doesn’t have leadership potential. You fall into the trap of liking the acknowledgment that you did a good job, but unfortunately, it’s not the type of work that organization values and is never noted on your performance review. It’s stressful to do all this planning and coordinating and takes an enormous amount of your time which affects your productivity and quality of work. Is it worth it for that moment of recognition?
The Ugly: The request is most likely grounded in the stereotype that women are better at planning and organizing, not leading. This bias can lead to you being channeled into a support position rather than one that requires P&L responsibility and prepares you for leadership.
You return from maternity and find your workload changed.
You want to demonstrate your commitment to your work and either take a short maternity leave or come back to work early. But you quickly realize that your high profile clients have been reassigned to someone else. When you make an inquiry, you are told, “We assumed you didn’t want to travel or work that hard with a newborn.”
The Good: It can be viewed as a good thing that you don’t have to travel and deal with challenging work situations. After all, you just had a baby and you still have plenty of sleepless nights. It is good to not have the expectation to work long hours. But is it good for your career? Probably not.
The Bad: Before you took maternity leave, you were on the fast track and had made significant progress in building a solid reputation of hard work and great performance. You communicated to HR as well as your manager that you had the intention of assuming your previous role after the short hiatus. Apparently, no one believed you or trusted you.
The Ugly: The reassignment not only takes you off the fast track but decreases your opportunity for the increased visibility required for promotion. An assumption, based on gender bias, was made that because you are a woman it is too much for you to go right back to your full schedule. Because of your commitment to return to your normal routine, however, you secured adequate child care and made arrangements for coverage in case of travel. The danger here is you are labeled as a ‘new mother’ and therefore, not trustworthy and perhaps hormonal. There is also an assumption that you will opt out or won’t be reliable to manage your previous workload.