On Sexism and Empathy

by Ginger on September 19, 2012

in The 9-5

Last night, I was (finally) catching up on the massive backlog of blog posts in my reader, and I came to this post called The Hidden Cost of Acceptance from Cloud over at Wandering Scientist. In it, she discusses how the acceptance of sexism as “just the way things are” makes her life, and her job, harder, and how it rankles when the answer given seems to be to be, “Eh, just deal with it.” (She puts it way more eloquently than I do, you really should read it).

While I was reading it, I found myself thinking, “Whew, I’m so glad that is not my norm.” I’ve been incredibly lucky in my 13 years in the working world to be employed, with one six month exception, at places that are dominated by women, or at bare minimum that are an even split between the sexes. I’ve worked for 2 companies with female CEO’s. With the exception of one 5 month transition period, I’ve never had a male boss. I am surrounded by females who set policy, who drive business, who run the freaking show. So a lot of the sexism that Cloud talks about is NOT a part of my day to day work life.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen though. I had one guy I worked with who assumed all the women in our department were there to get him coffee, all the way from the assistants up to the VP’s. He never asked that of the men. I worked, briefly, with this sales guy who practically sneered at any idea that came out of my mouth…but when my male coworker would present the same idea a week later (at my request), would think it was the best ever.* Then there was the old school guy who called all the ladies “sweetcheeks” and was known to openly ogle any woman who came into a meeting with him. Skeevy. And of course, my favorite–the guy who, in meetings, would always address my (male) employee for answers that only I could give.

But in general, my work experience has been free-er of the sexism that so many experience in so many other fields, and for that I am grateful.


That doesn’t mean that I think it’s not a problem. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t think we need to continue to address it. Just because it’s not MY day to day, doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge that it’s SOMEONE’S day to day…and that it’s wrong. Or that it may someday BE my day to day. I am a woman working in America, it happens to me on occasion even in this industry that is very heavily skewed female, and it will likely happen to me in the future.

I think a lot of the struggles people have get dismissed by “well, it doesn’t happen to ME, so it doesn’t happen.” Or “it doesn’t happen to me, so it’s not a big deal.” There is this inherent lack of empathy in so many of our interactions with others, with our dismissal of others’ struggles. There is a lack of ability to put ourselves in the shoes of the people around us. Imagine how much would be at least DISCUSSED if we could get rid of “Well, it doesn’t happen to me…”

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I know that there’s no easy answer, but it just seems to me that this is on the list of things that women shouldn’t have to just “accept” in order to work in this country. As Cloud says in her post, the extra weight this puts on her at work makes her life harder, and that just isn’t the way it should be. But I think it will take people who AREN’T in this position acknowledging it as a problem, imagining what it must be like for the people who DO experience it, before it will be something that we can fully address.

So what about you? Have you experienced, or seen, sexism in your workplace? Have you felt it get better or worse as you’ve been employed longer? Do you think that a lack of empathy contributes to the dismissal of sexism as a problem?

*Many of these were ideas that would make my working life easier as far as systems. I decided I cared more about making the changes than getting the credit. That guy wasn’t with the company for long, apparently he pissed off his (female) boss one too many times with not listening to the tasks she had given him.

Erin September 19, 2012 at 11:24 am

I could talk about this for hours. I used to work in an office of mostly women, but all the higher-ups were men. And a lot of the women in the office perpetuated the problem of women not being able to move up the ranks because they were cliquey and gossipy and would rather have discussed their new handbags and heels than goals and strategies in the workplace. And MANY times I heard the women say how much better it was to work for a man, which used to drive me crazy. I always felt the main issue in that office was the women weren’t “playing like men” — they were playing like we were all on our way to happy hour. Everyone’s feelings were always getting hurt and few people were acting professional, and that caused the men to treat the women as a whole like a bunch of sorority girls at best, children at worst. It was a despicable place to work. So what I’m basically saying is sexism is very alive and well. And my perhaps unpopular belief is that women are a part of that problem, in some instances. If we could all get on the same page, behave appropriately, and demand equal treatment consistently, I believe things would change for the better.

Alyssa S. September 19, 2012 at 11:46 am

This topic always leaves me at a loss. I can honestly say this has not been my experience and I’ve been in the working world in one capacity or another since I was 16 (which by the way was a LONG time ago). Sure, they’ve invented sensitivity training and sexual harassment videos and all sorts of laws and policies, but I think in the long run, the men with these views of women are still the same sexist men…they just mask it (some better than others) in the workplace. I don’t consider myself overly cynical, but how do you MAKE people stop being sexist or racist or any other -cist? It’s not like there’s an off button. You can say you won’t tolerate it in a workplace and sexists will still do what they do. I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t. All I can do is teach my own son to respect women as equals.

