Commentary: Why Have We Turned a Blind Eye to Sexism?


This Monday, I played the audio of a call that defense attorney Mark Reichel received shortly after taking on the defense of one of the Picnic Day defendants.  The interns at our weekly meeting were listening to the lady rant with a lot of interest, but when she said the “n-word” every single one of them loudly gasped.

I actually had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing at their response.  They weren’t expecting it, and it was a shock to hear such language, because in most circles racism or racially charged language of this sort is off limits.

I juxtapose that response to the text that a friend of mine sent me later that evening.  My friend is a respectable business woman trying to make a living in a tough field.  She related some conversations she had with colleagues, and her treatment which focused less on her qualifications and more on her characteristics.

Apparently in some circles this kind of behavior is the norm.  Last year voters elected the president despite a wave of women coming forward to complain about sexual harassment and the explosive hot mic moment catching Mr. Trump talking about grabbing women in their genitalia.

In the wake of some scandals in Silicon Valley, Salon Magazine ran a story entitled “Silicon Valley’s sexism problem.”  Multiple executives and venture capitalists from big startup companies had to resign from their firms in the wake of sexual harassment claims.

Beyond the specifics, the Salon article reports, “Sexism and sexual harassment appears to be systemic in the tech industry, which has made headlines repeatedly for workplace issues involving mistreatment of women or outright sexual harassment.”

CNNMoney reports, “Silicon Valley’s power dynamics don’t favor women and minorities. Investors tend to be white men: 89% of those making investment decisions at the top 72 firms are male, according to one industry survey. Many women have said they fear retaliation if they speak out about inappropriate behavior.”

The article reports that “across the tech industry, there are some glaring problems that have allowed sexism to fester beneath the surface.”

They note that gag orders and non-disparagement clauses are common which “prevent people from speaking out about the inner workings of a company, including talking about the behavior of former coworkers or bosses.”

They write, “The agreements themselves are common in the workplace, but they’re especially problematic in an industry that’s overwhelming white and male — especially if they’re used to sweep harassment allegations under the rug.”

They also point to the fact that the relationship between “entrepreneurs and investors is inherently nontraditional. There’s no formal employer-employee relationship, and there are often many meetings before a deal is signed. It’s not uncommon for those meetings to be at bars over drinks. Entrepreneurs often say they take whatever time they can get with well-known investors.”

But while the tech industry may have particular problems, they are not alone here.

Think Progress published a story in early July that detailed sexual harassment in the sciences.  The site reports on survey data that found, “Women, and particularly women of color, working within the astronomical and planetary sciences are vastly more likely than their male colleagues to experience a hostile work environment based on their race or gender.”

The New York Times column in April in the wake of the latest sexual harassment scandal at Fox noted, “Employers, judges and juries often use women’s failure to report harassment as evidence that it was not a problem or that plaintiffs had other motives. But only a quarter to a third of people who have been harassed at work report it to a supervisor or union representative, and 2 percent to 13 percent file a formal complaint, according to a meta-analysis of studies by Lilia Cortina of the University of Michigan and Jennifer Berdahl of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business.”

Another New York Times article shows that a large percentage of people are wary of having private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex.

The article notes, “The results show the extent to which sex is an implicit part of our interactions. They also explain in part why women still don’t have the same opportunities as men. They are treated differently not just on the golf course or in the boardroom, but in daily episodes large and small, at work and in their social lives.”

And so while the news about Uber and Fox News and Silicon Valley shows the cautionary side of women being alone with men, the flipside is harmful to women.

To me, then, there are multiple problems here.  First, there is a power asymmetry that allows men to continue to act in inappropriate ways.  Second, there is a cultural issue that seems to look the other way when they do so, more often than not.  Third, there are too many industries that are male-dominated, which leave women vulnerable to these power asymmetries.

These tend to reinforce the patterns.  For example, women interviewed at Fox News said that they did not file complaints because they feared retaliation or being fired.  And some do not report the problem because they don’t believe their experience qualifies as sexual harassment.

The Times reported, “An analysis of 55 representative surveys found that about 25 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment, but when they are asked about specific behaviors, like inappropriate touching or pressure for sexual favors, the share roughly doubles. Those numbers are broadly consistent with other survey findings.”

As the Times put it in their article, “One reason women stall professionally, research shows, is that people have a tendency to hire, promote and mentor people like themselves. When men avoid solo interactions with women — a catch-up lunch or late night finishing a project — it puts women at a disadvantage.”

For many they feel, if they cannot meet the boss one-on-one, they do not get the face time needed to show that they deserve the next promotion.

