Sexism: What It Is and How to Combat It

Imagine a world where your abilities, aspirations, and achievements are judged not by your talents or hard work but by your gender. This is a reality for many, as sexism, an issue as old as time, continues to affect millions worldwide. It influences our workplaces, our relationships, and even the way we think about ourselves.

Let’s explore the many faces of sexism and how it shapes our world.

Key Takeaways

  • Sexism involves discrimination or prejudice based on sex or gender, impacting individuals and societies.
  • Historical and institutional contexts contribute to the perpetuation of sexism through cultural and social norms.
  • The rise of feminism and other social movements have played a crucial role in combating sexism and promoting gender equality.

What is Sexism?

Sexism, at its core, is the act of discrimination based on a person’s sex or gender. It can manifest in various ways and can affect anyone, regardless of their gender identity. However, it is most often directed towards women and is deeply rooted in historical patriarchy and traditional gender roles.

Here’s a closer look at what it entails:

  1. Stereotyping: This is the assumption that all individuals of a particular gender must act, think, or look a certain way. For example, the assumption that all women are emotional or that all men should be strong and stoic.
  2. Discrimination: This involves treating someone unfairly because of their gender. Discrimination can occur in various aspects of life, such as in the workplace, schools, or social settings.
  3. Sexual Harassment: Unwanted sexual advances, comments, or behaviors constitute sexual harassment. This form of sexism can happen in any setting but is especially prevalent in the workplace.
  4. Objectification: This refers to the treatment of a person, usually a woman, as an object, focusing on their physical attributes rather than their abilities or intellect.

Types of Sexism

Benevolent Sexism

This type of sexism may seem harmless on the surface, but it is rooted in traditional gender roles and stereotypes. It involves patronizing attitudes and behaviors that can be perceived as kind or protective but actually reinforce gender inequality.

Some examples of benevolent sexism might include:

  • Complimenting a woman for being nurturing or emotional but not recognizing her intelligence or accomplishments.
  • Assuming that a man should always pay for a date or carry heavy bags for a woman.

Hostile Sexism

This is a more overt form of sexism, characterized by aggression, devaluation, and derogatory attitudes towards a specific gender. It can include verbal or physical harassment, exclusion, or any form of demeaning treatment based on someone’s sex or gender.

For example:

  • Making sexist jokes or comments in the workplace.
  • Discrediting a woman’s ability to perform well in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Ambivalent Sexism

As its name suggests, ambivalent sexism is a combination of both benevolent and hostile sexism. It refers to the existence of conflicting attitudes, where an individual may express seemingly positive but also negative behaviors towards someone based on their gender.

In these cases, it’s essential to recognize that:

  • Benevolent sexism can still harm gender relations by upholding problematic stereotypes.
  • Hostile sexism and benevolent sexism can coexist within an individual, making it important to address both forms when promoting gender equality.

Historical Context

Patriarchal Society

Throughout history, many societies have been organized around a patriarchal system, where men held more power and controlled resources. This has often led to gender roles that prescribed specific tasks and expectations for each sex.

Women were typically expected to focus on domestic responsibilities and caregiving, while men were given authority in most aspects of life.

Over time, women have challenged patriarchy by demanding more choices and opportunities for themselves. They have fought against restrictive gender roles and sought ways to achieve gender equality.

Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement in the 20th century played a significant role in changing societal attitudes towards women and gender equality. As people advocated for racial justice, they also began to recognize the need to address gender-based discrimination and inequalities.

The civil rights movement helped inspire the feminist movement, which has been working toward equal rights for women since the 1960s.

Second-wave feminists, predominantly in the United States, worked to challenge not only legal inequalities but also essentialist biological ideas that were thought to be the basis of those inequalities.

Societal Attitudes Towards Sexism

Understanding how society views sexism can provide insight into the structural and cultural issues perpetuating it. Here, we delve into common societal attitudes and reactions that contribute to the persistence or mitigation of sexism.

The Denial Approach

What it Looks Like: “Sexism doesn’t exist anymore. Women have equal rights now.”

Impact: This attitude hinders dialogue and ignores ongoing systemic issues disproportionately affecting women and other marginalized genders.

The Victim-Blaming Stance

  • What it Looks Like: “She should dress more modestly if she doesn’t want to be harassed.”
  • Impact: Blaming the victim rather than addressing the perpetrator perpetuates harmful behavior and discourages victims from coming forward.

The “Not All Men” Response

  • What it Looks Like: “I’m a man, and I’ve never harassed anyone. Not all men are like that.”
  • Impact: While it’s true that not all men are sexist, this line of reasoning diverts attention away from the real issue: that sexism exists and has victims.

