It’s shameful to think that career women in 2018 still need to contend with the gender-biased attitudes, actions, and abuses of male chauvinists. But, as current events continue to prove, this issue persists, with sexism informing political discourse, policy decisions, and cultural conversations.
Chauvinist behaviors and perspectives impede the progress of women in the professional sphere, but female activists admirably fight back against this discrimination. To become part of the resistance, it helps to be fully informed on your adversary. Therefore, we bring you a guide on chauvinism, how it manifests, and what we can do about it.
According to Merriam-Webster, chauvinism entails “an attitude of superiority towards people of the opposite sex.” The dictionary cites “male chauvinism” as the most common example, implicitly making the valid point that chauvinism involves people with privilege and their negative attitudes toward people in less-privileged positions.
While “chauvinism” and “sexism” go hand and hand these days, the original definition deviated somewhat from the meaning we now recognize. “Chauvinism” came into being during the Napoleonic age, and it first meant “excessive and unreasonable patriotism” (basically, a synonym for “jingoism”), according to the Encyclopædia Britannica. The term first became linked to men with sexist viewpoints during the mid-20th century, when left-wing activists started using “male chauvinist” to describe a man who considers females inherently inferior to males, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
This term gained momentum during the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and is a colloquial synonym for male chauvinist, with the “pig” descriptor added to emphasize the callous nature of the subject.
As with the “chauvinist” label in general, “chauvinist pig” traditionally refers to a male individual exhibiting biases against women. However, as New York Times writer Ariel Levy pointed out in a 2005 story entitled “Female Chauvinist Pigs,” this derogatory title can apply to anyone displaying a chauvinistic attitude, regardless of gender.
While the definition of a male chauvinist seems fairly straightforward, examples of chauvinistic attitudes can be trickier to pin down. Essentially, any behavior casting female perspectives, opinions, and viewpoints as trivial and inconsequential fall under the chauvinistic umbrella.
Chauvinistic attitudes affect women in all corners of society, and while aggressive outward displays of misogyny are sadly not uncommon, chauvinism can also appear in more insidious forms. For example, Donald Trump’s sexist belief system arises regularly, even when he thinks he’s praising the women in his life (and explicitly denying his own chauvinism). During an ABC Primetime interview back in the ‘90s, Trump said the following about ex-wife Ivana and her burgeoning career as a businesswoman:
“I don’t want to sound like a chauvinist, but when I come home at night and dinner’s not ready I go through the roof. But I got handed casino numbers. After 12 hours dealing with my companies, I didn’t want to talk business. I can instantaneously shut it off, my survival mechanism. But she’d be yelling into the phone with the casino; I didn’t want my wife shouting like that. Ivana had a great softness that disappeared. She became an executive, not a wife.”
In the workplace, chauvinistic attitudes frequently manifest in arguably subtle ways that nevertheless smack of inappropriate gender stereotyping. One example offered by Business Insider is the fact that “women are often expected to answer the phone, set up meetings, and fill out paperwork” in office settings, even when their job descriptions don’t include administrative tasks, simply because secretarial work is viewed by chauvinists as a “woman’s job.”
Another common example of chauvinistic behavior at work involves “mansplaining,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “explaining something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic.” As with other instances of subtle sexism, “mansplainers” generally don’t have harmful intentions and may even believe that they’re being helpful. However, the condescension of these exchanges is palpable. In a piece called “The harm of mansplaining at work,” The Chicago Tribune shared the following story from Elly Shariat of shariatPR:
"One time I wore flats and [a male coworker] pulled me aside to explain that flats were actually terrible for my health and that heels were far better and I would develop better calf muscles if I wore heels. The first time he said that I kind of laughed and I thought he was joking because it was just such a ludicrous thing to hear. But the next time he pulled me aside and gave me a very stern warning that he had talked to me about the health benefits of wearing heels. I finally found a pair of heels that worked, and I'd wear my flats whenever he wasn't around."
