Do Professional Women Still Face Sexism?

I have a story. I believe my mere anecdote is representative of what professional women face. My belief may be wrong. Tell me what you think.

I rarely eat alone. I’m usually with someone related to business and we’re discussing how we can help each other. Recently, I had dinner with a woman who does travel destination and event work for nonprofit professional associations. There were no reservations available so we sat at the bar. I returned from a visit to the men’s room–a visit of unremarkable duration–to a party of three. Excusing my way past the two self-invited married men, I regained my seat.

They were talking to my colleague about her ring, eyes and hair. One, who it saddens me to disclose is an attorney, accused her of winking when she explained the two of us were having a business meeting. Ignoring my disagreement, he relented only after she corrected him repeatedly through his teasing. He and his friend were flirtatious and condescending, with no encouragement from the object of their derision. They guilted her into accepting business cards and departed as abruptly as they had arrived. A subjugation accomplished?

Their cards were a thick stock. (Are they compensating for inadequacy elsewhere?) She used them to scrape guacamole off the bar.

We were indignant. I was disturbed and she, somewhat resigned, but certainly not defeated. She had been insulted, and I told her I’m sorry it happened. We carried on with our meeting.

In another post I recommended not pissing off women. If these guys read that post, they mistook it for sarcasm.

Typical? Aberrant? The former, I fear.

21 thoughts on “Do Professional Women Still Face Sexism?

  1. I find this discussion very interesting. As a young professional advancing in a male dominated field, I have experienced minimal sexism from men. I have however noticed it from other women. I once discussed this with my mother who suggested that her generation has different ideas about how women can/should advance in business. She said that she was taught to negotiate the system using “feminine” wiles, by working hard to please her male peers/superiors and by rising in divisions that were traditionally female – like accounting or marketing. She said that her generation had to work very hard and sacrifice much to gain somewhat equal footing. She suggested that some may resent or feel threatened by younger women rising quickly into management via the trail hacked open by others. I must say that this is not true for all women. I have worked under some amazing female bosses…

  2. Here’s a good one for you. I grew up in the deep South, where women are often condescended to in professional situations. As the President of a nonprofit, I was hosting two potential donors ( both male) for lunch, and made it clear to our waitress that I would be handling the check. The lunch went well, but at the end, when the waitress gave me the check, she said, “Here you go, sweetpea!”

  3. Women also need to be concious of how we treat other women. Women should lift up, mentor and support other women, but that is not always the case. I explained to my daughter at an early age that girls are mean to other girls from pre-school until death. I encouraged her to build some friendships with some phenomenal girls that would circle the wagons when necessary. I participate in “Girls of Promise”, a program to encourage at risk 8th graders. One of the sessions encouraged them to have dreams, set goals to reach their dreams, but to NEVER be a “dream stealer”. Perhaps we need a “Women of Promise” conference?

  4. I agree with all the sentiments shared here… what you are saying about women in North America is true in Europe as well. A lot of senior management roles in non-profits are occupied by men who are supposed to be visionary go-getters. if women try to follow that trend they are called ‘bossy’ on ‘un-feminine’ Women are supposed to look cute and speak softly and do the jobs that require men to be leaders and women to be relational implementers….

    But, as they cleverly said in My Big Fat Greek Wedding – ‘The man might be the head of a house (organisation in this case) but the woman is the neck – and the neck can turn the head whichever way it wants!’ We just have to outsmart men – that’s all ( and more often than not we do) 🙂

  5. Salaries and work allocation have always been inequitable between men and women. In the 1990s, I was actually asked by the CEO to get coffee for the participants in a solicitation meeting, even though I was supposed to be the Major Gifts Officer representing the organization! I am currently seeking a new opportunity but know right off that any salary offer will be years behind my earning level (in one case, I am competing for a job that pays exactly what I made 10 years ago).

  6. Tony,
    Your experience with your female colleague is not unusual or surprising even today.
    You might have seen the headline this summer: Catholics angry as church puts female ordination on par with sex abuse. Women’s groups describe Vatican’s decision on female ordination as ‘appalling’

    What religious leaders who are women must endure is but another indicator of the difficulties professonal women face in many workplaces. The US Senate is voting on pay equity for women again this week. How many times must it be voted on by a majority of men to make it so?

