This article was published in the Spring 2022

By Robbyn T. Scribner, April Townsend, & Susan R. Madsen

Have you ever heard comments like this directed toward women working in Silicon Slopes? “You were hired because we had to add a female, but you broke up our bromance,” “Women have to be taught to think critically enough to be engineers—it’s against their nature,” or even “We can’t consider her for that position since it has responsibilities outside of regular work hours and she is a new mother.” Yes? So have we. In fact, these are all quotes reported by professional women here in the state of Utah.

The collective impact of gender bias on Utah women, specifically conveyed through sexist comments, was something we felt needed to be better understood. So, we decided to collect the experiences of women through an online survey to find out women’s perceptions of sexism and to share sexist comments they had heard. In addition, we also wanted to provide a space where women could share responses they may have made (or wish they had made). Although we only expected about 100 responses to our survey, nearly 1,000 women participated resulting from 1,750 different sexist comments shared. After analyzing the results, four major themes emerged, Inequity and Bias, Objectification, Stereotypes, and Undervaluing Women, along with a number of related sub-categories.

As we dug deeper, we quickly learned that gender bias is all too common for Utah women. Of those who completed our survey, 80.9% agreed or strongly agreed that they had personally experienced bias that was due to their gender. Interestingly, a super majority (88.2%) of women either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they felt people can behave in sexist ways without realizing it. It was particularly telling that only 7.0% of women agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that Utah men are supportive of advancing women into leadership roles.

Though not all comments in the study related to women’s professional lives, a majority (58%) of them did. Here are examples from several sub-categories:

  • The “gender stereotypes” category included generalizations about the characteristics and qualities of men and women based solely on their gender.
“I overheard my supervisor tell the boss once that he wished they didn’t have to hire any women, as women ‘just cause drama.’”

“He said, ‘When we hire female programmers, they’re usually not very good.’”

“A friend from high school maintains that women cannot be leaders because they were not ‘designed that way.’”
  • The “women should prioritize homemaker roles” sub-category included comments conveyed that women's highest priorities should be connected to marriage, motherhood, and homemaking.
“When I informed a certain man, to whom I had just been introduced, that I was in the process of getting my PhD, his response was ‘You haven’t found a husband yet, huh?’”

“I was told no woman who had children under the age of 6 had any business being outside the home.”

“I was visibly pregnant when my husband and I applied for a construction loan. The loan officer told me he wasn’t comfortable including my income as part of consideration for our loan application, because given my ‘condition’ he was positive I would be staying home and losing that income.’”
  • The “women’s internalized sexism” category grouped comments that demonstrated sexist beliefs and attitudes held by women about other women or about themselves (spoiler: women can be sexist too!).
“A friend said, ‘I would never allow a stranger to raise my kids and send them to daycare. You are choosing to abandon your kids every time you go to work.’”

“She told me I should be home raising my family instead of working full time and that I was setting up my family to fail.”

“She told me, ‘You’re wasting your potential trying to be a man,’ in regard to my pursuing software engineering.”
  • The “motherhood penalty” theme included women in professional settings who were penalized once they became mothers through the loss of opportunities, pay, and advancement.
“A male boss said, ‘If you become pregnant, you’ll be asked to resign. If you get married while employed here and don’t get pregnant after a certain amount of time, we’ll meet to determine if this job is stopping you from getting pregnant.’

“When I was negotiating an increase in pay, my male boss told me that they weren’t sure they wanted to invest in me because ‘I could get pregnant any time.’”

“In a group setting, with multiple external influencers, he said, ‘She’s pregnant so you can’t trust that she cares about us or her children. Women should be in the home taking care of children, and any woman who chooses to work doesn’t care about her kids.’”
  • Next, the “benevolent sexism” category highlighted comments or behaviors that undermined or penalized women while being presented in a positive way.
“I was told by a manager, ‘You are really smart for someone as pretty as you are.’”

“When I asked why a female colleague did not get a promotion when five males in the same role had been promoted, I was told, ‘She is pregnant, and we don't want to pressure her.’”
  • The “double bind/double standard” category captures the phenomenon where women are expected to behave according to gender stereotypes and are punished for behaviors that are acceptable for men.
“I was told by a male manager, ‘As a woman, you are too aggressive.’”

“As I was speaking passionately about something we all should care about, I was told I was being ‘emotional.’ Confusing passion with emotion happens a good deal in the workplace. It’s happened to me more than once.”

In our study, we also provided a space for women to share the responses they had made (or wished they had made). While some women made a direct response, others remained silent because they were shocked or felt they weren’t in a position to challenge what was said. Some examples include:

“I was dumbfounded, but mustered up the response of, ‘Since my husband left me to provide for my family, I have found my work very helpful in providing food and shelter for my daughter and myself. I think we would really miss those things.’”

“I responded by pointing out that at least half of Utah’s women will likely be the primary breadwinner at some point for their families, so it will be far more valuable to encourage these adolescent girls to pursue a higher paying career, regardless of if it’s considered a typically female position.”
“I let him know that there isn’t a universal ideal, and that what is ideal for his family may not be ideal for my family. I encouraged him to be thoughtful about assuming the ‘ideals’ of others, as it could offend. We had a kind and candid exchange and he acknowledged the shortcomings of his comment.”
“I felt I couldn’t say anything. I’m a single mom who doesn’t get child support. My managers and supervisors know this. My life and my child’s life depend on me being able to provide. I confronted my supervisor once and was threatened to be written up for being confrontational in front of other employees.”
“As a child, I wished over and over that I was a boy. As a teen and young adult, I rejected the role and identity that society defined as feminine. . . . This, in my opinion, is one of the most insidious examples of cultural misogyny. When a girl is raised to hate the fact that she is a girl.”
“I was really hurt by this because my degree was something I had worked hard for and felt was very meaningful. The idea that it was pointless in comparison to traditional roles for women really deflated the graduation experience for me.”
“No one reacted at the time (and I did not smile). I later sent him an email to say it was patronizing to me in front of company leaders and it felt sexist because, in my experience, men are rarely told to smile. He apologized and thanked me for bringing it to his attention.”
“Someone immediately said ‘Hey! That was a sexist put-down!’ And the person making the comment apologized.”

Conclusion

The first step of intentional change is awareness. Because of the prevalence of sexist comments in everyday conversations, each exchange is an opportunity for us to pay more attention to our own words and behaviors to ensure we aren’t unintentionally demeaning or disempowering women and their contributions. The next step of intentional change is to take action. Speaking up against sexism when you see it can be a powerful force for change and starts with being prepared on how you want to show up as an ally.

We feel that Utah companies can play a vital role in mitigating the widespread occurrence and damaging effects of sexist language, comments, beliefs, and behaviors. It starts with ensuring everyone’s contributions are equally respected and encouraged and then continues when we collectively take action to build inclusive workplaces where all Utahns can equally thrive.


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