Sexism in the Workplace Pushes Women to Start Their Own Businesses

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In 2018, Allison Lew quit her job and, for the first time in eight months, fell asleep without a sleeping pill. For most of the previous year, Lew woke up dreading the day ahead of her and ended the day so anxious that she could not fall asleep. She was seriously considering spending over $5,000 out of pocket on a sleep study.

The anxiety started when a new coworker began regularly walking into her office, touching her back, and leaning over her desk. It made Lew feel so uncomfortable that she met with HR to see if they could help her set some stricter boundaries. Her office was in the back corner, and she felt like if anything happened, she would not be able to get out of the situation quickly or efficiently.

HR told her that the coworker’s behavior was harmless.

“They cared more about protecting that guy’s career than for my safety and my career,” Lew told Business.org in a recent interview.

After Lew quit, she turned one of her side hustles, a community she founded for women entrepreneurs called Braid Workshop, into her new full-time job. She took a major pay cut, but for her own safety and mental health, she felt she needed to be in a secure, validating situation.

“I still think about it, and it really bums me out. I would have stayed there for a lot longer. I was really passionate about the work I was doing and making a difference. But I was paying for it with my health,” Lew said.

Shortly after Lew quit, that previous company went through a media scandal and lost one of their higher-ups after he allegedly sexually assaulted other employees.

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Women nationally make 84% of what men earned, according to Pew Research Center. A report published in July 2020 by the Utah Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted that women in Utah are still being paid 10 cents on the dollar less than women in similar positions nationally, and 30 cents less than men nationally.

BreAnne Okoren, manager of digital marketing at Zenger Folkman and creator and host of The 90th Percentile: An Unconventional Leadership Podcast, explained, “In my first job in college I remember finding out the new guy they hired after me made more money. When I asked my boss why, he said, ‘He asked for it.’ Women often feel like we can’t go after something until we have gathered enough experience, education, or support.”

In May 2020, the organization Utah Women in Leadership published a report noting that numbers of women entrepreneurs and woman-run and owned businesses are growing, but the organization credits this metric of a boom in female entrepreneurship in a community does not necessarily equate safety and feminism in a culture. In this case, it simply means that the traditional workplace is so harmful that women feel they have to leave and start their own businesses.

Women like Allison Lew face too much discrimination and too many challenges in male-dominated workplaces, so turn to entrepreneurship as an alternative career model.

Research from the National Women’s Business Council found that this phenomenon is common. Many women throughout the country are creating their own companies to avoid sexism and sexist comments within the traditional workforce.

Women are underestimated in business

Paula Sageser also created her own business, PCS Creative Services LLC, to avoid sexism in the business world, specifically in the male-dominated field of website design.

After Sageser was laid off from one job, she had a nearly impossible time trying to find work as a website developer. She applied and interviewed for a web development job, but the company tried to talk her into taking a technical writing job instead.

Even when working with a federal agency, she was squeezed out in favor of the “web guys.”

“The job space is not friendly for women looking for developer roles,” Sagesar said. “I think a lot of us get fed up with people trying to place limits on what we are capable of doing and finally decide to work our butts off for our own benefit and with the limits we place.”

Today, Sageser runs a successful website design business and accomplishes exactly what the web guys told her she couldn’t do on her own.

“I'm doing the work that I wanted to do,” Sageser said. “I'm doing the technical aspects of web design that the web guys didn't think I could do.”

Everyday sexism

Throughout their experiences, both Sageser and Lew felt that maybe they were just imagining the sexism, but they couldn’t deny something was off.

Dr. Susan R. Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project and professor at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business, found that these feelings of women being gaslit about sexism in business are common in her research.

No one wants to admit the benevolent or hostile sexism ingrained in a work culture, but women don’t imagine these microaggressions.

“We use the term ‘everyday sexism.’ For many women, it's everyday, but a lot of it's invisible to most people. Oftentimes a woman will just have this sinking feeling of ‘something's wrong.’ She knows this doesn't make her feel good when she walks into a room of all men, and they comment constantly on how good she looks. They're being nice, but something doesn't feel right about that. They're focusing on her looks, not her brain,” Dr. Madsen explained. “It absolutely impacts your career when people do that.”

During Madsen's conversations with industry leaders in tech, the CEOs say they hire women, but the women don't stay. This can usually be attributed to the culture of the company, she tells them.

"I'm like, you've got this masculine culture. I mean, it's invisible to most people, but that's why they don't stay. They don't feel like they belong," she told Business.org.

Women don't know they make great leaders

BreAnne Okoren, from Zenger Folkman had six bosses during the past 10 years in her position, five of them were men and only one was a woman. She said, “Each one of my male bosses was nice but very dismissive of every new idea I brought up. I have had a completely different experience at work this past year with a female boss who listened, encouraged, and supported my ideas. Sexism is not always blatant, and you often don’t realize it is happening to you.”

Interestingly enough, Zenger Folkman, a strengths-based leadership development firm, published findings that noted that, statistically, women actually score higher than men in all leadership qualities tested except for confidence.

The research shows that once women turn 60 years old, their confidence in the workplace grows and meets the confidence level of their male counterparts. These women finally identify themselves as competent, strong, and deserving of a seat at the table right before their retirement.

A woman might have all the same qualifications and experience as a man but being paid 20 cents less per dollar of the salary on average of her male counterpart and then not taken seriously in meetings with HR can undermine confidence in the value she is bringing to the table.

Okoren explained, “It has taken a long time to recognize that my time away from my home and family is worth a lot. I remind myself that most people feel like imposters at work. But that organization is lucky to have your unique strengths, mental energy, and dedication.”

Disclaimer

At Business.org, our research is meant to offer general product and service recommendations. We don't guarantee that our suggestions will work best for each individual or business, so consider your unique needs when choosing products and services.

Nicolle Okoren
Written by
Nicolle Okoren
Nicolle Okoren is a writer with over twelve years of writing experience. She has a BS in sociology and MA in journalism from Goldsmiths, University of London. Nicolle has bylines in The Guardian, Huffpost UK, Independent, CNN, Irish Independent, BridgeUniverse and Utah Business Magazine. Prior to jumping into journalism, she worked as a content writer for multiple startups and is passionate about unpacking the many barriers that prevent entrepreneurs from thriving.
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