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Friday 9 June 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Evan Vucci Donald Trump speaks to Leo Varadkar for the first time.
Column 'Would Trump comment on a male journalist’s smile? Not a chance'
Soft sexism at work is less frightening than other forms of sexism, but it can carry more serious repercussions, writes Lorraine Courtney.

IF YOU ARE a working gal who’s read anything about Caitriona Perry and Trump this week, your reaction has likely been one of recognition and unease. Soft sexism in the workplace is something that is all too real. And while it’s rarely acknowledged, we’ve all experienced it.

To recap, Trump told Leo Varadkar on their first phone call that: “We have a lot of your Irish press watching us right now.” He pointed at Perry, calling her over to him. “We have all of this beautiful Irish press,” said Trump, and asked Perry: “Where are you from?” Perry approached the desk and introduced herself.

“She has a nice smile on her face so I bet she treats you well,” he said. Perry kept on smiling.

Difficult to explain it to men who’ve never experienced it

Trump’s inappropriate singling out of a female reporter was derided by so many on social media, with the president’s words described as “creepy”, and American women apologising to her.

The truth is that every woman has felt that at some stage in the workplace—that moment when you realise that a more powerful man isn’t talking you as seriously as your male coworkers. It’s soft sexism and it’s an almost impossible feeling to quantify, and an even harder one to communicate to men who have never felt it.

When I’ve asked friends if they have experienced sexism at work, they often say no… not really. Then if I ask them to think for a minute if they’ve ever been asked to do anything or treated in a way a man wouldn’t be, the answer usually quickly turns to a “yes”.

You see sexism isn’t always blatant. That would be way easier for us to fight. For so many of us, it’s the routine sexist comments and incidents that make us question our own talent and success potential. And while it’s tempting to dismiss comments like Trump’s as a minor annoyance, the fact remains that these regular incidents of sexism are still diminishing women’s professional progress.

Remember Trump singled out a female journalist for this awkward interaction, not a male one. Do you think he’d comment on a male journalist’s smile? Not a chance.

We’re accused of blowing things out of proportion

Nearly three quarters of us have experienced sexism in the workplace, according to the results of a survey by an employment law consultancy Peninsula in 2012. 21 per cent of women said they did not feel confident that their ideas would be taken on board because of their gender.

While soft sexism at work is less overt and less frightening than so many other forms of sexism, it can carry more serious repercussions. The need to preserve a good relationship with coworkers and clients means that responding angrily to sexist incidents isn’t really an option. There is no way Perry could call Trump out on what he did to her and not have that backfire on her professional life in some way.

The subtle, unconscious biases that influence things like promotions and evaluations make the office one place where women sometimes do have to smile and shut up to get ahead.

When women speak up about casual sexism we are accused of getting things out of proportion. Most of us are actually primed by instinct to play things down and this plays right into the hands of sexist men because it enables everyone to go on pretending that their behaviour doesn’t matter. We never call them out even though we should. It means that the squalid power games continue.

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist.

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