The New Workplace Sexism

Mad Men, which recently kicked off its fourth season, tends to spark big-picture conversations about social change. Jon Hamm, who plays the handsome protagonist Don Draper, was asked by a Time reader last week how office gender roles have changed since the 1960s, when the show takes place. "There's a cordialness that men had when dealing with the opposite sex, even when they were being blatantly sexist," Hamm replied. "But that's been replaced with men treating women like absolute garbage and not even being polite about it, which is too bad."

Elizabeth Moss, who plays Don Draper's co-worker Peggy Olsen, expressed similar sentiments in 2007, telling TV Guide that the biggest difference between her character's life in the 1960s and her own is "probably just the blatant sexism." She continued, "I think there's obviously still sexism today, it's just different."

While I  agree with Moss and Hamm that it is more frowned upon (thanks, feminism!), I do think that "blatantly sexist" behavior persists in the workplace today. And one of the least-talked about problems when it comes to modern-day workplace sexism is not harassment women face directly -- it's what's said about them when their backs are turned.

I can cite a dozen examples in my corner of the professional world alone. Lecherous men in this business don't tend to hit on or harass women directly. Instead, they bond with other men in the profession by talking about women behind their backs -- wink-nudging male co-workers about the appearances, behavior, and perceived intentions of their female peers. (Women do this, too, although -- in my experience -- to a far lesser degree.) Often these are men who would never dream of groping, making  unwanted advances, or bestowing inappropriate nicknames on their female co-workers, but behind-their-back comments are also intimidation and bullying of a sexual nature.

There have been men that I've thought were perfectly great colleagues until I heard otherwise from male friends. That's right, sexist dudes! Some of the guys you talk to about women are our friends -- and they tell us what you're saying. That's how I found out that a female editor I know had garnered a totally unwarranted reputation as a flirt. How I know that a certain male editor likes to make side comments about the bodies of female interns. How I heard about an older male co-worker who wistfully expressed that he wishes he were 20 years younger so he could hit on the young women at the office. (What he didn't realize is that the man he chose to confide in at the office holiday party was the boyfriend of one of those young women. Oops.) Word gets around.

This type of behavior is widely acknowledged to be sexist. But most of us don't immediately think of it as workplace harassment. In the common view, expressed by Hamm and Moss, harassment and sexism are supposed to be more straightforward. Women will know when they're being harassed. But, given that networking and reputation are keys to success in many professions, what people say about you is arguably more important than what they say to your face. If your professional contacts are talking about your legs rather than your résumé, you're at a disadvantage. I know how to handle direct sexist comments. It's much harder to think about how to shut down a conversation about me that I may not even be aware of.

A few months ago, Clay Shirky wrote a piece encouraging women to "act more like men" -- display cutthroat ambition and a healthy amount of swagger -- to find professional success. A lot of people, myself included, criticized his failure to understand how women are punished when they adopt such aggressive behavior. They're called ice queens or affirmative-action cases or accused of sleeping their way to the top -- sometimes, all of the above. It's that last accusation, of using sexuality to get ahead, that Jane Hu explored at The Awl last week. In a piece on recent media sex scandals, both real and tabloid-embellished, she found ambitious women near the center of many of them. And she found that these up-and-coming or successful women were frequently described as flirtatious, gorgeous, charismatic beauties.

While good looks help people of all genders succeed in the workplace (as Newsweek discussed in an unsurprising article this month), it's safe to say that women who are conventionally attractive and unconventionally ambitious face a unique set of choices and obstacles as they climb the career ladder. Contrary to the stereotype of male bosses hitting on their female subordinates, a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the most likely targets of workplace sexual harassment were women in supervisory positions. In other words, competent women are seen as a threat -- and talking about their sexuality is a way to take them down a notch or two.

Reputation matters, and we need to eliminate the assumption that sexism is fine so long as women are out of earshot. In the meantime, we need more and better male allies to not only let women know when men are talking about their sexuality in a professional context but to put a stop to that conversation in the moment. Most of all, we need to acknowledge that, despite our desire to highlight all the progress made since Don Draper's era, all harassment is still "blatantly sexist" -- and inexcusable.

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