Sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, the gender pay gap… The most obvious examples of sexism in the workplace get the most airtime. While the more subtle, seemingly mundane kinds of everyday sexism, the ones that help lay the groundwork for more “serious” discrimination to take place, are often overlooked.
Pet names – babe, sweetie, hun, darling, love, the list goes on – casually dropped into conversation are one of the most pernicious ways women are kept “in their place” at work. By demeaning and belittling fully grown professionals, these saccharine monikers make us feel powerless.
“Research suggests such names might be more common in sectors where women are in the minority, for example, the construction industry,” says Kate Sang, professor of gender and employment studies at Heriot-Watt University’s Edinburgh Business School. “These are the sorts of sectors where ‘banter’ is common and seems to be an important way of showing who is part of the group and who is excluded.”
People who use them might also have “a conscious need or desire to undermineunderline a woman at work, to highlight her ‘femininity’ over her professional expertise”, says Prof Sang. Surprise, surprise: it’s most likely to be demeaning when used by senior male colleagues to younger women. “In workplaces where authority and seniority is assumed to rest with male colleagues, to refer to women as ‘honey’ or ‘babe’ is belittling and identifies her as a sexualised woman, rather than a professional manager to be taken seriously,” she adds.