Etiquette, an Antidote to Sexism in the Workplace

Unfortunately, the glass ceiling is still very much “a thing.” But women can often navigate around it with grace and confidence.


August 18, 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. The Suffrage movement was decades old by the time the ratification went through, and it took years of unbridled conviction to succeed. Yet, some women are still expending valuable energy to steer their careers forward while avoiding obstacles.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a century later, women make up 50.04% of the U.S. workforce. Yet, in 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau states that women make 74 cents per dollar earned by men.


The pay gap is not the result of a lack of education or credentials; more women than men have earned college degrees since the 1980s. For instance, women are the slight majority in medical school, 50.5%, and women also are the majority of law school students, 52.39%.


So, we’re very well educated, but we’re not ascending to the top positions in corporate America. Currently, only thirty-seven women or 7.4% serve as CEO of Fortune 500 Companies, and that’s a record high. Corporate boards are a bit better when it comes to finally having more women representation, 27%, and in 2018 40% of the new board seats belong to women.


Granted, everyone works hard to secure a future for themselves, but statistics prove that while women are more educated, we make less money and hold fewer top positions. Why? That’s complicated. Part of the problem is an unconscious bias toward white men when it comes to promotions and pay practices. Also, women still carry most of the responsibilities for child care, which can impact how much bandwidth they have left for work.


However, what drives women to succeed in their careers is the same for men; the desire to achieve, to ensure a better life for themselves and their families. Women work as hard as men, maybe harder in households where more family responsibilities fall upon them. But many women still feel they are not getting a fair shake at work.


An old term for sexism was "the glass ceiling," but it has morphed into phrases like "breaking the table" and "reinventing the game." A rose by any other name, right? Whatever you call it, most working women have felt it at one time or another. So, what can you do about it?


There are giant systematic issues to consider, and while the fix is ongoing, you will have to assess your situation, and learn what is the best course of action for you to take in order to rise above it and be successful.


The workplace can be tricky for women. They have a job to do, well, and the added burden of worrying about how their work style is perceived. For example, some women are inherently gentle and sweet, but feel they need to act tough at work to be taken seriously. Then they fall into the "likability trap." Other women are direct and decisive, and are seen as not being especially nice, which is a "double-blind." No matter the semantics, how you present yourself must remain authentic, but you still have to get the job done.


If you have a direct and decisive personality, be true to yourself but be aware of the culture. It is an art form to stay pure but adaptive so that you can achieve your goals. So, examine your work culture versus your work style, and determine how best to work "cross-culturally" to benefit everyone.


For example, if you are in a soft, loquacious culture, try to adapt by employing some social codes. Be your decisive self, but add sincere appreciation to those involved in your decisions. Be empathetic to those who support you, and show you are aware and understand their various situations. If a member of your team has just lost their beloved pet, for example, show a little empathy, and tell them you’re sorry. Perhaps you can remember losing your own pet and how much it hurt. A little empathy can go a long way when it comes to building valuable work relationships.


If your style is considered soft, and you receive feedback that you need to "toughen up," rely on your social codes to help you firm-up respectfully. Again, be authentic but adaptive to be heard. Perhaps use fewer words to explain your position politely. Remember that time is money in this culture, and using flowery language or "beating around the bush" can be a waste of everyone's time. Instead, empower yourself to communicate your message with confidence and in a straightforward manner.


Some women are leading from the middle, which can be a very frustrating position. Again, use your social codes to keep performing at your level, be respectful to your superiors, and stand up for yourself when you need to. Keep your social codes close by, appreciate opportunities, but advocate for yourself with kindness and respect.


Dress codes may even come into play at work. Dress the part. You are a serious and valuable member of the organization, so look like it, but keep your clothing appropriate for the culture and industry. If you are in a creative atmosphere, your dress may be more relaxed than corporate business, but keep it respectable. It's always better to be overdressed than underdressed.


For instance, let’s say a group of college seniors arrived dressed in t-shirts and jeans for coveted interviews with one of the world's best tech companies, it likely wouldn’t be received well. The underdressed casual attire might be interpreted as disrespectful by the tech company, which means bye bye job offers.


If you are in an industry where formal attire is the norm, dress conservatively. Keep it all business, and pepper it with hints of your personality. Be mindful of work events and "casual" days, when planning your attire. A good rule of thumb is to always dress one notch above what you were thinking. The old saying, "dress for the job you want, not the job you have," is well worn, but still appropriate.


If you have adapted to your culture, you’re dressing the part, using your social codes masterfully, and you still feel you’re being left behind, take a deep dive into your career goals and the best way to get there. Would you be better served in a different company? Sometimes change can bring new opportunities, and sometimes a kind, respectful dialog with your firm can help. Only you know what's best for you.


Living our best lives at work and home is hard, and we have to be our own best advocates. Remember, you are not alone on this journey; you have your toolbox of social codes. You will succeed if you persevere.

Social codes are like having an anchor, a tether to your core values. Social codes keep you steadfast on good days, right you when it's stormy, and can be a friend when it gets lonely. As my Dad always said, "Nobody said it was going to be easy." So, don’t give up!


Sexism in the workplace is a blight. It always has been, and unfortunately still is for many women. To successfully navigate this tempest, cling to your values, preserve your authenticity, and plot a flexible course to reach your goals.


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©2020 Heidi Dulebohn. Created by Idea Booth.