Master Suppression Techniques – sexism in the workplace

// 10 July 2009

If someone is outright sexist or misogynist towards you in the workplace, then it’s in some ways easier to identify and deal with than the subtler undermining that can happen.

F-Word commenter A Different Helen sent in a link to this useful breakdown on a Norwegian site, drawing on theory developed by Berit Ås of ‘Master Suppression Techniques’. Although it’s more than 20 years old, it still looks pretty useful to me for anyone dealing with sexism and/or other forms of discrimination (or, as she puts it, “suppression”).

Professor Berit Ås developed the theory of the master suppression techniques, thus making a tool women (and others) can use to identify what goes on when they are not listened to, when they are overlooked or ignored. Maybe it is not that you make a poor argument or fail to present a case properly. It may not have anything to do with the individual, but with the group membership you are given by others, like your gender. To identify the master suppression techniques is to make them visible and thereby neutralise their effect. Immensely practical, as well as useful.

The five master suppression techniques that Berit Ås identified are:

* Making Invisible

* Ridiculing

* Withholding Information

* Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t

* Heaping Blame and Putting to Shame

In theory, techniques like these may be used on all suppressed groups. However, Berit Ås believes that they are used in specific combinations and situations in regards to women, due to the patriarchial society’s definition of women as objects or property.

The booklet outlines how each of these techniques can manifest themselves in practice, and strategies to cope.

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 10 July 2009 at 10:22 pm

Despite the fact this theory is 20 years old it is just as relevant today as it was then. Even more so since these techniques are commonly directed at women because as already stated, these methods are predominantly directed at women as a clever method of ensuring our society remains patriarchal or to put it another way: male-dominant and male-centered.

However, knowledge is power and knowing precisely how and why such tactics are used to ensure power and control remains with the dominant group – namely men.

Withholding information has been used for centuries and one good example is how women’s lives and achievements have always been minimalised and/or invisibilised because history has until recently always been written from the male perspective.

Damned if you and damned if you don’t – to see/read examples of this very effective method one need look no further than the current male-dominated and male-controlled media because always women are reported from a negative perspective. It does not matter what women do or do not do they are blamed for all of society’s ills.

Everyone should read Berit As in order to gain an understanding of how patriarchal power and control operates.

polly styrene // Posted 12 July 2009 at 11:58 am

I agree that it’s sometimes hard to identify when behaviour is sexist, and this kind of analyis can be useful.

However it doesn’t really tell us how to deal with them once you are aware of them.

Example: last week I confronted my male manager with his provably bad behaviour (sending derogatory e-mails about me in breach of the organisation’s policies). He then tried to switch the focus to how bad HE felt because he had to work with me when he’d brought a grievance against me, and said I was encouraging negative feelings against management.

You couldn’t make it up. Answer – well I put in writing to him how he (and others) had breached policies and said it was discriminatory.

But I know that even if I raise this as an internal grievance nothing would be done, and one of my other colleagues is probably going to end up taking her case to an employment tribunal.

The problem is that even if you directly confront behaviour of this type, it doesn’t stop it if there’s a supportive corporate culture.

Wig // Posted 12 July 2009 at 8:46 pm

Polystyrene, exactly.

Sexism is so acceptable. No matter how hurt people are by it, you’re still a crazy feminist if you even slightly or uncomfortably raise an issue.

Sabre // Posted 18 July 2009 at 3:32 pm

I’ve experienced number 1 – making invisible. I think it was probably mostly because of my age (I was a lot younger than others in my team) but I’m sure my gender contributed. It affected my confidence very badly for a long time.

Luckily I managed to heave my confidence up from the floor to go after another (and very good) job, which I got. My manager was so shocked.

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