Everything You Need to Know About Sexism

woman facing sexism in a meeting

Fizkes / Adobe Stock

Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
April 13, 2024 at 6:0AM UTC

Possibly every woman has been touched by sexism. From being the target of a lewd comment on the street to subtle biases at work to being passed over for a promotion in favor of a similarly-qualified male colleague, sexism happens every day and everywhere. Why does sexism matter? Read on to find out.

Sexism Definition

Sexism is a type of discrimination that undervalues, belittles, and treats a certain gender, often women, differently from the opposite gender. Sexism may be conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional, and can impact people’s work, behavior, pay, and even how they dress.

Sexism can occur in nearly every sphere: at work, at home, in the government, and on an institutional level (called institutional sexism).

The History of Sexism

The term sexism emerged during second-wave feminism paralleling the term racism, but this was by no means the first time sexism occurred.

From its earliest inception, women in the United States, as well as in many other countries, were considered wives and mothers foremost and lacked the equal rights as those of men, in areas including everything from education to voting.

Sexism is embedded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence, for example, states that “All men are created equal” with no reference to women.

Until the Married Women’s Property Act, passed in New York in 1848 and copied by other states, married women’s property was considered that of her husband, not herself.

With the exception of some states, which passed suffrage laws in the decades prior, women were not legally allowed to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

The women’s rights movement, which sought to gain equal rights and status for women, allowed women to make significant strides in terms of their political, social, and socioeconomic status. Previously, women could not hold the same jobs as men and today occupy many positions only men could hold in the past. Elizabeth Blackwell, the nation’s first female physician, earned her M.D. in 1849, while Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1916.

However, sexism persisted even after second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, which included the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Today, women continue to face sexual harassment at work and beyond. We also contend with the glass ceiling, which prevents us from attaining the highest occupational levels.

As of 2018, for example, we have yet to elect a woman president in the United States. Attitudes among young people have become increasingly sexist since those of the late 1990s, according to research conducted by the Council on Contemporary Families.

Recent Instances of Sexism

Sexism takes place across industries and cultures. Below are just some of the recent examples of sexism in the United States.

The #MeToo Movement

Sexual harassment, which involves sexist behavior and results from sexist notions about women, has come to the forefront of the international conversation after more than 80 women accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse and misconduct.

Originally used by Tarana Burke and popularized by Alyssa Milano, the #MeToo hashtag became a symbol of a new movement against sexual harassment, as countless women shared their own stories. As more and more prominent men—many of whom have been harassing and abusing women and men over many years— face consequences for their actions, workplaces are striving to make their environments safer.

The heightened awareness of the treatment of women is a step forward, but there have been some drawbacks as well. For example, some people fear engaging with others one-on-one in the workplace out of fear of misconstrued behavior. According to the Center for Talent Innovation, 64 percent of senior men and 50 percent of junior women avoid solo interactions. This makes it clear that more education is need on the topic of appropriate behavior in the workplace.

Sexism in Silicon Valley

In 2012, Ellen Pao filed a gender discrimination suit against the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers alleging that the firm had fired her for sexist reasons, including her affair with a fellow junior partner.

Pao lost the suit, but her case shed light on the gender discrimination that pervaded—and continues to pervade—the technology industry. High-profile cases have included gender discrimination lawsuits against Facebook, Tesla, and other tech giants. Women began dubbing instances of women sharing their own experiences of sexism in Silicon Valley—often with the hashtag #ThankYouEllen—the “Pao effect.”

A huge gender gap in tech still exists, with just 11 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies are held by women according to The Observer.

Sexism in Gaming

Women have frequently faced discrimination and sexual harassment in video game communities. In 2017, cosplayer Christine Sprankle quit Magic: the Gathering, citing ongoing harassment.

In 2012, Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency, a website that analyzes portrayals of women in gaming culture and other media, received death and rape threats for her Kickstarter campaign to fund her project Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. In October 2014, she was scheduled to speak in Logan, Utah, but canceled the event due to a threat of a mass shooting.

