I met with one of my staff yesterday for supervision and we had a brief discussion about a workgroup I’m leading that examines the agency’s anti-sexual harassment policies. The workgroup is focusing specifically on interactions between program participants and staff (I am a social worker), and identifying ways in which we can support staff and maybe develop policies and training to address what is, in my frank opinion, totally ignored. During our conversation, we spoke about the toll of sexism and harassment in the workplace and how it often has a significant, yet unspoken impact on our work performance.
I decided to write a bit about it, and when I saw Damon Young’s piece arguing that we need five paid days off for being Black at work, I realized there is a lot more work that needs to be done to address the effects of “ISM”s at work. And when you consider being both a woman and being a woman of color, and further, a BLACK woman, there are so many flips and tucks you have to do to keep from losing your job because you finally decided to completely kirk out on someone.
Here are a few things I believe manifest as a result of paying the hidden costs of sexism in the workplace:
Shrinking happens when you’ve experienced some microaggression that makes you feel low, shamed, or even dirty. You know you’ve been wronged, but you also know that your reaction could escalate the situation to the point where you are the one sitting in HR being disciplined. If you’re a Black woman, especially, you’re already working against the “Angry Black Woman” trope and you know every word you utter or every way you express yourself is being read and received as aggressive.
What happens is that many women physically shrink themselves, in almost cowering ways. If they’re tall, they may begin to hunch over or stand up less. If they’re larger women, they may begin to sit in the backs of rooms or wear clothing that can hide them. If they usually wear make up, they may stop, and they may begin to put less effort into styling their hair. This act of shrinking is often a reaction to having your physical self (or your physical representation of a group that is being targeted) put into an uncomfortable spotlight. After whatever was done or said, you don’t want to be seen or draw attention to yourself out of fear of it happening again, so you begin to shrink.
How It Affects Work: The more you hide yourself, the fewer contributions you end up making to the work and the team. As you try to hide to avoid contact with the person or people who have made you uncomfortable, you end up missing out on career-advancing opportunities. Your performance reviews might reflect your reluctance to engage and you might be labeled as not being a “team player”. This can all lead to professional stagnation which definitely contributes to the gender wage gap that is the buzzword fight of the times.
Image: wavebreak media via Shutterstock
Some situations are so stressful that you just need to take some time off.If you’re lucky enough to work somewhere where they provide you with paid time off int he form of sick time or personal time, you know that you can use these days, albeit sparingly, as needed.
So, you experience sexist microaggression A and it rattles you so much that you cannot concentrate. You feel so uncomfortable, you just need a day off to settle down and regroup… maybe have a day at the spa or on the beach away from it all. You call out/off and let your supervisor know you just need a “mental health day”, as they are sometimes called. You hope that you just need that day and that when you return, you’ll be more prepared to face whatever may come because you’ve had a chance to breathe.
But it happens again. And again. And three more times. You put in a complaint with HR but they are so backed up, that they take entirely too long to get back to you to investigate and address the issues. You’re so bogged down by it, that you request more time off and it is now almost one day a week. Your supervisor pulls you in for a discussion about your absenteeism and you’re not comfortable explaining what is going on for a number of reasons, one being maybe your supervisor is the one responsible for you taking time off.
How It Affects Work: Because of these sexist microaggressions, you are taking more time off from work than you usually would and more importantly, than your coworkers are, which makes you look bad comparatively. And if there is some major project being worked on that could make your team shine, you’re missing out on it because you’re not at work as much as they are. This will likely come up in performance reviews, as most employers have language about missing too much time in a certain period.That can hurt your chances for advancement as well because you now look like someone who isn’t committed to the work.
Being on the receiving end of sexist comments, non-verbal gestures, and other subtle or outward acts of sexism takes it toll on you. Headaches, nausea, anxiety, trouble sleeping, increased alcohol consumption, changes in appetite, high blood pressure from the stress, panic attacks, and depression are all examples of the types of health issues people who experience sexism in the workplace deal with.
Work-related stress definitely has several effects, minor to severe, that cannot be ignored. People of all identities experience some form of work-related stress at some point in their careers. If you work in a high-pressure environment, you already understand how it takes a toll on the body. Factor in the stress one experiences being a victim of racist or sexist oppression on a daily basis.
How It Affects Work: Stress can be debilitating, both mentally and physically. You feel the physiological symptoms, which you’re more likely to acknowledge and work to relieve, but you may skip over the psychological symptoms that the stress causes. You struggle to get yourself together each morning because you fear walking into the door and risking another encounter. You close yourself off in your cubicle or office, which can lead to feelings of isolation. You call out/off because you feel so physically ill, you just cannot make it into the work environment at all.
Because I work in an environment where we engage people who participate in our services, we are often subjected to flirting, sexual innuendo, and inappropriate language, commentary, and touching. The struggle is knowing that there is no legal recourse because we’re often reminded that we choose to work in this profession. Feeling helpless or that when you do try to speak up, little is done, can really hurt your morale and affect your self-esteem, which affects the quality of your work over time.
People ought to consider sexism as more than just gaps in wages. We ought to remember that sexual harassment is rampant at work, school, places of worship, stores, the streets, and even our homes. Some women are unable to live a single day without feeling some negative effect of sexism. This is horrifying and we have to continue to work to educate people about even the smallest signs and acts of microaggression so that people become more familiar with how maybe their own behaviors are contributing to overall sexism in the workplace.