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9 Ways Subtle Sexism Still Lingers

Mad Men-style discrimination may be long gone, but subtle barriers and biases still hold women back, say the authors of a new book.

Business has come a long, long way since the days of secretary pools and bullet bras. But while we can all celebrate the end of overt Mad Men-style sexism, does that mean women in business now face a totally level playing field?

Not at all, argues a new book entitled The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men--and Our Economy. While we're mostly (thankfully) past the days where women had to face outright discrimination and routinely fend off on-the-job advances (at least outside of, ahem, some industries), differing standards and expectations for women remain. And these are proving a powerful drag on female achievement. (Here's a rundown of frustrating statistics from the authors to prove it.)

"It's subtle--you can't point your finger at this," Rosalind Barnett of Brandeis University, who is co-author of the book with Caryl Rivers, told Fast Company. "That's why we call it a soft war."

And while this evolution to subtler barriers is no doubt an advance for women, it also poses challenges. Bias, these days, is often hidden, which can make it harder to spot, easier to deny, and therefore more difficult to fight. Half the battle is simply recognizing that problems exist and where. So what subtle forms of sexism do women still face? Here's a handy list to help business owners spot and unroot their own biases.

Successful Women Are Seen as Brusque or Unlikeable

While the case is still murky, the recent firing of Jill Abramson at the New York Times may turn out to be Exhibit A regarding this form of subtle sexism. Men who take control and get things done are admired. Women are often labeled cold and disliked thanks to deep-seated expectations that females be caring and soft.

"They're out of line, breaking the rules, violating the 'shoulds' of gender stereotypes," psychologist Madeline E. Heilman of New York University explains in Fast Company. "The issue is not: Are they that way or not that way? The issue is: Men and women are probably behaving exactly the same but women are taking a hit."

Women Start From a Position of Assumed Incompetence

Business Insider recently published a quote from Linda Hudson--former CEO of defense company BAE Systems--from The Confidence Code that sums this up neatly: "I think the environment is such that even in the position I am now, everyone's first impression is that I'm not qualified to do the job. When a man walks into a room, they're assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise."

Women Are Promoted on Performance, Men on Potential

"A major report by the consulting firm McKinsey documents this disturbing fact," Barnett and Rivers note in a recent opinion piece for The Dallas Morning News, before quoting the document: "Many middle-management men get promoted on potential. Qualified women actually enter the workforce in sufficient numbers, but they begin to plateau or drop off ... when they are eligible for their very first management positions." Why? Women have to prove they've already mastered a role. Men only have to be seen as able to grow into it.

Men Are More Likely to Get Credit in Group Projects

"Women work hard and achieve their desired results--but the men get the credit. New York University psychology professor Madeline Heilman and Michelle Haynes (now at University of Massachusetts-Lowell) have shown that the male member of a two-member team is far more often given credit for the team's successful joint performance than is the female team member," according to the same op-ed.

Talkative Men Are Judged More Competent, Talkative Women Less So

"If you speak up at some length at work, even if you are in a senior position, you will be seen not only as gabby but also as incompetent," the authors warn women in another post for The Daily Beast. "A man who talks as much or more than you do will be seen as powerful and forceful."

Women Get Lower Initial Salary Offers

One study led by psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin (then at Yale), for instance, showed that despite having identical resumes, female scientists were offered a starting salary of $26,507.94 while men were offered $30,238.10.

There's a Fatherhood Bonus but a Motherhood Penalty

When men have kids, others see them as more serious, responsible, and dedicated to their work. The opposite is true when women become mothers. "The minute women become mothers, the attitude toward them changes," Rivers says. "When women become mothers, they suffer financially."

Women Face an Assertiveness Catch-22

Be too assertive and be disliked for perceived "bitchiness" or fail to stand your ground and come across as wimpy instead? Those aren't exactly great choices. "Whatever women do at work, they have to do it nicely. But the more you back off, the more they don't take you seriously," explained Sonya Rhodes, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and author of The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match to Business Insider.

Appearance Counts More for Women

Business Insider also points to a survey conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation and detailed in the book Executive Presence that showed "senior executives listed twice as many appearance blunders committed by women than men. Additionally, women were judged more harshly."

Would you argue with or add anything to this list?

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Last updated: Jul 10, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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