Spokane Journal of Business

Subtle sexism may hamper employee retention

Women’s job transitions jumped 54% last year

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The “Great Resignation” has created a strong job market for workers and a competitive environment in which employers must work hard to attract and retain talent. In an environment in which “We’re Still Hiring” signs and sign-on bonuses have become the norm, workers—especially women—are leaving unsatisfying jobs in droves.

As workers explore a more fluid approach to employment, employers seeking loyalty must optimize workplace climate by prioritizing respect and equity.

Recent LinkedIn data indicate that women’s job transitions, including job change and dropping out of workforce, jumped 54% compared to last year, leading some to refer to the accompanying effects as the “She-cession.” Competition for female workers—particularly in male dominated fields and in high-stress, low-wage occupations—means many potential job-swappers find themselves well-positioned to change jobs to find higher pay, more flexibility, or the potential to work from home, as well as improved treatment and greater gender equity in the workplace.

Factors that significantly impact retention of female workers include the perception of gender discrimination, such as perceived unfairness in pay, promotion opportunities, and leadership development, and the perception of “subtle” sexism—everyday, often unconscious, covert acts that negatively impact women and their careers.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 4 in 10 working women in the United States say they have experienced gender discrimination on the job.

Many employers rightly focus on improving pay equity, representation in leadership, and developing policies related to overt sexism, such as sexual harassment. However, fewer employers address the reality of covert or “subtle” sexism. Though these subtle acts often fly below the radar and may seem too small to report or address, subtle sexism impacts work satisfaction and productivity and can be the difference between an employee staying at a job or looking for new work. 

Many women experience subtle sexism in the workplace, and those who do often prefer to look for alternative employment rather than formally reporting incidents and developing a reputation for being a “trouble-maker” or “squeaky wheel” through formal reporting processes.

Commonly cited complaints related to subtle sexism include:

•Lack of equity in office chores: Inequitable expectations and pressure to take on a greater burden of unpaid office housekeeping. This can include cleanup after meetings, planning, and decorating for office parties, cleaning the breakroom, taking meeting notes, and bringing food for events. A local female collegiate coach who wished to remain anonymous states, “The female coaches are often asked to decorate the office for the holidays, birthdays, etc. We are also asked to organize, set up, and clean up for staff events involving food, potlucks, and cake and ice cream for birthdays. The head football or men’s basketball coach certainly isn’t asked to do that.”

•Lack of equity in performance review: Gender bias is commonly found in performance reviews. Women often report receiving less actionable and greater personality-based feedback than men. In a study examining workplace performance review, Textio CEO Kieran Snyder found that performance reviews of women included negative personality feedback 76% of the time, compared with 2% of male reviews.

•Lack of equity in communications: Common complaints related to communication equity include being interrupted in meetings and not being listened to unless ideas are restated by a man. Reports of devaluing communication are heightened in male-dominated workspaces. According to Pew Research data, 37% of women in “mostly-male” workplaces report that they have been treated as not competent because of their gender, compared with 18% of women working in more mixed-sex environments.

•Lack of equity in use of professional titles: Some women report a lack of equity in formality and the use of professional titles. Researchers published in the Journal of Women’s Health noticed a difference in the way in which male and female doctors were introduced. They noted that males are more likely to introduce female doctors by their first names, while introducing male doctors as “doctor” followed by their last name. Research published in Psychology of Women Quarterly identified a similar pattern, noting that college students are far more likely to refer to male professors by title compared to female professors, who were more likely to be addressed by first name, or without their earned professional title. In both cases, this subordinating language and differing use of informality can influence perceptions of competence, even when unintended or unconscious.

•Lack of equity in work assignments: One significant gap in perceived workplace equity exists in relation to project assignment. Pew Research Center reports that “1 in 10 working women say they have been passed over for the most important assignments because of their gender, compared with 5% of men.” Women also report experiencing heightened discrimination and removal from important projects after using family leave following childbirth.

•Lack of equity in physical working environment: Some women report a greater likelihood of no-privacy and enhanced-supervision work environments in the form of open office concepts and cubicles, smaller desks, and smaller and less attractive workspaces.

Reexamining office culture and climate is more important and beneficial than ever before, given the current environment empowering workers. Cultivating a feeling of respect and appreciation at work can foster a sense of loyalty among female employees and enhance recruitment and retention efforts.

Robin Pickering is the Women and Gender Studies program director and a professor of health sciences at Whitworth University.

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