Starting a new job or otherwise taking steps toward our career goals should be exciting, and the last thing any of us need is for workplace sexism to deflate our confidence. By supporting each other, though, we can find ways handle those situations—hopefully, by confronting and/or reporting sexist behavior—so that we can continue on our paths to career greatness. Seeing sexism in the workplace can be a bit jarring for our generation. We are on middle ground, equality-wise. For those of us who had the fortune of growing up in countries with progressive views on equality, we were raised to believe that we should have the same educational opportunities as men. We have gone through school earning our grades on the same grading scales as our male classmates. We earned higher test scores than our brothers and our parents were not surprised. Unfortunately, the workplace hasn’t quite caught up, and the gender gap widens as we move up in the ranks of almost any industry.
I finished school knowing that I was entering a relatively conservative and male-dominated field, but have nonetheless had moments of slightly shocked disappointment when my friends and I have encountered sexism at work. After all, my graduating class had just as many women as men. And while the upper ranks of companies are disproportionately men, there are also plenty of female business leaders around—I seem to be reading one of their memoirs every month (which is great). Alas, since most industries still harbor people who surprise us with their antiquated views on gender, workplace sexism still exists.
In 2016, sexism in the workplace is not always the blatant, egregious discrimination our mothers or grandmothers dealt with. Sometimes it is an inappropriate comment about a woman’s “hormones” affecting a negotiation. Sometimes it is the realization that your boss is giving more responsibility to your male colleague with whom he talks sports at the coffee bar in the morning. (By the way, men, some of the women in your office may enjoy talking about sports too! But this should not be the basis for professional advancement anyway, and the fact that I, for one, have minimal interest in sports should not hinder my career.) These subtle forms of sexism are still harmful—psychologically and, ultimately, for women’s career prospects.
Fortunately, in 2016, many companies are making efforts to address these issues. If your company has formal programs or a supportive HR department, those are good avenues to pursue if you encounter sexism. Addressing workplace sexism can be tricky, though—we all want to stand up for ourselves (and should!), but there are also office politics to manage. That’s where your support network comes in. It helps to talk through how to confront a situation and to have people who will encourage us to do so (and that encouragement is often much needed given that confronting these issues as a fairly junior employee is usually scary and awkward).
One of the best things we can do to combat workplace sexism is simply support each other. As busy career women, we often forget to keep in touch with friends and classmates, and social media can be thought of as an unnecessary time-suck (a reputation that has no merit whatsoever!). But remember that your social connections can also be some of your most valuable resources if and when you find yourself in a disappointing workplace situation. Sometimes we need friends to help us step outside of our office bubbles in order to get the perspective we need.
For me, one of the first places I turn for career advice is a group of about ten friends who I met on an internet message board when we were all applying to graduate school in the same field. For the past eight years or so, we have maintained a running group chat (which has now transcended more versions of Facebook than I could count). As with any friends, we talk about all kinds of things, but they are also people who I can trust to give me different perspectives on issues at work. It definitely was not obvious to me when we first “met” that I was “networking” with future professionals in my field—I was really just trying to survive graduate school applications and my final year of university—but here we are.
The friends from school or who you met on Twitter may very well end up being the ones who get you through your toughest career challenges. Keep in touch even when it’s difficult to find the time, not only because it is important to maintain a life outside of work, but because those people will go through similar career experiences and you can learn from each other.
Your support network may also be broader than you think. I have sometimes felt like family and friends outside my professional world “don’t get it” and so I haven’t asked their advice. It turns out that issues like sexism in the workplace are, sadly, pretty universal. The people who know you best may also know what you need to do to handle a situation, even if they don’t completely understand your office politics. (It turns out that office politics are also pretty universal.) Some of the best career advice I have gotten has been from my best friend from high school. She works in an entirely different field than I do but, for example, she knew me well enough to hear me out about a challenging work situation and then say, “I think you are probably trying to fix this all by yourself but you actually need to talk to HR.” (She was, of course, right.)
Finally, one of the most important but least comfortable ways to build our career support systems: seek out mentors in the workplace. Sometimes this comes naturally from socializing with coworkers, but finding mentors in the higher ranks of your organization is not always as easy. It takes courage and effort to introduce yourself to someone and develop that relationship. It can be awkward and time-consuming. It will be worth it, though, if you encounter sexism and need advice from someone who really understands your organization—and who will vouch for you if it comes down to it.
Even in 2016, we can’t magically erase workplace sexism, but we can build in support for ourselves so that we can defeat it. Keep in touch with the people in your life and invest time into developing relationships with people in your organization. They can give you different perspectives and the knowledge that someone has your back, which may be what you need to handle either the blatant sexist remark or the subtle sexist workplace dynamic—and to maintain your confidence while doing so.