Performative Allyship

  • What it Looks Like: Sharing feminist memes or attending a women’s march but failing to address sexism daily.
  • Impact: Being vocal online but passive in real-life situations contributes little to solving the problem. Allyship requires consistent action.

The “Boys Will Be Boys” Excuse

  • What it Looks Like: “He’s just being a boy; it’s natural for him to act that way.”
  • Impact: This attitude normalizes sexist behavior from a young age, perpetuating a cycle where boys grow into men who continue to perpetuate sexism.

Equality But Not Equity

  • What it Looks Like: “We should treat everyone the same, regardless of their gender.”
  • Impact: While treating everyone equally sounds fair, it ignores the systemic disadvantages that some people face. Equity is about giving everyone what they need to be successful, which sometimes means treating people differently to achieve fairness.

The Savior Complex

  • What it Looks Like: A person, usually a man, who believes he needs to “save” women rather than empower them.
  • Impact: This perspective puts women in a passive role, taking away their agency and reinforcing gendered power dynamics.

Open Dialogue and Education

  • What it Looks Like: Actively listening to the experiences of marginalized genders, educating oneself, and fostering safe spaces for discussion.
  • Impact: This is one of the most effective ways to combat sexism. Education and open dialogue can lead to societal change over time.

You play a part in shaping societal attitudes. What you say, how you act, and the attitudes you adopt have ripple effects. By recognizing these common attitudes, you can make more informed choices that contribute to a more equitable society.

Cultural Norms and Stereotypes

Traditional Gender Roles

Understanding the origins of sexism often requires an examination of traditional gender roles. Societies around the world have established roles and expectations for men and women, often rooted in historical or religious contexts.

These roles often dictate the behaviors, occupations, and responsibilities considered appropriate for each gender. However, they also contribute to unequal treatment, opportunities, and representation of men and women.

  • Men: Often expected to be the leaders, protectors, and providers of their families. Typically assigned roles that involve physical strength, decision-making, and authority.
  • Women: Traditionally expected to take on nurturing roles, such as caregivers or homemakers. Often assigned roles that involve emotional support, childcare, and household duties.

Cultural Portrayals

The way men and women are portrayed in the media, literature, and art also contributes to the reinforcement of gender stereotypes and, consequently, sexism.

  • Men: Often depicted as strong, independent, and emotionally reserved. They are frequently shown in leadership positions, as heroes, or as the primary breadwinners.
  • Women: Commonly portrayed as emotional, dependent, and focused on their appearance. They are often relegated to secondary roles or depicted as objects of desire.

These portrayals influence our perceptions of what is “normal” or “appropriate” for each gender, leading to biased expectations and treatment.

Cultural Backgrounds

Different cultures have varying degrees of gender inequality, and thus, sexism manifests differently across the globe. While some cultures have made significant progress toward gender equality, others still have deeply entrenched patriarchal systems that perpetuate sexism.

  • Western Cultures: While there has been significant progress towards gender equality, there are still instances of unequal pay, underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, and prevalence of gender-based violence.
  • Middle Eastern and Asian Cultures: Many countries in these regions have patriarchal systems that result in limited rights and opportunities for women. However, it is essential to recognize that there is a wide range of cultural practices and levels of gender inequality across these regions.

Sexism and Violence

Gender-Based Violence

You might be aware that gender-based violence is a form of sexism, and it’s important to understand how these acts of violence manifest in our society. It is any act of violence or abuse that is targeted at an individual or group based on their gender.

This includes physical, sexual, emotional, or economic abuse that is perpetrated because of gender norms and roles.

Here are some key points to remember:

  1. Different Forms:
    • Physical abuse: Includes hitting, slapping, punching, or any other form of physical harm.
    • Sexual abuse: Encompasses rape, forced sexual acts, and other forms of sexual coercion.
    • Emotional abuse: Consists of verbal abuse, humiliation, manipulation, and controlling behavior.
    • Economic abuse: Involves controlling access to money, assets, or employment.
  2. Perpetrators Can Be Anyone:
    • Often, the perpetrators of gender-based violence are people known to the victim. They can be partners, family members, friends, or acquaintances.
  3. Impacts are Broad and Deep:
    • The impacts of gender-based violence are profound and far-reaching. They include physical injuries, mental health issues, and can even lead to death. The consequences also extend to families and communities, causing a ripple effect of harm and suffering.
  4. Not Only Women are Victims:
    • Although women and girls are disproportionately affected by gender-based violence, it is important to recognize that men and boys can also be victims. Gender-based violence affects people of all genders and ages.
  5. Role of Society:
    • Societal norms and attitudes play a significant role in perpetuating gender-based violence. These include norms that reinforce gender inequality, objectify women, or normalize violence.

