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Sexism is a thing of the past, right?

Well... OK... Blatant, overt and downright harmful sexism has significantly reduced in many organizations thanks to norms and policies. And special thanks to those committed leaders who actually make sure these norms and policies are implemented. But there are also many leaders who are sick and tired of the whole subject, and not only male leaders by the way. Only the other day was I exchanging with a female leader who told me that she personally has never encountered sexism in her work, and that when sexism does occur it is mainly "women's fault" because of their attitude "the way they dress, they're asking for it!" , "they act submissive, and then they are surprised to be taken advantage of", "they don't take a stand, and when they do, they are embarrassingly emotional", "and in the end, men are men, so if you can't take a compliment or a joke..."

Interesting. Interesting because there is some truth in what she says: it is true that one's attitude triggers certain responses in the other, as is the case in any communication situation whatever the genders at play (for example, if a man acts submissive, I doubt he'll be treated as an equal!). Interesting also because - though she was totally unaware of it - her remarks are very sexist, particularly the one about it being "women's fault". It is sexist because saying it is their "fault" is choosing to blame women for their behaviors rather than choosing to blame men for theirs. Think about it: if you take that reasoning to its logical conclusion, men end up being the victims of women who "make them" do these things. And to make this even more obvious, would you blame a 43 year old man for getting beaten up by a bunch of younger men because he was taking a shower naked in the men’s locker room after a match? The man happened to be alone in the locker room when the younger men entered. This took place in France recently: according to the aggressors, the man should have been wearing shorts to take his shower - as they did - and thus felt provoked by his behavior.

Coming back to sexism, it is so pervasive, so engrained, that, unless it is blatant, is invisible to men and women alike, particularly at work. Such things as acting surprised at a woman's intelligent remark ("Hey, not just a pretty face!"), making a comment on her behavior ("It's that time of the month, is it?"), giving her a nickname ("here's the suffragette!" or "sweetheart"), or making a comment about another woman on how she must have gotten her promotion (yes you guessed)... These things go unnoticed (they are “normal”), and when they are noticed, are generally shrugged off or minimized by somewhat irritated men - and women - ("oh, come on, don’t make a fuss", "I/he was only joking ! ", "Get yourself a sense of humour !", "Can't you take a compliment?!"…) or by women themselves who feel they might be overreacting and are afraid of being a nuisance. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that, according to research, even those “lesser” forms of sexism in the workplace have just as much of a negative impact on a woman's performance, career and health, as things like poor working conditions or being overworked.

Men and women alike share the responsibility for this state of affairs, but, in all fairness, neither are aware of the below conscious programs and expectations that trigger our sexist behaviors and our responses to them. Moreover, outside of the workplace not only has sexism significantly increased thanks to the exponential rise of the Internet with its easily accessible porn and social networks, but it is also constantly reinforced by the media and advertising. When little girls as young as five are concerned by their weight and appearance, there's a problem... (re. Laura Bates' edifying book "Everyday sexism"...daunting...). So change cannot come about by waging war against men, but rather by raising awareness all round, encouraging mutual respect, learning new responses, AND fostering new (or rather, healthy) mindsets in our children.

The workplace is a fantastic platform for this by systematically offering short but impactful workshops on the subject where women and men discover together how below conscious conditioning promotes and maintains sexism; where they identify the different forms sexism takes and their consequences on women AND men; and where they learn how to stop sexism in its tracks in ways that are truly effective and exemplary. Those who go through such workshops gain in awareness and vigilance, feel supported by their organization, and feel confident to put things into practice. They might even become champions! But one of the most important things, in my view, is to take this home to their spouses and companions, to their friends, and of course to their children as they are the builders of the future.

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