And so sexual harassment becomes a barrier for women to be able to advance professionally.  I view the comments made to my friend as not harmless, but a way to degrade and dismiss her professional abilities.  As long as we continue to tolerate such conduct, it will continue.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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17 thoughts on “Commentary: Why Have We Turned a Blind Eye to Sexism?”

  1. Claire Benoit


    The femininst movement makes strides toward “empowering” women to behave… like men.

    Behaving “like women” will get you discounted as stupid, crazy, or backwards. In fact; I’m pretty sure the phrase “acting like a woman” is viewed as sexist more than making special provisions in work contracts for women to be better equipped for unplanned motherhood. I can hear some one griping “so because I’m a woman, you automatically assuuume I’ll become a mother?!” 😝

    And so when aspects of undeniable womanhood surface in workplaces or otherwise; they’re just as vulnerable as they always were.

    1. Dave Hart

      George Lakoff has provided this hierarchy to explain sexism and all the other supremacy -isms.  Not complicated, but not often discussed.

      The Conservative Moral Hierarchy:
      • God above Man
      • Man above Nature
      • The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak)
      • The Rich above the Poor
      • Employers above Employees
      • Adults above Children
      • Western culture above other cultures
      • America above other countries
      • Men above Women
      • Whites above Nonwhites
      • Christians above non-Christians
      • Straights above Gays

        1. Dave Hart

          Matt, the point is that God (probably male) is, in the Conservative Moral Hierarchy, a non-negotiable external reality superior to all beings.  Images are not an issue.  And, it’s not my list, it’s George Lakoff’s list.  He’s a much smarter guy than me.

        2. Matt Williams

          Dave, I wasn’t taking issue with your point.  Simply proposing an amendment to the first item in the list as written.  I would make the same proposal to Mr. Lakoff.

          With that said, I believe images are very much an issue in this case. If someone wants to validate their chosen moral hierarch, creating a non-negotiable external reality superior to all beings in your own image validates your own existence more than it valises the existence of those whose image is different (females for example).

  2. Howard P


    You have managed to take a two-edged sword out of its scabbard… particularly related to Davis…

    ‘Sexism’, even in the workplace and on many blogs, is a two-edged sword…

    It has, and does, have two sharp edges… I hope anyone picking up by the grip does so, understands that…

  3. Howard P

    Not meant that way… but folk of both sexes can be sexist… and misuse power, and hurt/hold back others… either the opposite gender, or their own, to ‘prove’ something to the other gender… have seen many flavors of it.

    Ultimately, it is the ‘abuse of power’, direct or indirect, that is the real problem.  Sexism plays a role… but it is two-edged…

    These topics DO need to be explored. Not hidden, not ignored, but recognized for what they are…

  4. Claire Benoit

    I’m not sure what you’re looking at when you say women (or those who believe they’re defending women) can be sexist but I do agree with that.

    The old saying “pick your battles wisely” applies in many scenarios.

    I agree men get bullied a lot for being men while the valid plights of women haven’t budged much at all in most parts of the world. But I don’t think you can compare the sexism against women to the sexism against men because while men and women ARE very different than one another – we complete each other.

    So the irony is that poking at men, oppressing women, and confusing  BOTH (which fem movements tend to do) destabilizes both men and women equally but differently. That’s what is happening now.

    Someone told me the allergies in Sacramento are really bad because a while back more male trees were imported than female. No one paid attention to the balance needed. So pollen or whatever trees release of this nature gets released into the air with nowhere to go…. not sure if that’s true but it’s a good metaphor.

    Men and women are connected this way. They suffer together whatever is done to the other. Pretty sure Darwin would agree.

    1. Howard P

      I made no comparison… please don’t read meanings into words that aren’t there…

      I said nothing about men being bullied… I mentioned people being abused by other people… I know what I wrote, and it is what I meant.

      You read a whole lot more into my words than is there…

      1. Don Shor

        Actually, it is true. Thomas Ogren, author of Allergy-Free Landscaping and of the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale, did an extensive survey and found that urban tree programs selected heavily for male trees. The reason is obvious: they don’t have seeds or fruit. City street tree programs aren’t going to plant female or seedling-grown Ginkgo trees, for example, because the fruit is messy and smells horrible. So urban environments are heavily skewed to pollen-producing trees when they select dioecious species. When they plant willows, poplars, aspens, ash, silver maples and their hybrids, pistache, mulberry, pepper tree, etc. they are almost certain to plant male cultivars. That is a factor in the allergy levels in some neighborhoods.

        1. Howard P

          I stand corrected, and apologize to Claire… mis-read/missed the ‘imported’ part… not a natural process…

          Don’s answer and the reasons why this had been done, makes sense.

          I understand botany, but am clueless as to horticulture… Don knows both…

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