Sexism and Discrimination

Gender Discrimination in Organizations

When you walk into your workplace, you might assume it’s a level playing field for everyone, regardless of gender. However, that’s often not the case. Here are some ways gender discrimination occurs in organizations:

  • Promotions and Opportunities: Women frequently face obstacles in climbing the corporate ladder, with fewer opportunities for career advancement compared to men.
  • Hiring Practices: Employers might prefer one gender over the other for specific roles, perpetuating stereotypes. For instance, you’ll find more men in engineering and more women in caregiving jobs.
  • Workplace Harassment: Women often experience a hostile work environment, which can include sexual harassment or demeaning comments based on gender.
  • Implicit Bias: Even when there’s no overt discrimination, subtle biases can affect decision-making processes, like performance reviews.
  • Leadership Representation: If you look at the top tier of many organizations, you’ll notice it’s predominantly male.

Gender Pay Gap

Imagine doing the same job as someone else but getting paid less simply because of your gender. That’s the gender pay gap for you. Here’s how it impacts you:

  • Income Disparity: On average, women earn around 82 cents for every dollar a man makes. Over a lifetime, this adds up to a significant financial disadvantage.
  • Work Type: Often, roles predominantly occupied by women are undervalued and underpaid compared to those mostly filled by men.
  • Lack of Transparency: Organizations rarely disclose pay scales, making it difficult for you to know if you’re being paid fairly.
  • Career Advancement: A lower starting salary can affect your future pay raises, bonuses, and retirement savings.

Reproductive Rights

When it comes to decisions about your own body, you’d think gender wouldn’t play a role. Yet, reproductive rights remain a battleground where sexism is evident. Key points include:

  • Access to Contraception: Women often face more barriers to obtaining birth control, and in some cases, employers deny insurance coverage for it.
  • Abortion Rights: Legal restrictions on abortion disproportionately impact women, dictating what you can or can’t do with your body.
  • Maternity Leave: While some countries offer paid parental leave for both parents, the burden of childcare often falls on women, affecting their career trajectory.
  • Sex Education: In many places, sex education focuses on abstinence, inadequately preparing you for responsible sexual behavior and choices.

Ways to Combat Sexism

  1. Self-Education:
    • Understand the Issues: The first step to combating sexism is understanding what it entails. Read books, articles, and studies about gender inequality, women’s rights, and sexism.
    • Listen to Others: Listen to the experiences of people who have been affected by sexism. This can provide a different perspective and a deeper understanding of the issues.
  2. Challenge Your Own Biases:
    • Reflect: Take time to reflect on your own biases and beliefs. Recognize that everyone has biases, and it’s important to address them in order to grow.
    • Seek Feedback: Ask friends, family, or colleagues for feedback on your actions and behavior. Sometimes others can see things that we are blind to.
  3. Speak Up:
    • Challenge Sexism: When you witness sexism, whether it’s a comment, a joke, or a discriminatory action, speak up. It’s important to challenge sexist behavior whenever you encounter it.
    • Support Others: Support those who are affected by sexism. Offer a listening ear, a supportive shoulder, or assistance in taking action if they want it.
  4. Promote Equality:
    • Be Inclusive: Make an effort to include people of all genders in conversations, activities, and decision-making processes.
    • Mentor Others: Offer guidance and support to others, regardless of their gender. Mentorship can be a powerful tool for promoting equality.
  5. Be Mindful of Language:
    • Avoid Stereotypes: Be mindful of language that reinforces gender stereotypes. For example, avoid using terms like “man up” or “don’t be a girl”.
    • Use Gender-Neutral Language: Whenever possible, use gender-neutral language, such as “they” instead of “he” or “she”, and “partner” instead of “husband” or “wife”.
  6. Support Women’s Rights:
    • Advocate: Actively advocate for women’s rights and gender equality. This can be done by supporting organizations that work towards these goals, attending rallies, or contacting your representatives about important issues.
  7. Be a Role Model:
    • Lead by Example: Demonstrate through your actions that you value gender equality. Be a role model for others by treating everyone with respect and fairness.

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Brenda Calisaan is a psychology graduate who strongly desires to impact society positively. She aspires to spread awareness and knowledge about mental health, its importance, and its impact on individuals and society.

She also has a passion for working with children and hopes to dedicate her career to positively impacting their lives.

Outside of work, Brenda is an avid traveler and enjoys exploring new experiences. She is also a music enthusiast and loves to listen to a variety of genres. When she's not on the road or working, Brenda can often be found watching interesting YouTube videos, such as Ted-Ed content.