Sexism in the Media Industry

The original subject of the #MeToo Movement, the media industry has been pervaded by sexist behavior and sexual harassment for many years. In July 2018, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves faced accusations of sexual harassment from six women, including allegations that he had forcibly touched and kissed them.

Many other prominent actors, personalities, and executives have exhibited similar behavior, from Matt Lauer, whom NBC terminated due to sexual misconduct allegations from multiple employees, to Bill Cosby, who was convicted of the rape of one woman and accused of the same crime by numerous other women, to Harvey Weinstein, whose behavior led to his arrest for rape and other sexual offenses in May 2018.

10 Everyday Examples of Sexism

Of course, sexism occurs on a smaller scale in everyday life as well. Here are 10 examples of sexism that many women experience regularly.

1. Catcalling and negging

Who hasn’t experienced a catcall on the street? Often, if a woman doesn’t respond, she’ll face an inevitable insult or neg. “Why aren’t you smiling?” is a frequent insult, suggesting that women must always look happy, not feel their feelings, and respond affirmatively even when they are facing street harassment.

2. Double standards

At work and in other spheres of life, women are frequently held to different standards than men are. For example, women are often expected to be docile and polite, while men have the freedom to show anger and frustration.

3. Judging women in authority positions

Women who have leadership positions at work and are assertive often face backlash for their behavior and may be considered cold or aggressive, as opposed to men who often exhibit similar behavior.

Likewise, women sometimes face derogatory comments about how they got to where they are, such as assumptions that they must have "slept their way to the top."

4. “It’s a good thing you’re pretty.”

Degrading comments like “It’s a good thing you’re pretty,” usually in response to a woman’s mistake, reinforces the idea that women must be one or the other: attractive or smart.

5. “Boys will be boys.”

Excusing inappropriate behavior men exhibit based on their gender gives them leeway to continue to act in that way. This statement basically suggests that men don’t need to take responsibility for their actions in the same way women must.

6. The Bechdel Test

Inspired by Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel Test is a requirement regarding sexism in movies stating that the film must feature at least two women who talk to one another about something other than a man. According to FiveThirtyEight, one-third of the top 50 movies in 2016 failed this test.

Many people suggest that the Bechdel Test is too low a bar and that we need to aim higher than simply requiring women to converse in movies.

7. Asking if women if they’re pregnant or intend to become pregnant

According to the EEOC, it’s not illegal to ask a woman if she’s pregnant or intends to become pregnant, though it is illegal to use this information to make hiring, promotion, or firing decisions.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s not an inappropriate or sexist question to ask. If someone wants to share news of her pregnancy, that’s her prerogative; otherwise, her coworkers and others need to respect her privacy.

8. The gender pay gap

Sexism can have financial consequences in addition to social ones. The gender pay gap, which describes the average difference in income women make in comparison to men, has narrowed over the years, but according to Pew Research Center, in 2017, women earned 82% of what men made.

9. Unconscious bias

Unintended slights—leaning toward a male hire with the same qualifications are a female candidate, making an off-color joke about women, assuming a woman will take on a typically “female” role such as recording minutes at a meeting, and similar behaviors—are forms of sexism whether the perpetrator realizes it or not. These subtle discriminatory behaviors can have a real impact on people and the culture of an institution, such as a workplace.

10. Gendered language

Using the pronoun “he” to describe any person or gendered terms such as “businessman,” “waitress,” or “manpower” suggests that one gender is more associated with the role or action than another. Gender-neutral and gender-inclusive language, such as replace the pronoun “he” with “one” or “they” attempts to remove connotations from everyday language.

The Future of Sexism

Sexism is by no means over in today’s world, but women and men alike are continuing to make strides against it. The #MeToo Movement, International Women’s Day, and the now-annual Women’s March demonstrate that people care about gender equality and want to eradicate gender discrimination once and for all.

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