Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported on a troubling study
. The study, conducted by the University of Colorado, was looking to examine the longer-term impact of #MeToo, the campaign to expose sexual harassment, abuse, and predation which has overwhelmingly focused on harm by men towards women. While finding that women reported an overall decline in workplace sexual harassment, it also found that there was a growing uptick in plain old sexism.
I'm not naive enough to believe that sexism was something we'd closed the door on; it's something every woman lives with, the frustrating background radiation of our lives. The belief that femininity is weak and superficial while masculinity is strong and deep has implications that play out every day; I cannot tell you how many times a service clerk has called me "sweetie" while calling my husband "sir," or how often I was presumed to be my business partner's secretary or assistant. While it's true that sexism can play out as overt as the assertion that women are fundamentally less capable than men, in most cases, it's far more subtle: the devaluing of women, our experiences, our abilities, and our insights purely on the grounds of who and what we are.
I'm not naive enough to believe that sexism was something we'd closed the door on; it's something every woman lives with, the frustrating background radiation of our lives.
There is actually quite a great deal of overlap between harassment and sexism on the misogyny Venn diagram, because both of them are ultimately about power over women. It boils down to strategies of dominance, and the dots that the University of Colorado study are connecting lead to the conclusion that the degree to which men feel less free to sexually objectify women correlates to finding other ways to do the same work of maintaining a feeling of superiority and control: keeping the womenfolk in line.
I'm not going to assert that this is deliberate; sexism is so often a sort of passive reality, the ocean in which we all swim. But I also want to remind everyone that sexism is far from harmless; it does much the same work as harassment, preventing women from ever forgetting that we exist in public life at the pleasure of the men around us. I think about every time I was expected to perform secretarial work when I was a junior trader (which, you may have observed, is not how you spell "secretary") by men with less experience than me. I think about a young woman I know who ended up walking away from a once-in-a-lifetime job due to the incessant dismissal of her abilities and input. I think about women being cut out of decision-making processes, denied promotions because "this is really more of a man's thing." I think about how motherhood reduces women's lifetime earnings potential while fatherhood raises it.
Sexist environments, in other words, create what they promise: a world where women don't measure up.
That shouldn't be controversial. It's not a secret. And yet I see this sort of thing is dismissed as harmless time and time again, as though it all doesn't add up to the slow demolition of as many women as it can. A while back, I spoke with Goldman Sachs about its new diversity plan, and what struck me about it was just how many factors it had identified that restrict the number of women who are able to advance in their careers there, as well as how frequently women just… leave. It's a vicious cycle, to be sure, but it's one driven by the fundamental assumption that women are less capable than men and that, all things being equal, it'd be better to promote a man.
Let's not ignore for a moment the stark emotional damage hearing "you're just a girl" or even "you're really smart for a girl" for an entire lifetime can (and demonstrably does
) wreak, preventing scores of women from even entertaining the notion of pursuing careers in business, science, or medicine. Hostile workplaces create conditions where employees simply can't perform; anxiety, stress, fear, and self-doubt all get between a hard worker and a job well done. When we are told what we cannot do, told who we cannot be, are dismissed, belittled, denigrated, it has the knock-on effect of what's called in the social sciences "stereotype threat." Essentially, the anxiety surrounding fulfilling a stereotype makes it self-fulfilling.
We've seen it play out in laboratory settings
; in one study, women who were reminded of sexist assumptions that women are bad at math performed meaningfully worse at a math test than those who weren't. Sexist environments, in other words, create what they promise: a world where women don't measure up. But that's something imposed on us from the outside, and it's the reason why the women who manage to overcome the crushing weight of these assumptions are so lauded: because they've done something remarkable, something that very few men ever have to do.
The belief that femininity is weak and superficial while masculinity is strong and deep has implications that play out every day
The threat to women doesn't go away with Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK, and sexist remarks aren't harmless jokes. They are a stumbling block placed, deliberately or not, in the way of every single woman who sets out to make her own way in the world. It's harder to fight, and harder to see, but just as invidious.
It's something I believe we can beat. The last few years have foisted women's issues and feminism to the forefront of public conversation, educating millions about problems like these and the ways individuals contribute to them. That's a groundswell that has the potential of creating lasting change. But not if we don't keep it going. I believe we're stronger than sexism, that millions of voices can't be ignored, and that lasting change is possible.
We just have to keep trying.
This article was originally published September 30, 2019.