Let’s Talk About Sex(ism)

Steph Madner (front, second from right) and the 2011 Yale Women’s Crew team.

I feel awkward writing this, but as someone passionate about increasing the representation of women in leadership roles, I can no longer be silent.

As an All-American on the Yale Women’s Crew in 2011, I was sensitive about my strong and athletic appearance. As I got faster, I also got bigger, and I worried that I wouldn’t be seen as feminine and attractive. As such, the recent incident with the Harvard Men’s Soccer team shocked me. Their “Scouting Report’’ of the Harvard Women’s Soccer team — which included 10-point ratings of the players’ sexual appeal, predictions of their preferred sexual positions, and descriptions of their appearance — felt personal. If while at Yale I had read evaluations like these from my male counterparts, I would have lost what little self-confidence I had.

If a male employee is thinking about his female coworker’s preferred sexual position, I’m guessing he’s not also thinking about her effectiveness as a colleague or a leader.

I’m a big girl. I can handle a few rough words. The problem is that this objectification of women cascades into the workplace and prevents so many women like me from achieving their potential. If a male employee is thinking about his female coworker’s preferred sexual position, I’m guessing he’s not also thinking about her effectiveness as a colleague or a leader. It’s not that women aren’t also discussing their male colleagues’ looks — we are — but given the underrepresentation of women in the workplace, the power dynamic is usually different—and, anecdotally, the objectification of men by women is less common. If this is not the case and women are just as guilty of objectifying men, this only means that we have a bigger problem.

Despite being the co-president of the Women in Management Club at the GSB, furthering the discussion of female leadership while a consultant at McKinsey, and writing a blog called “The Modern Woman’s Field Guide,” I’m as guilty as anyone of avoiding the topic of workplace objectification. Couching this bad behavior as something more benign, like “unconscious bias,” feels safer; directly calling out overt sexism feels riskier, and could potentially cost a woman her status within a company—or even her job.

But we have to have this discussion. This problem won’t go away by itself. We need to lean into the awkwardness, to lead with curiosity, and to have an open dialogue. I took a dose of my own medicine and spoke with some old teammates and friends about the Harvard incident.

In my conversations with women, some were outraged, others unsurprised, and still others optimistic. (“Perhaps it’s just a phase boys grow out of.”) Overall, however, I sensed resigned apathy — “I’d prefer to focus my energy on things that are within my control,” and “There’s nothing we can do to change this.”

But there is something we can do. Keep having the conversation.

But there is something we can do. We can keep having the conversation.

I did just that in an honest and open dialogue with two of my closest male friends, one of whom is also a former varsity athlete. When I spoke with them, both men admitted to having evaluated women’s appearances and to have taken part in conversations that had made them uncomfortable but about which they didn’t know what to say. My chat with them felt like transparent and authentic progress, and it was the perfect reminder that objectification and sexism are topics that shouldn’t only be raised by women. Perhaps next time, my two guy friends will speak up when a woman is being objectified behind her back.

To continue fighting the fight, I plan to seek out these conversations at every opportunity. I encourage you to do the same.

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