6 Ideas for Combatting Institutional Sexism in the Workplace

woman being bullied in a meeting

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine

What is institutional sexism?

Institutional sexism is a form of institutional discrimination in which a particular gender (usually women) is undervalued and treated differently from members of the opposite gender in an organization or larger body, such as a country or society in general.
Often, the larger group or organization does not engage in institutional discrimination consciously but is still rife with casual sexism; for instance, many managers may not realize they're promoting more men over women. In other instances, sexism is more overt. The #MeToo movement, for example, has shed light on the abuse many women have endured across a wide range of industries.

Identifying institutional sexism.

What are the different types of sexism? Many people identifying hostile, benevolent and ambivalent as the main categories. The #MeToo movement is characterized by examples of blatant hostile sexism and sexual harassment. Other instances are far more subtle.
What is an example of sexism? Men might have more time to voice their opinions in meetings. A woman might be passed over for a promotion because her managers are keeping her pregnancy in mind—even if it's not an apparent factor. People may continually ask a woman when she's going to get married. Gender inequality manifests itself in many ways in the workplace and beyond.
So, how can you promote gender equality in your workplace? Well, the good news is that you want to do something about it. That's the first step to initiating change. Here are six ideas for combating institutionalized discrimination in your workplace

4 ways to fight institutional sexism in the workplace.

1. Create a diversity committee.

Dr. Cherry Collier of Personality Matters, INC., suggests forming a group of in-house advocates to oversee efforts to promote equality in your workplace. Creating a committee to routinely discuss issues minorities in the office face — including gender equality — and develop practices to address them can help you work together as a team to find solutions.

2. Be open about the company's efforts to promote diversity — and request input from employees.

You can't fix it you don't know what's broken. Explain to your employees that you're trying to work on issues like everyday sexism in the workplace and want their feedback.
You might, for instance, ask for their participation in an anonymous survey. Once you receive responses, actually read them, and try to address them. Also, ask for suggestions on ways to tackle the problems.

3. Address gender inequality in unconscious bias training.

Whether or not unconscious bias training works is subject to a fair amount of debate. However, no matter what you call it, it's important to establish some form of policy regarding discrimination and harassment in the workplace upfront and make sure new hires and current employees alike are aware of and well-versed in it.
People may be required to undergo training when they're hired and then on a routine basis later, or you may institute another policy.

4. Be flexible.

Allowing women to have more options during and after pregnancies may prevent them from being held back at work.
Barbara Safani of Career Solvers suggests providing women in these positions with more flexible options, such as telecommuting, job shares, and consulting assignments, to enable them to continue advancing in their careers.

5. Establish events that feature and celebrate women.

Despite some progress, many science fields continue to be male-dominated, and men outpace women in terms of salaries, promotions, and winning grants.
Psychologist Virginia Valian notes that one problem is that women in STEM are rarely given opportunities to be as visible as men. So make an effort to showcase the high-achieving women in your organization. Recommend deserving workers for awards and lectures.
This shouldn't be limited to external events; ask women to speak at internal events, too. That way, she'll develop a positive in-house reputation, and your employees will recognize and appreciate the contributions of men and women alike.

6. Start with your manager.

If your manager is the problem, you need to address it. Start by approaching him and having a private conversation. He may not realize that he was being offensive and could apologize when you point it out. If, however, the behavior continues, you may need to go above his head. That means talking to your boss's boss and HR. Most companies have procedures in place for handling it, so it's also a good idea to consult your employee handbook to review the steps. (Of course, if they seem inadequate, you may want to ask for more advice or handle the matter according to what makes you comfortable.)

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