    Personally, I left two wonderful jobs in my 30-year career because of sexism or harassment. I left one job after I received a 6% raise upon exceeding my written fundraising goals by 300% while my male colleagues received raises of 21% or more in the same year with no written goals. My boss told me I should be very glad for such an excellent raise. Did he think I did not talk with my male colleagues? Did he think I did not look up the salaries which were public information?

  7. Hi Tony,
    Yes, we do. By a large percentage, men still earn more money than women. Women are far less visible in equitable management and partnership than men. Those tiring, old adages still apply…if a women speaks up…she is bitchy and if a man offers a strong point of view…he is assertive. I have voted with my feet — left jobs when I was treated inappropriately — and unfortunately, as is the case with many women, I was the one who had to leave. Now, having said that, I can tell you in my forty-year career I have seen great strides and change. We have protections now, but cultural narratives need more change. The fact that it is necessary for you or anyone to still be asking the question is the answer in itself.

  8. I know there are many untold stories, Martha. I’ve had a few friends confide in me who are unwilling to post. One stopped wearing dresses in the office because of lewd, off color remarks. Another got no support from her supervisors when an uninvited male donor called her at home more than once to ask her out.

  9. Tony, we all have stories, but we tend to be reluctant to go live with them due to a reluctance to be classified as “not being ateam player” or being perceived as a bitch. I once received a complimentary card on the occasion of my second anniversary of employment with a large nonprofit from my supervisor, with a congratulatory comment on how well I was doing on not letting “the boys” keep me down. I keep that card in my employment files to this day. On an ironic note I saw a posting for a “women in industry” inaugural conference, and they had a man giving the keynote address! Funny that they couldn’t find someone with a double X chromosome with sufficient chops to deliver a speech.

  10. A woman on LinkedIn posted that an inaugural “Celebration of Women” had a male keynote. More irony. Thank you, Maryanna.

  11. Yes, I believe we do. Here is my example: Last year, I was among a group of women nominated for the local ATHENA award. The awards ceremony was held at Nashville’s Symphony Hall. All the nominees were gathered in the green room. To get to the stage, we walked down a hallway lined with photos/paintings of conductors and composers. There was not one woman among them. I thought it ironic that this celebration of women leaders was held in a place that seemed not to recognize any women leaders in its own field. In some places we are still invisible. That is a form of sexism.

  12. Thanks so much, Richard. My first thought–which isn’t always my strongest–is NYU is not meeting its obligation to students, how ever they are defined and whatever their ages. I admire the woman who withdrew. She stood up for her feelings and raised awareness. The University is allowing its student experience to suffer because it is not providing you and your wife with professional space where you can freely engage with–and fully support–your students.

    Other thoughts are most welcome.

  13. This discourse raises a different issue for me and, while the episode I am about to relate is hardly one of harassment, it is a dilemma on the other side. And since i take seriously the issues raised in the data and anecdotes above, I raise it with a full sense of not quite knowing what to do.

    Context: my wife and I are business partners, work at home, and we also both teach in NYU’s Center for Philanthropy. We both use our home office or other spaces in our apartment for meetings – with groups or individuals. And since, as p/t faculty at NYU we don’t have office space there, we frequently meet with students at home as well. I should clarify that “students” are philanthropists and foundation professionals. Because our courses are short term [e.g., 4 Monday nights], we get lowest priority for good classroom space. A few years ago, i made clear that, given teh nature of our students, if the University couldn’t find an appropriate space, we would move the class to our home. We have done this on a few occasions but typically NYU finds an appropriate alternative. IN general, enrollees are as happy to meet at our home as at any classroom

    That happened this Fall and when NYU could not find an alternative space, they sent out a note to the enrollees announcing that the location was moved to our home. For the first time, a student withdrew, saying that it was inappropriate to have a class at the home of a male faculty member. When it was pointed out that my wife is also on the faculty and that there would be a dozen other folks there almost all of whom are women, the person still insisted on her point.

    It led to a very serious dilemma. It is not so significant whether a given individual has an extreme interpretation of propriety. What was significant was that I regularly have used our home office for meetings with women. And often we were the only ones there. As a result of this exchange, we have decided that henceforth, if Mirele is not going to be home, I will only meet with women alone at the cafe across the street.

