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Jennifer Newman: Sexism in the workplace can be subtle and extremely harmful

Sexism in the workplace can range from subtle and covert attitudes to sexual assault, and it needs to stop, says workplace psychologist.

Sexism is harmful to women's livelihoods and their psychological well-being, says workplace psychologist

It's up to managers and supervisors to curb bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace, psychologist Jennifer Newman says. (Getty Images)

Experts say sexism is very prevalent in the workplace and can play a far more suppressive role than many people would think.

According to a comprehensive corporate study by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, for every 130 men promoted to a managerial role, only 100 women get the same nod.

The end result is that many women have fewer avenues to obtain leadership roles from the very start of their careers.

Workplace psychologist Jennifer Newman joined host Rick Cluff on CBC's The Early Editionto discuss the many forms that sexism can take in the workplace and how workers can address them.

Rick Cluff: What are the effects of sexism in the workplace?

Jennifer Newman: It creates an environment of physical and psychological threat. Physically, being grabbed and groped, for example, is sexual assault.

It signals — you're not safe here, you're not welcome here, you're not taken seriously and you are here for the amusement and satisfaction of men.

Even men who never encroach on or violate women are unfortunately seen as potentially threatening in this kind of environment.

What about the more subtle forms of sexism, what do they look like?

Jennifer Newman is a workplace psychologist and regular on CBC's The Early Edition. (Jennifer Newman)

If it's second generation sexism, which is a way of describing the more subtle forms, you'll see the implication that women workers are not quite up to snuff.

You'll see it when mothers pick up a vibe about being seen as less competent or less committed than fathers, or if a woman acts collaboratively, she's not considered leadership material.

It shows up when there are few women in leadership positions even though the workforce is largely female, or when equal pay for equal work is not instituted despite calls for it.

Sexism is harmful to women's livelihoods and their psychological well-being.

What is it about subtle sexism that generates harmful psychological effects?

We all rely on high levels of self-regard to perform well — it's a necessity. We all have to believe in ourselves to get through the day and to succeed.

Sexism is dangerous because it can leach away a woman's feeling of self-worth. It's insidious.

It erodes the sense that one can act effectively on one's own behalf and it erodes the feeling that if you go after something you want, you can get it.

What can be done to combat these effects?

We can continue to talk about sexism. What it is, what it looks like in all its forms and highlight its damaging effects.

Organizations can tap into women employees' experiences of how friendly the workplace is to women, change things, promote women, nurture women as leaders and pay women properly.

They can prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault by being clear about safety. Harm to women on the job is unacceptable.

Listen to women employees when they tell you about a bad experience at work and give men who are bothered, sickened or upset by what happens to women colleagues a way to speak with their male peers. 

What would you say to a woman, reading this right now, who may be feeling violated, self-doubting, self-critical or feeling her self-worth eroded because of sexism?

If you've been assaulted, get help immediately from someone you trust. It can be at work or outside of work. Don't try to pretend what happened didn't happen.

You need support and validation if you're physically safe and experiencing self-doubt, self-criticism or your self-worth is suffering.

You can do a quick emotional-first-aid exercise: find a quiet place when you can, take a paper and pen with you. You'll need about twenty minutes.

List what you value most about yourself, write down what you stand for and believe in, write down why these things are important to you and write down how you have demonstrated these values over your lifetime.

Give details and examples, and then read it over.

This is a resiliency exercise that can interrupt the absorption of sexism. It can help reduce self-doubt, especially before it can take hold. It can also help to restore your sense of self-worth when it's at a low point.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

With files from CBC's The Early Edition


To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Jennifer Newman: Sexism in the workplace can be subtle — and extremely harmful