Women are sexually objectified in our culture — from the mass media to their own workplaces. They're regularly subjected to gawking and catcalls and harassment and sexual violence, and catalyst research suggests that the objectification of women in workplaces sets them back. The notion that women are valued on their physical appearances rather than their professional skills keeps a very specific patriarchal power structure in place.
Objectifying women is an injustice, whether conscious or subconscious. So workplaces need to take conscious steps to level the playing field for men and women.
What Is Objectification?
Objectification is central to feminist theory and can be defined as the viewing and/or treating a person, typically a woman, as an object. So what is objectification in sociology? American philosopher and the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, Martha Nussbaum, identified seven features associated with the idea of treating a person as an object in our society:
- Instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier's purposes
- Denial of autonomy: the treatment of a person as lacking in autonomy and self-determination
- Inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity
- Fungibility: the treatment of a person as interchangeable with other objects
- Violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity
- Ownership: the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another
- Denial of subjectivity: the treatment of a person as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account
Rae Helen Langton, FBA is an Australian and British professor of philosophy, later added three more features to the list:
- Reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts
- Reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses
- Silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak
What Is Objectification Theory?
Objectification theory looks at the ways in which objectification, especially sexual objectification and often times objectification of all kinds in the workplace, can impact women’s lives, as well as how they manage, cope and resist certain experiences when they're being exploited.
"Objectification theory postulates that many women are sexually objectified and treated as an object to be valued for its use by others; sexual objectification occurs when a woman’s body or body parts are singled out and separated from her as a person and she is viewed primarily as a physical object of male sexual desire," according to the a study aptly titled Self-Objectification and Personal Values: An Exploratory Study. "Objectification theory posits that sexual objectification of females is likely to contribute to mental health problems that disproportionately affect women."
Feminists like Sandra Bartky and Susan Bordo have argued that women are also objectified by being excessively preoccupied with their appearance themselves. This factors into a phenomenon called "self-objectification."
What Is Self-Objectification?
According to the same aforementioned study, "self-objectification occurs when individuals treat themselves as objects to be viewed and evaluated based upon appearance."
Essentially, self-objectification is a byproduct of societal objectification. The more women are told that their value is based on their bodies and physical properties rather than their skills and abilities, the more they start to believe that themselves and treat themselves as such.
"The objectification theory posits that women often are looked at as objects by society, with a sexual focus being placed on their bodies rather than on their abilities, and the ubiquity of these objectification experiences socializes women to internalize an observer perspective upon their body," according to the same study. "This process is called self-objectification and occurs when women think about and treat themselves as objects to be regarded and evaluated based upon appearance."
Research suggests that, though women internalize objectification to varying degrees, self-objectification promotes shame and anxiety and actually hinders task performances and decreases morale, which, of course, can negatively affect women in the workplace, too. Self-objectification manifests on a more intense level depending on how obsesses a woman becomes regarding her own appearance and experiences with her body.
"Self-objectification can increase women’s anxiety about physical appearance (i.e., fear about when and how one’s body will be looked at and evaluated); reduce opportunities for peak motivational states or flow; diminish awareness of internal bodily sensations (e.g., hunger, sexual arousal, stomach contractions); increase women’s opportunities for body shame (i.e., the emotion that results from measuring oneself against a cultural standard and coming up short); and increase women’s anxiety about their physical safety (e.g., fears about being raped), which in turn can lead to disordered eating, depression, and sexual dysfunction," according to the research.
Of course, feeling any of those ways in the workplace does not make the workplace a safe space.
What Does Objectification Look Like in the Workplace?
If you feel like your boss, coworker or direct report are objectifying you, you're not alone. Sexual objectification is a tactic used in workplaces that keeps a glass ceiling over women's heads. Coworkers might objectify female coworkers in a competitive manner, while bosses and direct reports might objectify female employees as a power play.
Women frequently face sexual objectification through both the active and passive consumption of multimedia, and these two avenues of exposure "create a continuous stream of sexually objectifying experiences and images," according to New York University's The Effects of Sexual Objectification on Women's Mental Health. "Media’s vast reach ensures that women and girls of all ages, socio-cultural backgrounds, and geographical locations are affected by these images."
Those images in the media make sexual objectification in the real world, in places like the office, seem "normal," though they're anything but acceptable.
Objectification in the workplace might look like the following:
- Your boss, coworker, direct report or someone else at work tells you that your dress is distracting.
- Your boss holds you back from certain opportunities because you're a woman.
- Your direct report doesn't treat you with respect because you're a woman.
- Your coworkers accuse you of "seducing your way to the top."
- Your boss, coworker, direct report or someone else at work catcall you, whistle at you, or make inappropriate comments in the office.
- You're passed up for a promotion because of your appearance.
- You experience any unwanted body evaluations or sexual advances.
- Your coworker makes sexually insinuating stares or comments toward you.
- Your boss, coworker, direct report or someone else at work make gendered microaggressions that are generally sexist in nature.
How Do You Deal with Objectification at Work?
Workplaces need to tread carefully when it comes to objectification. Organizations should be taking conscious and ample steps to ensure that female talent feels safe and free from harassment when they're at work to do their jobs. Workplaces should be hiring and promoting women who can lead my example; they should be engaging employees in diversity training so everyone understands that all employees are equal; they should be instituting and enforcing anti-sexual harassment and violence policies; they should be holding perpetrators accountable and they should be listening to and respecting victim's voices.
If you do feel like you're a victim of objectification at work, you'll want to be sure to report it before it escalates or happens to other women. Unfortunately, for a lot of women, coming forward can be intimidating as many women fear the risk of losing their jobs or "making it worse." But choosing to ignore objectification at work will, in fact, make it worse — and all women deserve to work in safe spaces.
Talk to the employee objectifying you first. If that does not go well, report the incidents to your human resources team. Check out these posts for more resources on how to report discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
- How to Deal with Sexual Harassment at Work
- Sexual Harassment Laws In the United States: A Timeline
- Take These 4 Steps to Combat Gender Discrimination in the Workplace
- Discrimination in the Workplace — Everything You Need to Know
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.