Sexual Stereotyping and Sexual Prejudice

A woman who chooses a nontraditional career may face a largely different set of challenges and problems than those encountered by one who holds a job in a traditionally female field. If you are contemplating a male-dominated profession, you should realize that sexual stereotyping and sexual prejudice may exist. If you are aware of these problems, you will be better able to deal with them effectively. Failure to do so can mean failure in your career and/or personal unhappiness and maladjustment.

Sexual stereotyping and prejudice can cause women to be treated unequally by others, either because of hostility towards women or, less wittingly, because popular attitudes about women make it seem proper to treat them differently than men. Also, social conditioning incorporated into a woman's personality through her upbringing and environment can affect the way she acts and thinks about herself.

Overt sexual prejudice is generally easier to recognize. A female scientist or a businesswoman may find that she is not taken seriously, that her opinions are not as highly valued, and that her career is not considered important by those around her. She may find that some co-workers do not seek her advice and opinion. The more important the solution to a problem, the less she may be sought to provide it. Instead, she may find herself being given "busy work" that a male would not do because it is too dull. In fields such as science, where good ideas and an individual's reputation among her peers are often the main determining factors in being rated by an employer, the effects of this type of prejudice can be overwhelming. male,female symbols

Sexual prejudice can take more subtle but just as devastating forms. A new young male colleague is more readily incorporated into the "old boy" network. Older male co-workers may be happy to include him in their Friday lunch group, an impromptu basketball game, or other social endeavors, but may feel awkward about including his female counterpart. This slight, although not deliberate, can be a serious detriment to a young woman who needs to learn the ropes - the limitations, personalities, and resources of the organization of which she is a part - and who would benefit, just as her male counterpart does, from the casual atmosphere and casual discussions that can result.

Similarly, there may be a shortage of mentors, or role models, available to the professional woman. Mentors are valuable people. They are like professional parents who take more than a passing interest in a younger, less experienced colleague. They offer constructive criticism and help develop professional attitudes. Along with friendly colleagues, they can help you develop your identity as a professional, your professional standards, and your self-confidence. However, an older male can feel awkward being a mentor to a young female. He may be overly protective and patronizing; he may fear that his professional attention will be misconstrued by his co-workers or by her as an indication of sexual interest. If he is her supervisor, he may not offer criticism that can be of value because of his inexperience or awkwardness in dealing with a female professional. He may be afraid that she will react by crying, or he may believe she is not as serious about her career as men are and thus does not welcome criticism.

How do you seek a mentor? How do you get incorporated into the "old boy" network? How do you convince others that you, too, are serious about your career? Learn to spot the people who are in a position to help you and are willing to do so. Let them know you respect their ability and you seek their support. Have something to offer them in return: skills, enthusiasm, and a record of doing good work. Be able to deliver as much as, or more than, you promise and as much as you ask in return.

In the work place, sexual harassment of some sort can be present in the form of unwanted and uninvited propositions or unwelcome verbal comments or physical contact. The casual relationship with your peers that gets you into the "old boy" network may prompt numerous advances, since friendliness on the part of a female colleague can be mistaken for an invitation or, at least, an indication of availability. Travel to meetings or to remote experimental sites with male colleagues can be awkward. Some companies therefore discourage travel by the young female professional. As a result, she may not form valuable contacts with the professional community.

Do not be embarrassed or reluctant to turn down a sexual advance. Treat it matter-of-factly, and do not advertise it to co-workers. The less firm you are in your refusal and the more you make of such advances, the more offense, however unjustified, will be generated by your refusal.

If you believe you are being treated unfairly, it is probably best to assume in the first instance that your difficulties are not the result of sexual prejudice but are normal and surmountable. Then you can begin dealing with them in an assertive and effective manner. Prejudice is often so subtle you can never really know how great a factor it is in any human interaction.

Solving the problem of sexual prejudice

The best way to solve a problem of sexual prejudice or sexual harassment is in an assertive, nonpublic manner. If you have a legitimate gripe against someone, discuss it with that person. Go to a person higher up who will listen seriously to you only after you have failed to resolve the problem in this manner. Try to be aware of potential problems and avoid them or deal with them before they become large ones; try to choose as advisors and employers those who are least likely to act in a prejudicial manner. It does not help to have the "best" professor in the department as your mentor if he works poorly with women or has antiquated ideas about women and is unable or unwilling to change.

If informal grievance procedures with your employer do not prove satisfactory, you are entitled to assert your legal rights by filing a complaint with the appropriate government agency. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers and labor organizations with greater than 15 employees from discriminating on the basis of sex in hiring, firing, wages, promotions, or any other conditions of employment. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 states that men and women must be given equal pay for doing essentially the same job. Public Law 95-555 requires that women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions be treated the same for all employment-related benefits as persons not so affected but similar in their ability or inability to work. New Mexico state law states that "equality of rights under law shall not be denied on account of the sex of any person." Agencies to contact are the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 505 Marquette NW, Albuquerque, NM 87102 and the New Mexico Human Rights Commission, 303 Bataan Memorial Building, Santa Fe, NM 87503.

Just as serious as these problems is the social training which creates barriers in the mind of the female professional. Most women do not learn in early childhood to assert themselves. Many do not take criticism easily, and some interpret a challenge to their ideas as a personal insult. Many women may wrongly react by assuming that all their difficulties at work are manifestations of sexual prejudice and that all criticism is undeserved. Many of us may not have played competitive games as children; we did not, as a result, learn to cooperate and compete, to lead and follow, to give and take criticism, to work with people we like and with people we dislike. Furthermore, women may tend to draw a sharper line between their private and professional lives; as a result, they hesitate to ask friends for professional favors or for the advice that men seem to seek almost reflexively. Women need to learn not to be reluctant to compete with men and to be good winners as well as good losers.

Recognize that many of the problems you encounter in your career are also encountered by men to some extent. Some essential ingredients of professional and personal maturation are the ability to accept constructive criticism, the ability to discern your strengths and weaknesses clearly and objectively, and a willingness to improve your strengths and reduce your weaknesses. A woman professional, just like a male professional, must have a sturdy ego to continue to put forth ideas that may be ignored and, particularly in a scientific career, to be able to withstand the fairly frequent questioning of her work that is an important part of the scientific process. You must also develop the confidence to question the work of others when you believe it to be in error; you must develop the ability to work amicably with co-workers while maintaining respect and credibility.

Learn to accept your shortcomings and to make a realistic assessment of them. Do not be embarrassed by evidence of lack of perfection; acquire respect for yourself even when you are fallible. Other women, including your mother, and enlightened male colleagues can be helpful in promoting your self-image.

Finally, forget past offenses. Men have to learn, too. For older men, especially those reared in a household where the mother never worked outside the home and whose wives never did either, the adjustment to having a woman as a co-worker can be difficult.

Above all, the goals you should seek in your career are personal fulfillment and happiness. In relations with others, it is important to be yourself, to make decisions and act in a way that is right for you. Giving up your womanhood should not be a prerequisite for success.

 Elaine Gorham-Bergeron, Physicist
Member of Technical Staff 
Sandia National Laboratories  
Albuquerque, NM
  Nuclear Regulatory Commission exchange scientist 
CABRI project 
Cadarache, France