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Culture | Diversity

Want to fix sexist jokes at work? Understand the emotional roots, professor says

What causes sexist jokes in the workplace?

Sexism is still alive and well in many workplaces—it’s just taken on new forms.

While we have made some progress towards building more inclusive organizations over the past 50 years, status in the workplace remains elusive for many women. Workplace sexism still denigrates women’s abilities, paints them as less skilled, and denies them the status needed to meaningfully progress their careers—particularly in masculine organizational cultures dominated by men. What’s worse is that women who try to overcome these prejudices are often punished for being seen as too masculine and overly aggressive. It’s a catch-22.

Wanting to understand how women navigate these masculine workplaces, SFU Beedie Assistant Professor Natalya Alonso and her co-author, professor Mandy O’Neill of George Mason University, decided to examine the emotional cultures of masculine organizations, a nascent topic of the scholarship that had to date mostly focused on men’s experiences in such contexts.

This past research has shown that joviality is a common emotional expression in masculine settings. Characterized by joking, teasing, and horseplay, joviality in the context studied by Alonso and O’Neill was often charged with sexism and sexual connotations. Sexist joking and teasing is particularly problematic since it appears lighthearted and not serious, making it more difficult to confront.

How not to deal with sexist jokes

Interestingly, what Alonso and O’Neill found was that women who put themselves in the centre of these interactions, by telling and laughing at sexist jokes, were conferred higher status by their peers. This was because they were seen as skillfully adapting to the unfamiliar masculine context but not as overly aggressive due to the playful tone. On the other hand, men who participated in sexist joking and teasing were viewed negatively by others for being sexist and out of touch.

Although women who participated in this behaviour may have benefited from their participation in the short term in the form of elevated social status, Alonso and O’Neill make it clear that participating in these types of cultures is not an optimal strategy. In fact, they strongly advise against it. They saw evidence that participating caused tensions between the women employees, robbing them of an opportunity for solidarity and connection.

Alonso and O’Neill also speculate that over time, women may feel increasingly uncomfortable about their participation and suffer emotional distress and higher intentions to quit. Most importantly, perpetuating jokes that demean and put down women make it difficult for all women to gain status. Ultimately, this behaviour harms women as a group and has negative consequences for all women professionally.

As for who is responsible for perpetuating these sexist work environments, Alonso and O’Neill found that it was often senior managers who were propagating sexist cultures by telling sexist jokes themselves, thereby signaling to others that that kind of behavior is acceptable.

“Leaders are really important to whether or not a workplace has a sexist joking culture,” Alonso says. “Sexist jokes in turn can harm women’s career opportunities by making people feel more comfortable discriminating against women and by driving women out of the workplace. The alternative is managers who set the tone for the positive treatment of women and inspire employees to achieve their best.”