Bosses are telling their female staff to “dress sexier” and wear makeup to field videocalls in the Covid-19 era, according to new research from Slater & Gordon.
Since lockdown took hold in March, the law firm discovered, 35% of female employees have experienced at least one sexist demand, showing that appearance-based harassment has found “new and insidious ways to thrive online”.
For the affected segment, the most common reasons that men – and women – in positions of power have cited in order to justify their lurid comments about certain ways of dressing were: i) such styles would “help to win new business” (41%), they would be more “pleasing to a client” (38%), and iii) it was important to “look nicer for the team” (41%). (Slater and Gordon, 23 July 2020)
Almost 40% of the affected women said that such demands were aimed either at themselves or other women in their teams, rather than distributed equally by gender, leaving them feeling objectified, demoralised and self-conscious about their appearance.
Some 60% of the group didn’t report requests to dress more provocatively to HR – while a quarter actively boosted their beauty regimes for fear of negative career impacts.
Slater and Gordon employment lawyer Danielle Parsons said: “It is categorically wrong for a manager or anyone in a position of power to suggest, even politely, for a woman to be more sexually appealing in the workplace. This is a powerful form of coercion which makes women feel as if they must adhere to the manager’s request and be more visually pleasing to be successful at their job. This is demeaning to women.
“It’s extremely disappointing that we are still having these conversations – particularly during this time when women are juggling a multitude of roles from home.”
Reacting to the findings, JMW Solicitors partner Anita Rai lamented that workplace sexism “has found its way into the sanctuary of women’s homes” through demands made via remote working technology.
Stressing that such comments are “unlawful and discriminatory”, she noted: “The challenge for employers is that, even more so with agile working, they are unlikely to have visibility of discriminatory comments being made in the first place, but might well be vicariously liable for them anyway.”
Which steps should employers take to enhance that visibility so they are better equipped to stamp out lockdown sexism?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “That women are objectified in the workplace and held to different standards than their male colleagues is widely evidenced – particularly when we look at the numbers that have surfaced from mandatory gender pay gap reporting. So any idea that these issues would suddenly disappear at a time of mass home working is obviously flawed – and, as Slater & Gordon say, remote working technology has provided new and insidious ways of perpetuating forms of institutional sexism that already existed.”
She notes: “What surprises me is that these very outdated, and frankly unacceptable, attitudes are still articulated – especially in the wake of gender pay gap reporting. We’ve had the long overdue calling out of ridiculous excuses for the exclusion of women from FTSE boards [UK Government, 31 May 2018]; we’ve had the #MeToo campaign, in which women have widely shared their experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace; we’ve had the departure of Ted Baker founder Ray Kelvin over incidents of ‘forced hugging’ [BBC News, 4 March 2019], and we’ve had similar controversy over the conduct of former Pixar senior executive John Lasseter.
“In parallel, we’ve seen an ongoing strand of public discourse holding that any resistance to entrenched sexism is ‘political correctness gone mad’, and that it’s no longer possible to compliment someone on their appearance. Indeed, that has become absolutely mainstream commentary. But we know that workplace sexism can no longer be tolerated, because of the enormous toll it takes on corporate reputations when it comes to light. So for firms to take a zero-tolerance approach to it – and convey to their staff that they expect them to do the same – is not just within the parameters of decency, but good business sense, too.”
Cooper points out: “Clearly, workplace sexism is harder for women to tackle at present, because so many conversations between staff at different levels are no longer publicly aired in office settings, but video-based one-to-ones. So the scope for affected women to harness the backing of supportive witnesses is significantly narrower. That makes it all the more vital for organisations to ensure that the problem doesn’t crop up in the first place.”
She adds: “We must also bear in mind that, given the times we’re in, if a colleague – whether female or male – isn’t looking their usual, smart, businesslike self, that could be indicative of mental health problems. So let’s be sympathetic about what individuals are going through, rather than make knee-jerk, insensitive criticisms on superficial matters.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on the healthy workplace