Sometimes ‘sexism’ gets treated like a dirty word


Just the other day, I was having a conversation with my husband when he said, “I believe in equal rights for women, but if you want people to adopt your perspective, you can’t be so adversarial.”

Hmmm? I thought I was being pretty matter-of-fact. We were talking about disparities between men and women in the workplace. However, I did use the word sexism. Is that what made me seem adversarial?

Why did my husband and I have such different interpretations of this conversation? And why does this same dynamic play out again and again when discussions about sexism arise?

This doesn’t just occur in conversations between men and women because the same dynamic comes up in conversations among women as well. So why does the topic of sexism conjure up so many emotional responses ranging from denial to anxiety and even hostility?

Just days after the YWCA Olympia’s Women of Achievement celebration, with guest speaker Nontombi Naomi Tutu who spoke of difficult truths, I am left wondering how we move beyond sexism being a difficult truth that elicits this range of emotions, to a place where we recognize its pervasiveness and avow to dismantle it, both pragmatically and unapologetically.

One of the manifestations of sexism is the wage gap.

The topic of the wage gap between men and women as well as among women of different races and ethnicities is increasingly part of the national narrative. While this reality isn’t news, the YWCA’s Advocacy Committee was shocked to learn that, according to the U.S. Census, women working year round and full time in Thurston County earned 68 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterpart. The national average for women is 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Can this be true? Women working in Thurston County make nearly 10 cents less than even the wholly unacceptable national average?

If we continue with business as usual, white women in our county won’t earn the same as men until 2071. It will take even longer for women of color to reach economic parity.

This isn’t just a matter of social injustice, the wage gap also has huge economic implications for our county when you consider the sum of lost wages among all of these working women.

In addition to the wage gap, sexism shows up in workplace culture. Numerous studies including ones conducted by University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University show that mothers in the workplace receive a 5 percent per child wage penalty. In contrast, studies have shown that fathers receive increased wages.

In addition, mothers are less likely to be hired for jobs or perceived as competent at work while men with children are more likely to be hired than men without children. Herein lies the difficult truth, presumptions are being made that mothers will bear the brunt of parental responsibilities and as a result, they pay the price.

Would companies continue to favor fathers if they were likely to take 12 weeks of paternity leave upon the arrival of a newborn and request flexible work schedule options to accommodate the needs of their families? I don’t think we’ll have an answer to that question until we see a radical shift in the culture of our workplaces.

The good news is that some companies are moving in the right direction. Every year, YWCA Olympia makes a point of honoring a local business that has made a concerted effort to become a more woman-empowering, family-friendly workplace.

This year, that honor went to local organization TOGETHER!. I was also happy to see that two Washington state agencies (Department of Health and Washington Traffic Safety Commission) have implemented bring your baby to work policies. As the CEO of a small agency, I know first-hand how hard it is to implement family-friendly policies such as flexible scheduling, paid maternity/paternity leave and sick leave. These are several policies, among others, that are best practices for narrowing the wage gap.

I believe that most companies want to be fair to all workers, and that many companies perpetuate sexism out of unconscious bias and habit, not out of ill intention. However, it takes effort and commitment to break habit and implement a new norm that values equity. I applaud these businesses that are leading the way and encourage more to join.

Albeit a difficult truth, we must acknowledge that sexism is pervasive in many workplaces. Bold leadership requires transformation not just of our institutions but of ourselves as well. Let’s separate sexism from reactionary, loaded emotions and start talking about solutions.

Hillary Soens, CEO of YWCA Olympia and new member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors, is a wife and the mother of two sons who she’ll encourage to proudly take a stand against sexism.