My first job was working at the local drugstore. Then I worked at a clothing store for most of my high school career. During university, I worked at the library for two summers, planning and running the summer reading programs. I worked at a fancy people club one summer as well. I worked at the university bookstore for the last two years of my degree and had a brief stint at Payless Shoesource (never again). I spent a few months working at a foster home program preparing kids for their next placement. And now I teach about healthy relationships and sexual decision-making.
I’ve worked at different jobs, from the very first job to make some extra money all the way to the job I was always meant to have. I have been so fortunate to work with people who were varying degrees of kind. Respectful. Funny. Coworkers who became friends.
But not everyone has that experience. I have had far too many conversations with people (mostly women) who experience sexism, racism, discrimination, or other forms of harassment in the workplace. So I’m starting a new project: I’m going to share the stories of people who have experienced these firsthand.
It’s really important that we understand that these things happen. Not far off in a distant land, but right here in Canada. I think we get stuck sometimes in our Canadian bubble because in a lot of ways, we do have it pretty good. But bad things still happen, and we have to work against those things.
We’re aiming for equality everywhere, not just in our own backyard.
First, let’s understand our terms. I’m talking specifically about instances of workplace harassment (sexual or otherwise) and other gender inequalities. This encompasses a range of behaviours: being looked over for promotions/advancement, overt sexism, or coworkers generally just being, well, dicks.
These aren’t just my ideas. I’ve done the research. I have sought to use research that is recent (since 2010 for most) and peer-reviewed. These are not my opinions – I will endeavour to present a full picture of what is actually occurring so that we can all work together to be aware of these biases and inequalities and be active participants in stopping this kind of treatment for everyone.
Often in these conversations people will say to me “but women choose ______.” Choose to have children, choose to work part-time, choose not to push for raises. Yes, on the surface, they have access to the same choices, but socialization is a powerful force. Socialization refers to the systematic training that we all go through about the norms of our culture, norms that regulate aspects of social life (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2017. See note at end of post). In other words, it is the process of learning the meanings and practices that enable us to make sense of and behave appropriately in that culture.
Socialization starts its work the moment we’re born, indeed in many ways, even before that. Take a look some day at the difference between outfits for baby girls and outfits for baby boys. Or look at their toys. “Boy” toys socialize boys into masculinity, and “girl” toys (dolls, kitchen sets, etc.) socialize girls into femininity.
Women are socialized from a young age to be well-behaved, polite, quiet, and mild. Women who behave in an assertive way (such as asking for a raise) are not seen as assertive like their male colleagues would be. They are rated unfavourably and perceived as pushy or bossy. They may be judged as high in competence but low in warmth. So being assertive as a woman in the workplace basically means you have a cold dead heart.
This isn’t to say that people are overtly and knowingly sexist (though some are). These can be covert, underlying, and subconscious biases that people don’t even realize they are acting on. It’s like a reflex because it is so built into our society, our media, our relationships, and our thinking.
For example, there have been numerous studies done about the effects of male and female sounding names (read McIntrye, et al., 1980 & Firth, 1982 for more)*. In these studies, the same application was sent for particular job openings, one with a female-sounding name and one with a male-sounding name. Female applicants were less likely to be called for an interview.
(Note: A similar effect occurs between white-sounding and nonwhite-sounding names. Applicants with names perceived not to be white were called less often for an interview.)
A Note on Feminism:
One thing I hear a lot is “Why are you a feminist? You live in Canada.” Cue eye roll. As if Canada is some perfectly equal country with no discrimination on any front. Feminism is not just about “equality.” It is also about women’s liberation from the concept of fixed gender roles, i.e. what a woman should or should not be like. It’s not just equality with men.
But it also addresses inequality and discrimination of all kinds. Intersectional feminism considers the intersection of not just sex but also race, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, etc. Women, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community, and so many others who aren’t straight, white, able-bodied males experience various levels of discrimination. For example, I am a white woman who simultaneously experiences the privilege of my whiteness but also the inequality that comes with being a woman.
Feminism started as a push for equal rights for women, but it largely ignored, and in many ways continues to ignore, the experiences of people of colour and other marginalized identities, so we are now in a phase where feminism is fighting for equality all around.
When I talk about feminism in the workplace, whether it’s sexism or the wage gap, people usually argue back that based on what they say, those principles aren’t true. “My boss is a woman!” “Everyone gets paid the same where I work!” But a lot of these things are not small scale: they are large scale, institutional inequalities that are the result of societal perceptions. They are systemic, that is they are built into the systems in which we operate and feminists are trying to remove those barriers.
The point of this isn’t to say “men are bad.” It’s to, first of all, give the people who have so graciously shared their stories with me the chance to tell it. Their courage in sharing is inspiring to me. But it’s also about awareness: making all of us aware of how sexism and other discrimination and prejudice can creep into our lives in ways that aren’t always apparent.
A lot (not all) of the sexism experienced in the workplace is not overt: it’s not a man saying “women are terrible.” But it’s the underlying attitudes, the “jokes,” and all the things that go on that still have an effect but that women are expected to laugh off.
I hope you approach this topic with an open mind and cherish the gift that are these stories.
A note on the stories
I had a few people reach out to share their stories. I have their permission to share, but some names have been changed or edited to protect their identity. Please, treat these stories with the respect they deserve. Thank you to those who did share with me in this project. These stories will be shared in the coming days and weeks.
I strongly recommend “Gender inequalities in the workplace: the effects of organizational structures, processes, practices, and decision makers’ sexism” by Stamarski, CS and Son Hing LS (2015). It’s a great starting point in understanding workplace discrimination and sexism and links to many other studies.
I also recommend Sensoy, Ö., & DiAngelo, R. (2017). Is everyone really equal? An introduction to key concepts in social justice education (2nd Ed.).
*To read more: McIntyre, S., Moberg, D.J., and Posner, B.Z. (1980). Preferential treatment in preselection decisions according to sex and race. Also, Firth, M. (1982). “Sex discrimination in job opportunities for women.”