    This is a logistically easy solution, but professionally problematic. When I am discussing people’s philanthropy or careers, they are confidential meetings. But we all know that a meeting at a cafe is far from confidential and I am aware that it may limit my ability to be as helpful to these “students” as i like to be or that they deserve. You understand, i am sure. Thoughts?

  14. Thank you for sharing a very unfortunate statistic, Hamutal. While my story did not involve violence, it was a subjugation.

  15. Tony, you touched on a very sensitive issue. It is a fact that women still suffer from sexual harrassement and other problems, whether they are supermarket cashiers, caregivers, or professionals in senior positions. A recent research conducted in Israel by Dr. Avigail Moore shows that an overwheling 79% of single women reported that they were subjected to some form of sexual harassement at the workplace. This disturbing phenomenon is deeply rooted in equaly disturbing social structures and conventions that view women as objects, rather than as autonomous subjects, with equal rights and equal place at the table.

    Women groups around the world are working for decades to eradicate all forms of violence against women. I think it is time that men raised their voices against it as well, and want to thank you for raising yours.


  16. Of course professional women still face sexism–where would it have gone? As long as men earn more than women, and “women’s work” (child-rearing, particularly) is considered less important than men’s, those judgments will spill over into every aspect of life. People who are worth less in economic terms are going to be worth less in social terms, and treated that way.

    I rarely encounter obvious discrimination in my practice, as it’s just me and people who don’t like working with strong women simply save time and don’t hire me. But in every meeting at which I’m a participant (and in every radio conversation I share!), my male colleagues speak more than women and feel freer to interrupt–and if a woman speaks nearly as much as a man, she’s accused of dominating the conversation.

  17. Oh, thank you so much for opening up and sharing.

    At the end of Pretty Woman, Stuckey gets what he deserves and your bad actor will, too. Hopefully it will be so brutal that he’ll wish for your knee to the groin.

    I admire the public stand you took.

  18. Tony, thank you for offering some level of apology to your friend, even though it wasn’t your fault. Please apologize to her for me too. No human being deserves that much of a lack of respect!

    I am eternally grateful to the many amazing professional women who have paved the way to make the professional experience more meaningful and free from harassment than it was in the days when two of my most significant mentors were told outright their upward career mobility would be dependent on their willingness to get “between the sheets,” as it were. However, there is still much to be learned in terms of actually treating women as equals, as your friend’s story and others illustrate.

    Just this past weekend, I was at a significant business event attended by nearly 500 people. At a Saturday evening event, appreciation presentations were made. These presentations were lead by an individual who has made me very uncomfortable at past events with his advances and lewd comments at social events. We’ll call him Philip Stuckey (homage to all Pretty Woman fans reading this). Phil loudly proclaims his “love” of blondes and redheads but objectification, of course, is not love.

    I’m new to the industry I’m honored to serve and generally want to be conscious of not yelling fire in a crowded theater. Philip changed all of that for me Saturday night. Philip rigged the presentations to ONLY call up the women in the room. I am not kidding. It got even better when Philip insisted on a big, tight groping-level hug from every woman called forward for the presentation.

    When it came my turn, I held my hand out for a physical stop sign. I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not comfortable with a hug.” Philip proceeded to get one arm around my shoulder anyway. At that point, I had it. I said into his ear and tried to be loud enough for his buddies immediately around him to hear: “You moved forward for physical contact even though I asked you not to. Take one more step towards me and I promise you a knee where you don’t want one. I will defend myself.”

    Although Philip immediately backed off at that point, the incident was not without its whispering comments the next day between him and his buddies. I’m okay with that. It felt good being able to privately stand up for myself and women everywhere who are still objectified.

    I should state that the great nonprofit Philip volunteers for is still a great nonprofit despite having a pig as a volunteer. I will admit that I now have no interest in ever doing business with the for-profit organization Philip works for. If I ever have a chance to address this issue privately with the leadership of either organization, I intend to do so.

    Did I take a risk by not “playing along?” Perhaps. However, I am much more comfortable with the fact I drew the line where I felt it ethically needed to be drawn. It’s my prayer that every professional woman feels the same professional strength when she needs it most. There are tests ahead!

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