Study mulls sexism in workplace

By Brian Brus | The Journal Record

[ DECEMBER 10, 2010 – OKLAHOMA CITY, OK ] – Female executives said they continue to fight the same sexism in their companies that they fought on the way up the corporate ladder, because they refuse to turn into bullies or so-called queen bees themselves.

In dealing with the problem, however, they find themselves in a difficult position between cultures, said workplace lawyers familiar with those challenges.

“If the woman’s a president or CEO, my experience has been that they’re extremely responsive and address sexism very quickly,” said lawyer Byrona Maule with Phillips Murrah law firm in Oklahoma City. “Where you might see it not addressed so quickly is when the female is in the chain of command, an assistant vice president over a division, for example. Then they’re put in a situation where they’re worried about being perceived for not supporting the company. That sometimes creates a tightrope that midlevel people have to walk.”

And Regina Marsh with Fellers Snider law firm in Oklahoma City said her clients and peers try to address sexism “head on,” being direct about it from the onset instead of letting matters get out of hand.

“It’s something that I think female executives are still concerned about and in most cases conscientious. The best way is to not turn a blind eye,” Marsh said. “The high-level female executives that I’ve discussed this issue with say that it’s not uncommon to have experienced sexism or some level of sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination, and having experienced it yourself it’s something you don’t want others to have to deal with, too.”

That runs counter to the queen bee phenomenon, in which female executives boast of their masculine attributes and derogate their female subordinates while endorsing sexist stereotypes. A recent study by psychologist Belle Derks found that when women who acted like queen bees were asked about their backgrounds, they were found to have more likely suffered gender discrimination earlier in their careers.

Derks and her colleagues challenge the popular assumption that queen bees are a contributing cause of continuing sexism, proposing instead that the attitude is a consequence of the environment. When women enter a sexist workplace, they can either strengthen their ties to other females or they can distance themselves from femininity, thus perpetuating the problem for the next generation, according to Derks’ overview in the British Psychological Society Research Digest.

Marsh said that even though some gains have been made in the workplace, male-dominated culture is pervasive and high-level female executives still flinch when they notice old negative behaviors among their employees. The B-word is a good example, even used jokingly amongst co-worker friends, because a male gender equivalent doesn’t exist. Marsh said references to “that time of the month” or a woman’s ovulation cycle are also common and inappropriate.

“You also find situations where women are still called little girl, sweetheart, darling or that type of demeaning label, especially among older gentlemen. It’s more direct to give a slap on the rear,” Marsh said.

Speaking out against such behavior is difficult within the organization, Maule said, “because you’re supposed to be an advocate of the company.”

That’s why many of their clients were unwilling to discuss their experiences and concerns directly for publication attribution, Maule and Marsh said. At its worst, sexism can evolve into discrimination or hostile work environment complaints and lawsuits. Attorneys strongly urged business operators to be aware of their company’s culture and develop policies for dealing with sexist behavior beforehand.

Maule said most of her clients said they try to be subtle in how they approach sexism, approaching other sympathetic managers in the chain of command to deal with offenders on a more personal level.

Researchers said simply appointing token female senior managers in a sexist culture will likely backfire in attempts to reduce negative behavior. Instead, greater emphasis should be placed on reducing inappropriate beliefs and practices up front.

“In companies that ensure that women can achieve career success without having to forgo their gender identification, women in senior positions are more likely to become inspiring role models who have positive attitudes about the potential of their female subordinates,” researchers in the British Psychological Society Research Digest study said.