"We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change."

Sheryl Sandberg

Studies about sexism indicate that it has two components to it. One is hostile sexism, and the other is benevolent sexism. When discussing discrimination between sexes, we usually talk about hostile sexism, which reflects overtly negative evaluations and stereotypes about gender. For example, men are stronger than women, or women belong in the kitchen.

Benevolent sexism represents gender evaluations that may appear subjectively positive, but in reality, are damaging to people and gender equality at a broader scale. For example, women returning from maternity leave being given less challenging work due to the assumption that they have more responsibilities at home.

Of course, hostile blatant sexism is wrong, but so is sexism lacking malicious intent; usually, the case with benevolent sexism can lead to negative consequences. Such good-natured sexism occurs when someone says something that seems supportive and positive but is based on traditional archaic gender stereotypes. It often goes unnoticed because unlike hostile sexism or other obvious forms of discrimination or biases, it is often smeared with consciously good intentions. The deliverer, recipient, and possible bystanders may see it in that positive light. It does make you wonder how something so lovely and complimentary can feel so wrong. When comments focus, for example, on an author’s appearance instead of the quality of their writing, they can feel wrong. Even though such remarks can sometimes feel good to hear, they can also cause unease, especially when one is keen to draw attention towards their work rather than personal attributes such as gender or appearance.

Benevolent sexism can be disorienting because it may appear supportive while simultaneously reinforcing and extolling the virtues of traditional gender roles, responsibilities, and capabilities. It maintains gender inequality through the idealisation of stereotypical qualities in women, such as neatness or nurturing. Focussing on qualities that hold less social power and capital affords men the means of seeming to offer support to women while still maintaining traditional gender hierarchies.

Many women who are on the receiving end of such sexism tend to experience a double bind. The fake complimentary tone implies that perpetrators are often seen in a positive light and are unlikely to be labelled sexist. Conversely, women who call out such a form of sexism are judged negatively as being cold or having a chip on their shoulders. Hence, due to its sheer nature, it often goes unnoticed or unchallenged.

Studies show that this form of sexism negatively influences women’s success and well-being. For example, women got fewer questions right on a problem-solving test when the tester expressed such attitudes towards them, and their impaired performance created self-doubt about their competence. The negative consequences can persist in subsequent situations, extending the implications of a single sexist encounter into new experiences and tasks.

The findings suggest that if women receive sexist feedback—even if it is consciously well-intentioned—they may feel as though they cannot meet the demands. Women who received such feedback felt less skilled afterwards than women who did not. Of course, a true woman leader’s job is to rise above this. Creating that awareness is the primary purpose of this article. This is a call out to everyone to recognise disguised discrimination and its underlying damaging effects.

How can one handle situations of subtle sexism? Here are some ideas:

● It is okay to be offended. Hearing discriminating and degrading “compliments” at work is not fun. Feeling angry, hurt, or frustrated is entirely reasonable, and your feelings don’t need to be ignored or suppressed. Most people ignore responding; instead, try to practice radical candour and create awareness, so they don’t repeat it.

● Expose the elephant in the room. Confidently explain why you were troubled by the comment and how it reinforces harmful gender stereotypes and could hurt the team’s morale. Articulate clearly that such remarks are inappropriate or not appreciated. You don’t always have to call out such behaviour at the moment. Take the time to organise your thoughts.

● Stand up for others. Each one of us can jump in to rescue our co-workers when they are targeted. For example, if someone comments about a fellow lady co-worker, “We are fortunate to have her on the team to keep us organised. We need a mom around here,” you could counter by highlighting her accomplishments and skills: “We are all adults and can manage ourselves, but I do know that her efforts last year were responsible for increased revenue.” Publicly highlighting others’ accomplishments can help quell attempts to undermine their credibility subtly.

As we move forward in building and living in a more diverse and acceptable world, discrimination in all forms open and hidden must be abolished.

Views are personal. The author is the founder and CEO of Talent Power Partners a global Leadership Development company based in Bangalore. She is a Leadership Development Specialist, an ICF Certified Executive Coach [PCC] and author of the book, 'Team Decision Making'.

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