Although the “chauvinist” title applies to individuals who consider members of the opposite sex inferior, popular culture and societal norms have so associated chauvinism with male chauvinism that the term now almost exclusively refers to those who consider females less relevant and significant than males. So while the technical definition of a female chauvinist suggests a woman who considers women superior to men, the fact that women still qualify as a minority removes the privilege necessary for one group to position themselves as “superior” to another. Some have handled this imbalance by redefining “female chauvinist” as a woman with a sympathetic outlook on male chauvinism, but when it comes to the existence of female chauvinism overall, the jury’s still out.
As many an ambitious female employee can tell you, chauvinism shows up frequently in the professional world. Particularly if you work in an environment heavily populated by conservative men of an older generation (although certainly not exclusively; young men are just as capable of chauvinism as their elders), the tendency of certain senior staffers to dismiss feedback or advancement requests from female employees runs rampant. But there’s no need to sit back and accept these discriminatory attitudes as a necessary evil; both women and their male and non-binary allies can and should fight back against chauvinistic behaviors.
In the year 2018, it’s less likely than ever that you’ll encounter an explicitly sexist, “Mad Men”-style boss. But while today’s chauvinism may come in a more subtle package, it’s still damaging and should be discouraged and combatted at every available opportunity.
If you find yourself regularly dealing with a sexist supervisor, you have numerous approach options, depending on the particular person’s temperament and your comfort level with tough conversations. If you don’t mind a direct approach, CareerAddict suggests “turning the tables” on your boss if and when he makes a chauvinistic remark. “If your manager says something to you that’s sexist, ask them if they would have said the same thing if you were a man. For example, a male or female colleague has commented that your dress is tight. You can politely ask them if they ‘would have said the same thing to a male coworker?’” advises writer Joanna Zambas.
Sometimes, confronting your boss in a public forum doesn’t suit your purposes in an effective way. In that situation, a private talk may have a greater impact. “If the subtle sexism is getting to you and you are unsure of how to handle it, a good idea would be to request a private chat. The person you are talking to may not even realize that they are doing this and that it affects you, a friendly reminder that it’s not okay is sometimes all that they need,” Zambas explains.
Above all else, it’s important to avoid taking chauvinistic attitudes personally (difficult though that may be). As Zambas puts it: “Unfortunately, sometimes people’s backgrounds simply make them chauvinistic pigs and sadly they don’t realize they are making remarks that are not okay. They aren’t directing it personally at you, it’s just that they don’t know any different, or better. Try not to take everything to heart and build a thick skin when you are in your working environment.”
When dealing with a workplace peer (not a supervisor or a subordinate) who exhibits chauvinistic attitudes, this negative outlook can manifest in a number of ways. Sometimes, the bigger issue involves the way that others in your workspace interpret the interactions between you and your sexist colleague. Other times, you can find yourself saddled with less-than-ideal responsibilities because your coworker perpetuates harmful and outdated gender constructs.
If you’re dealing with an outwardly-aggressive male coworker who considers his time and projects more important than yours (and doesn’t care if you know it), other colleagues may interpret his belligerent behavior as indicative of a “go-getter” attitude, while similar actions from you may be perceived as “bossy”. But while it can be difficult to call a supervisor out for “benevolent sexism,” a colleague on equal footing can and should be confronted in these situations. It can actually help to “flip the script”; according to Bustle, “when a male coworker asks you to fetch coffee, take notes, or plan a lunch, you can respond by saying something like: "Sure, just as soon as you take out the trash, fix the leaky faucet in the kitchen, and hang all of the new pictures in the office."
Sometimes, a male direct report may push back against your entirely-reasonable requests and expectations, giving you cause to believe that he takes issue with the concept of being managed by a female superior. In more minor instances of this behavior, humor can go a long way.
The Guardian recommends the following: “If a colleague repeats your idea to mass applause at a meeting, it’s perfectly fine to raise an eyebrow and say gently, ‘Great idea, John. Although, didn’t I just say that five minutes ago?’. The trick is to smile: after all if you’re smiling you’re not angry, you’re just stating a fact. Your fact.”
But if these situations persist, termination may be the best and only solution, after appropriate employee counseling and documentation. After all, you’re the boss. If a chauvinistic subordinate disrespects you repeatedly, he isn’t doing his job, and he’s hindering your ability to effectively do yours.
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