Anne September 19, 2012 at 12:55 pm

I’ve never had to deal with this, and I’m very grateful. I don’t know if it’s because I’m still relatively young, but I know that I would lose my shit if I encountered that kind of sexism in the workplace, and the end result would most likely be me losing my job. I cannot imagine how hard it must be for women who have to put up with sexism in the workplace. It is definitely still a problem, and I wish I knew what the solution was.

shasta September 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm

I come from a somewhat odd perspective on this – I’ve worked in construction/property restoration for 9 years, and this is traditionally an industry dominated by men. (SPOILER ALERT: It still is.) There definitely is a prevailing attitude of sexism, and – without making excuses – I do think that these attitudes arise simply because of the blue collar/physical nature of this industry where workers with knowledge are traditionally men. You do just sorta deal with it because the kinds of people that tend to be construction workers are part of a culture that historically doesn’t have too much value for women. Seeing this, I tend to think that some other industries have similar cultural histories. And I’m not sure there’s anyway around that.

That said, aside from sensitivity training, sexual harrassment laws, x-y-z memos as to why women are just as useful as men, I think the best way to beat the sexism (and mind you, this is my experience) is to be so good at your job that you become invaluable to the men around you. Yes, it does take time and effort and energy that many men wouldn’t have to exert just to be taken seriously, but – right or wrong – that fight is just the burden of being a woman. By virtue of biology (initially), men were the dominant ones in a culture, and they’ve had thousands of years of having that message reinforced. Sadly, I think it’s our job as modern women to try to undo much of that handiwork. We acknowledge the sexism, do our best to work around it or through it, and keep going. I might also add that men in primarily female-dominated industries have similar problems; male teachers consistently feel like that have much more to prove that women.

Also, my serious sympathy to Cloud. Somedays I want to punch my more disrespectful coworkers; instead I schedule them on the crappiest jobs of the day. They learn quickly after that.

Charleen September 19, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I know this isn’t really what this post is about, but it just reminds me of another one I read a couple weeks back about a woman getting harassed on her way home: http://unwinona.tumblr.com/post/30861660109/i-debated-whether-or-not-to-share-this-story

The world would be a much better place if we could just put ourselves in other people’s shoes for even a moment. Why can’t we just treat each other the way we want to be treated, or the way we hope someone would treat our friend/parent/child/fill-in-the-blank? I guess I should consider myself lucky that I was raised in such a way that it blows my mind how anyone could consider another person beneath them for something as ridiculous as their gender, race, or sexual orientation.

The Sweetest September 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm

I once had to file a sexual harassment complaint. He was a nasty creep who didn’t respect any women. I have seen both sides, though, and generally find that the more saavy and educated a male is, the more accepting and respectful of women he is likely to be. S maybe we can find a way to get rid of all the idiots.

Hope September 19, 2012 at 2:26 pm

I work in AV, which is so male dominated it makes IT look like a feminist bookstore. When they hired me at my current job, I was literally the first woman ever hired for that type of position. And we’re a team of 10+ people in a long-standing department at a global company. I’ve been to training classes where I was the first woman ever to take that particular course.

The stories I could tell you…

Single Mom in the South September 20, 2012 at 3:18 am

I work in an elementary school, so men are few and far between… this year, with a new female principal, we have a reverse of sorts… actual announcements like, “I need the male teachers to come up and help move boxes.” No, I”m not kidding!

Reading (and chickens) September 20, 2012 at 8:52 am

I have always worked in woman-dominated fields, for either liberal arts professors or in libraries. Once I worked in business for a year and it almost broke my soul because I was not prepared for how little men thought of me (I almost exclusively worked with men that year). I couldn’t do it, even though that’s the most money I’ve ever made. It stinks, but it’s also true that I should have been stronger, or at least that’s what I tell myself. I don’t know if I could have done it in reality.

melanie jean juneau September 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm

These attitudes are not just cultural condtitioning but ingrained, inherited traits. It will take another generation at least, to break misogny off our sons and victmn complexes off our daughters. This is not pessimistic but let’s us grasp the fact that shallow regulations and commercials won’t change society. We have to attack right at the roots- by healing our kids

Cloud September 20, 2012 at 10:08 pm

Thanks for the shout out! I can say here what I didn’t want to post on my blog- this guy’s contract will not be renewed, partly because of the fact that he refused to learn from me. (He technically reports to my boss, but was told to take direction from me, and he did not.)

The saddest thing for me in this particular case is that he is a young guy- younger than me. So if it is sexism (and as I say in my post, in most cases, it is hard to say definitively that it is), he lacks the usual excuse of being an older guy who hasn’t changed with the times.

I have worked with some wonderful men over the years. But I’ve also worked with some clods. I do think the environment has gotten a little better from when I first started out in my career, but there is a long way to go.

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