Lapses into laddishness

Dealing with those 'harmless' little instances of sexism is difficult territory for a line manager, but who said being a manager was easy?

by Richard Reeves, who may be contacted at:richard@richard-reeves.com
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A sales executive takes a picture of a female colleague to show to a new client. A worker in an open-plan office selects a screensaver from Nuts magazine. A senior manager requests a new PA who is 'blonde and busty' This is all done in the right spirit, you understand. It's not serious. It's harmless banter. A bit of a laugh. In these post-feminist times, most women are surely cool about it? Similarly, entertaining a client in a lap-dancing club is fine, so long as everyone sees the post-modern, pole-dancing irony. Come on, loosen up, why don't you?

This is the modern battleground for gender equality. Women no longer face high legal or structural barriers to career success, but instead face a culture of sexism fuelled by a climate of sexualisation. The net result of the behaviour described above is a climate in which women often face the choice between being demeaned as a sex object or dismissed as a prude. It represents - to borrow a phrase from the economist Thomas Schelling - a tyranny of small decisions.

The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women's rights, collected the examples cited above for its recent 'Sexism and the City' campaign. It is leading the fight against what it sees as an insidious trend. 'Post-feminism is an oxymoron,' says campaigns officer Kat Banyard. 'We still need feminism. Women are still paid less than men at every level of society. But what's really new is the level of sexual objectification taking place - lapdancing clubs are the most blatant expression of a deep problem.'

Research by Lynda Gratton at the London Business School suggests that women's career chances improve once about 40% of senior managers are female. There are various possible explanations for this finding: women may be more likely to hire and promote women than men; successful women may act as role models and/or mentors to up-and-coming women; policies on flexible working and parental leave may improve. But it may also be that having enough women near the top changes the day-to-day interactions between employees, the thick of everyday life.

Without enough senior women, the sexist variants of what some sociologists have dubbed 'micro-behaviours' - a little joke here, a wolf-whistle there - might accumulate into a female-hostile environment. This cultural sexism also reinforces stereotypes about what women 'should' be like - usually sexy and submissive.

It has long been recognised that one of the reasons women don't get pay rises and promotions in line with their male peers is that they don't ask for them as often. But there may be a good reason for this reluctance. Research by Hannah Riley Bowles, associate professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, shows that women who ask for more are viewed as grasping and selfish, contrary to the selfless persona expected, while men displaying precisely the same behaviour are seen as confident and successful.

'This isn't about fixing the women,' Bowles says. 'It isn't about telling women: "You need self-confidence or training." They are responding to incentives within the social environment.' Women are caught between meeting the expectations created by a culture of sexism and being marginalised, or rebelling against it and risking ridicule. No wonder so many opt out altogether.

There are two main difficulties with tackling sexist corporate climates. The first is to distinguish harmless social interaction between the sexes from harmful micro-behaviours that contribute to an inhospitable culture. Context is often vital; an elderly welder gently asking 'would you like a cup of tea, love?' is perhaps not to be found guilty of crimes against feminism; but a laddish trader doing the same with dripping sarcasm may be. How to act against the latter without crazily pursuing the former? This is difficult territory for any line manager, but who said being a manager was easy? Perhaps the most important task is to regularly seek honest intelligence from women about the culture of the firm, making it clear that no incident is too trivial to raise.

The second challenge is that many of the incidents, taken on their own, seem too minor to warrant disciplinary action. But if firms are serious about equality, there is no choice but to come down hard on offenders, not least as an example. Pour encourager les autres, as Voltaire's Candide innocently remarked. Above all, if a company has a clear policy on specific behaviours, it must enforce it. It's no good having a rule against downloading porn or using sexist swearwords if an offender is then let off lightly because they're a brilliant salesperson.

Above all, this new front in the sex wars requires that the hearts and minds of both sexes be won. The single most shocking finding in the Ipsos Mori survey accompanying the Fawcett Society's manifesto was that 48% of men and 41% of women think it is 'acceptable for businesses to use lapdance clubs as venues for entertaining clients'. This is incredible. Who are these people? It is one thing to accept people's freedom to visit lap-dancing clubs in a private capacity and another to endorse company-funded trips that either exclude women or put them in a horrible position.

The most powerful argument for affirmative action on behalf of women in the workplace is to save a culture from regressing into laddishness, with all its 'harmless' innuendo and banter. Until women are pulling the corporate strings, they are in danger of being condemned to their G-strings.

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