I had a professor in college who was a militant feminist and a nun. I never could quite reconcile that in my mind, but anyway, this woman taught Women's Literature. Although I was grateful to her for introducing me to the works of female authors (sad to say, up until then I hadn't been exposed much), some of her rants left me a little cool. For example, she wouldn't allow the use of the word general (as in "These are the general requirements") or major ("These are the major differences") because the words were traditionally associated with men in military roles. I always questioned whether something that subtle was actually a form of sexism.
I guess I was more concerned with the kind of sexism you see in old movies where the boss calls his secretary "honey" or denies her a raise because her husband makes good money. But that kind of obvious sexism is becoming, thankfully, harder to find.
What we have now is "subtle sexism," which is harder to prove and harder to identify because it's usually unconscious on the part of those who practice it. It's not malicious, but it's there, particularly in the IT/publishing field that I'm in.
In an article I read a few years ago in Computerworld, author Kathleen Melymura said that subtle sexism is unintentional, that it arises from the fact that the IT culture grew up substantially without women, and that the men in IT are just "culturally" and unconsciously more comfortable dealing with other men.
Part of me understands this. I'm a woman but even I'm a little uncomfortable around some women because I was raised with a household of brothers. So I realize that most of the time the problem is a social one (instead of a malicious one) and hard to overcome. But it's when the problem inadvertently alienates her in the workplace that a woman feels the sting of it. Perceptive people can often see when a person they're talking to is not invested in the conversation. And if your listener is not invested (no eye contact, an obvious sense of discomfort), then there is little chance that what you have to say is going to be consciously received by that listener. Sometimes this means your ideas and professional contributions don't get very far.
I know a lot of guys who are deathly afraid of acting around female coworkers the same way they would around male coworkers because of accusations of sexual harassment. And that, too, is understandable. I just wish that everyone — women and men — would stop feeling the distinction between the sexes when it comes to work.
So what's the answer? Time? More socialization? I don't really know.
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Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.