For the large majority of HR professionals, it goes without saying that sexism in the workplace is no laughing matter. What some people might brush off as harmless banter can be the reason a female employee dreads going to work in the morning – and the reason she might well look for work elsewhere. From an HR perspective a high staff turnover is a big headache – and a bad reputation for workplace sexism reflects poorly on HR’s ability to manage difficult situations. But tackling sexism in the workplace is not without its obstacles.
The first problem is that it can be very ingrained in working culture. If the managing director does it, it gives a green light to middle management to behave in a similar way. If middle management can get away with it, then so can other employees and so the cycle continues. This can happen to the point where, if you rightly accused somebody at this kind of company of sexism, they may look at you in surprise and say “but we were just having a laugh.”
The second problem is that, when it becomes an issue of workplace culture, sexism is not always overt. It can be anything from patronising a female colleague because of her gender to excluding her from meetings and social events for that reason. In that case it can be very hard to prove, particularly if it’s so ingrained. It’s even harder for women to come forward if they are worried that they might face indifference from HR or feel they might be putting their position in jeopardy by doing so.
So what can HR do to make sure that they are approachable and that their workplace is sexism free? For a start, more can be done to educate staff about appropriate behaviour and language, such as workshops or talks. This can stamp out any potential problems before they begin, thereby creating a culture of awareness around the issues.
HR can also be more proactive in tackling sexism. If a woman is obviously being harassed, excluded or even looks uncomfortable with the nature of some of the comments made to her, then HR professionals should investigate whether she feels the environment is becoming problematic. If it is, they should encourage her to air her views in a confidential environment. It’s stating the obvious, but when a woman does come forward with a complaint, it should be visibly dealt with as seriously as any other form of discrimination.
There is a strong business case for stamping out sexism. It makes very little sense to alienate a good proportion of your workforce, driving away some of your strongest talent and potentially future board members. If a woman feels talked down to or that there is no future for her in the business due to her gender, she will leave. A business with a well-known record of having a sexist and unsupportive environment is hardly going to win any employee of choice awards.
It’s in everyone’s interests for HR to get serious about sexism. Banter and sexist comments may be a “bit of a laugh” to some staff members, but if you really pay attention, you’ll notice that there are people who just aren’t laughing.
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