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Everyday Sexism at Work

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We have not yet achieved gender equality in the UK workplace. We know this to be indisputably true thanks to statistics that reveal a stubbornly persistent wage gap between men and women and show that women continue to be underrepresented in top jobs. The Home Office website, citing data from the Office for National Statistics, states that "The pay gap between full-time men's and women's median earnings stands at 10.5%, whereas the overall gap when comparing the pay of all men and women in work is 20.2%." It goes on to acknowledge that "discrimination may still be an important factor" in explaining the disparity.

Meanwhile, a study by the Chartered Management Institute just last year revealed that the gender pay gap between male and female managers had more than doubled to £10,546 in a single year. According to BBC research, women hold less than a third of top jobs in the UK, making up a paltry 13.2% of the most senior judges and holding only 16% of directorships at the UK's 100 largest-listed companies. The Chartered Management Institute study predicted that it would take 98 years at current rates for the gender pay gap to close. Roll on 2109.

What we don't know for certain is the cause of these facts. Countless 'reasons' are flung around to try to explain the disparities, from unsupported theories about gender-based skill sets, to frustratingly simplistic claims that women are to blame for not being tenacious or ambitious enough, to over-generalised stereotypes about childbirth and family life. The latter frequently fail to take into account the enormous influence of provisions for maternity and paternity leave, support for working parents and more, thus conveniently blaming parents whose careers are adversely affected instead of critiquing the system that has created this result in the first place.

None of these theories alone is sufficient to explain the enormous disparity between men and women's professional achievements and earnings. It is likely that several of the more considered and balanced ideas may hold some merit and account for some part of the problem.

But there are other factors at play. While it may not be convenient or popular to acknowledge it, the huge number of women who have written to the Everyday Sexism Project to document their experiences of sexism in the workplace strongly suggests that this is another important influence.

Of course, like all the other theories, it is over-simplistic to suggest it is the sole cause of the problem. But the thousands of accounts we have collected which pertain specifically to gender prejudice at work strongly suggest that this is a large part of the problem and one that we need to acknowledge and tackle.

The reports we have gathered range across every career stage, starting from the job interview:
"Male bosses used to rate us waitresses out of 10 for looks at job interview," read one, whilst another described how it was "Recently 'suggested' at a job interview that if I had a second interview that I might like to wear more make-up". Another told how "The male recruiter preferred commenting on my CV picture than asking me questions on my experience", whilst countless more documented being asked about marital status, pregnancy and plans for future children, despite this being illegal in the UK.

One applicant for a post at an art gallery described how "the (male) owner asked how old I was and whether I had a boyfriend/husband as he "didn't want me to leave the job too soon to go off and have loads of children"". Many reports described behaviour ranging from sexual harassment to outright assault at interview stage: one related how "Boss during a part time job interview asks if it's a problem for him to "occasionally trip and touch" me" and several others even described enforced sexual activity such as kissing and demands for oral sex during interviews.

Next come descriptions of sexism suffered in the workplace, from the insidious (my managers would always put me in the drive-thru because "pretty faces make more money") to the outrageous ("I had [a boss] whose trick was to stand behind seated women staff and rest his groin on their shoulder!"). Countless entries testify to being ignored in meetings or having male colleagues' ideas more readily accepted: "continually had proposals rejected to find the same proposals offered later by male colleagues accepted and adopted". Others describe behaviour that can categorically be defined as sexual assault being endured by female employees on a regular basis: "I used to get my butt slapped by the male managers at work, once with a fly swot by the deputy manager - all a joke you know".

When we asked about this problem on Twitter, some women's experiences were so numerous they had to ask us to be more specific: "From colleagues & bosses, or clients & customers?" One teacher told how "A 17-year-old male student once told me my teaching didn't convince him because I'm a "girl." He would trust a man more." Countless female technicians, electricians and computer support staff have written to describe discrimination from customers: "on tech support desk; guy phones up 'can I speak to one of the technicians please, one of the guys'", or "at Curry's male customers always wanted to speak to a man about TVs even though I knew just as much."

Worryingly, we have received many reports from women describing sexual assault and even rape in the workplace being swept under the carpet or dealt with inappropriately by their employers: "once raped by a colleague on a night out. Guess who lost their job? (not him)," read one, while another describes how after she was sexually assaulted at work "This was brushed under the carpet, the police weren't called and I was moved 'off-site'."

And there is strong evidence that (partly due to the frequency and normalisation of these problems) the safeguards in place to protect female employees from such behaviour simply aren't working. One woman told us "Went to HR about sexist/flirty CEO. Was told to put up with it as I'm 'young and pretty and they're men, what do you expect?'" Another explained "Reporting things like this simply isn't done if you want to go far within the firm." She added "The firm does run a women's networking day annually - in fact the men in my office cheerfully waved me off when I went to it last year - saying "have fun burning your bras"."

So how might this evidence of sexism in the workplace contribute to gender disparity in professional pay and success? Apart from the obvious impact that dealing with such prejudice, harassment and assault on a regular basis might have on the professional performance of victims, many of the situations described could certainly have a clear effect on women's career trajectories.

From frequent descriptions of contempt for female staff and unwillingness to assign them to important tasks to tales of refusal to accept ideas and proposals from women in meetings and clients specifically requesting the service of male staff, all these issues would have a negative impact on the career success of the women in question.

Another clear indicator of the correlation between sexism suffered at work and female professional performance lies in the many sad reports we have received of women who have eventually chosen to leave jobs they loved when sexual discrimination became too much: "In my first post-college job, the owner of my company frequently invited me to "client dinners" only to inform me once there that the client had cancelled. He once texted me directly asking what dollar amount it would take. I finally had to leave the job, because I was unable to juggle the responsibilities of my position and the confusing manipulation from my boss."

Yes, of course there are workplaces with great equality records. Yes, there are instances where men are discriminated against too. Yes there are laws in place that should be working to prevent some of these problems, though in practice it appears that in many cases they do not. I don't suggest that sexism in the workplace is the sole reason for the gender pay gap or the hugely lopsided numbers of men and women in the very top jobs.

But I believe that these accounts are important. These are not a few isolated incidents. We have collected thousands of accounts of women suffering prejudice in workplaces from restaurants and bars to offices and newsrooms. Numerous accounts repeat and support evidence of the same problems, with a clear suggestion that the normalisation and acceptance of these attitudes and prejudices is making it extremely hard for women to tackle them without endangering their careers. As with the gender pay gap itself, excuses, explanations and victim-focus cannot disguise the fact that this problem is very real, and it isn't going to go away on its own.

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