Both Overt And Covert Workplace Sexual Harassment Is Damaging To Women's Health And Well-Being

sexism
Even the most subtle forms of sexism in the office can affect a woman's well-being. Alexander Lyubavin, CC BY 2.0.

While overt forms of sexual harassment and coercion are not tolerated in most workplaces, less obvious forms of sexism, like sexist remarks, jokes, and an overall climate that devalues the female worker may sometimes fall through the cracks. But just because these examples are more difficult to detect does not mean they do not have a lasting effect. In fact, researchers from the University of Melbourne are finding that covert forms of sexism are just as damaging to a woman’s occupational well-being and her health as instances of overt harassment.

Sometimes, instances of sexism within the office are so subtle, they may escape our notice. For example, we’ve all heard of the pregnant coworker about to go on maternity leave asked, “How are you going to do it all?” or have seen the female coworker disregarded in a meeting, while the men are more vocal. And while these things may seem minor, they are very much internalized and impact women’s work experience.

“It is common to think that less intense, though more normative sexism, does not affect women’s occupational well-being, partly due to a human tendency to believe that causes have a proportionate effect,” said Dr. Victor E. Sojo, one of the authors of the study in a 2014 report to The Conversation. “Following that logic, subtle forms of sexism will only lead to minor negative outcomes, if any.”

But, that is not the case, and researchers decided to prove this in their latest study. In order to examine how covert sexism affects women in the workplace, researchers examined 88 studies that comprised almost 74,000 female participants. In an interview with Medical Daily, Sojo explained that the types of sexism they looked for were both organizational level interactions, as well as individual interactions. For example, individual interactions often entailed sexist jokes or comments, making comments about a female colleague’s figure, or ignoring a female colleague during a meeting. Organizational level actions mostly involved examining how climates devalue women workers, and tolerate these forms of sexism.

After looking at these studies, what they had predicted was proven correct: women experiencing gender harassment, even subtly, were experiencing harmful effects to their health and negative attitudes toward their job. What’s more, these negative effects were akin to experiencing stress from too much work, or poor working conditions. They also found that when women do experience these forms of sexism, they tend to be more dissatisfied with their supervisors than the coworkers who may be making the remarks. Unsurprisingly, within environments that were mostly male-dominated, like the armed forces, or legal service firms, women were more likely to experience sexism and harassment, with more negative outcomes on their health and occupational well-being.

When asked about the specific health effects, Sojo says that they found evidence of an impact to physical and psychological health, as well as overall satisfaction. “We looked at a wide range of well-being outcomes (i.e., general health, physical health, mental health, life satisfaction, job satisfaction, work satisfaction, co-worker satisfaction supervisor satisfaction, and organizational commitment),” he said. “We found … women exposed to these less intense but more frequent events had poorer mental and physical health, they were also less satisfied with their lives, with their supervisors and co-workers, and were less committed with the organization they worked for.”

Interestingly enough, a recent study shed some light on what the potential health repercussions were for women experiencing the stress and sexism associated with working in a male-dominated field. Researchers from Indiana University found that women subjected to sexual harassment while working in environments with 85 percent or more of men, experienced cortical dysregulation. In other words, after constantly being subjected to the stress and pressure of working in this environment, their natural stress response became dull, opening them up to diseases like heart disease, breast cancer, cognitive, decline, and psychiatric disorders.

As for what we can do about persisting issues of low grade sexism at work, Sojo says we must solve the problem on a societal level, as well as within the office’s chain of command. “If you want to prevent the harmful events we studied, then taking care of gender equality at the societal level is the answer,” he says. As far as what can be done in the workplace, Sojo says, “Supervisors need to be the first educating themselves about the different forms of hostility women experience at work and how to manage them…Given their position of power they should be the ones advocating for equality in payment and job opportunities for women, they should be the ones calling out people when they make sexist comments and jokes.”

Source: Sojo V, Wood r, Genat A, et al. Harmful Workplace Experiences and Women’s Occupational Well-being. Psychology of Women Quarterly: A SAGE Journal. 2015.

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