Working Girl to Work Wife: Sexism at Work

The new workplace sexism is less overt and, studies suggest, reflective of the boss’ marriage.

Just when I was getting used to the same old sexism at work—being called “girl” and knowing I have made less money than some of my male counterparts—it seems there’s a new breed of discrimination at work. It’s less overt, but does just as much to keep women from advancing in their careers.

What’s happening, according to four studies by researchers based at Harvard, NYU and the University of Utah and published under the title, “Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace” is that male leaders—Fewer than five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women—are treating their female co-workers the same way they treat their wives. There are a number of problems with this, aside from the initial uncomfortable factor.

Here’s what researchers found: “Husbands embedded in traditional and neo-traditional marriages [relative to husbands embedded in modern ones—modern being defined as both partners working outside of the home and helping with domestic labor] exhibit attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that undermine the role of women in the workplace.”

Here’s what that means for you. You know that guy at work who leaves his dishes in the sink expecting that the assistant (usually a younger woman) will wash them? He does that crap at home too, and his wife is cool with it. Or, maybe he’ll put you on a pedestal, “protecting” you from stressful meetings (aka the ones that actually matter) or withhold information that might be “upsetting” given that you’re a delicate flower. Being shut out means you don’t meet the game-changers, and you’re not considered to be one. Or, let’s say the guy in charge of salaries has a wife that doesn’t work, there could be an underlying assumption that you have someone supporting you, and therefore don’t need to make as much money as the boys.

Which is total bullshit on a number of levels.

We are underpaid—we make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. As a reminder, the year is 2012. Over the course of our careers, we can expect can expect to lose $431,000 because of the earnings gap.

We don’t live in a world where salary is based on need. However, looking at the stats about pay for working women, it seems that perceived need is a huge issue—and these new studies offer one explanation for why you might have a smaller paycheck than the guy in the next cube. If your CEO’s wife doesn’t work or has a part-time job not out of necessity but so she can feel empowered when buying $100 yoga pants, the perception could be that you too are working for spending money, not supporting yourself money.

Your salary should never be based on what your partner makes, whether you have one or not. Your salary should be based on the following: The job title and description, your experience, your education, your skills, how good you are at your job and the market value of what you do in the city or town you’re doing it in. That’s it.

This newly defined kind of sexism is very different from your 1950s secretary being chased around the desk. What is happening today is so ingrained that some men don’t even see that they are doing it, which is pretty scary.

So, what should women do? When being interviewed by a man is it important to ask if he ever does the dinner dishes? Is it cool to say, “What does your wife do?” and run screaming if she happens to be a stay-at-home mom? I don’t think that’s the answer—though if I have the chance to ask in casual conversation I am totally going to.

Start by being on the lookout for this kind of behavior and remind yourself that you might be married to your job, but you never agreed to be married to your boss. Hold the people leading your company accountable for both overt and subtle sexism—and stand up for yourself. I say no when a male co-worker asks me to, essentially, take a memo (as a note, memo-taking is a fine thing to do but not part of my job description) and I mention it when the same people (men—none of the women in any of the offices I have personally worked in seem to do this) leave their dishes in the sink day after day.

There’s a risk in saying no. There’s a risk in the making the non-joking joke about the dirty dishes. I am sure some people think I’m a bitch. I’ll take bitch over pushover any day.

Photo: Jerry Bunkers