Research shows that most people don't see sexism even when it's right in front of their noses.
"Women endorse sexist beliefs, at least in part, because they do not attend to subtle, aggregate forms of sexism in their personal lives," wrote Julia C. Becker and Janet K. Swim, the authors of this study about the invisibility of sexism. "Many men not only lack attention to such incidents but also are less likely to perceive sexist incidents as being discriminatory and potentially harmful for women."
How do you think about and respond to these 10 examples?
1. Religious sexism and discrimination. Do you really believe women are incapable of religous authority? This ritualized silencing of women is practiced by practically all major religions which, with minor exceptions, bar girls and women from ministerial leadership. That means access to the divine is mediated exclusively by men and their speech. This is legally unchallenged discrimination and its effects go way beyond places and practices of worship. From the moment a girl realizes that she is not invited to participate in clerical rituals because she is a girl, she learns that her voice is powerless and not respected. So do the boys around her. But, hey, at least we pay to undermine the public good through tax credits and subsidies. What if you objected? And stopped supporting this discrimination?
2. Double standards -- lots of them. We live with an infinite number of hierarchy-building double standards based solely on gender, which restrict women's freedom and impair our ability to lead secure, rewarding, autonomous lives. 50 of these are explored in Jessica Valenti's book, He's a Stud, She's a Slut. They range from expecting girls to exhibit more self-control and politeness to grossly different treatment of men and women when they age and when they use their bodies to express themselves, to distorted ideas about boys and girls "natural" capabilities.
3. Chivalry, otherwise know as benevolent sexism, is part of our "manners." A man who opens a door for you and doesn't mind if you do the same for him is one thing. But, one who categorically refuses your offer speaks to a much bigger problem. Benevolent sexism, the kind that is passed off as "protective" and "gentlemanly," is a core characteristic of how masculinity (and by binary contrast, femininity) are constructed in conservative cultures. Studies have shown that the more entitled people are, the more likely they are to hold sexist beliefs -- which says an awful lot about #WomenAgainstFeminism. It's defined as "the negative consequences of attitudes that idealize women as pure, moral, pedestal-worthy objects of men's adoration, protection, and provision." A lot of this starts in childhood and comes under the mantle of teaching girls and boys to be "ladies" and "gentleman" instead of just civil and kind human beings who care for one another equally. In other words, what many people think of as chivalry, gentlemanly and "real man" behavior. The negative effects on women are well documented, particularly in the workplace.
There is a well-documented correlation between benevolent sexism and women's acceptance of biased gender roles. Take the ways in which denial of the wage gap is expressed. For example, Phyllis Schlafly recently announced that closing the pay gap (she admitted it was real) would result in women being unable to find husbands. Ideas like this are deeply related to systemic support for an ideal worker who is male and a single breadwinner. That idea is a recurring theme of conservative policies about work and gender.
Our not seeing sexism where it is evident enables people with power to speculate out loud that "money is more important for men" and not lose their jobs for incompetence. I want you to imagine a political today saying money is more important for Jewish people. Or Black people. Or tall people. The pay gap amounts to $431,000 over a lifetime. Men make less than women in only seven of 534 job types, so, of course, Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander recently demanded to know what gender gap legislation would do to help them. Benevolent sexists are definitively hostile to women's workplace success. If we don't challenge this very quiet form of sexism then we make sure it pays, but only a very small portion of the population. How much is chivalry worth to you? Because you can, after all, open doors on your own. Giving yourself a raise however, is impossible.
4. The high costs of "staying safe." Every day women absorb, and are expected to pay, the costs of the safety gap. This gap costs us time and money and limits our movement. It can limit our employment opportunities, because some jobs can become very dangerous in an instant if you are a woman. Just ask reporters, truck drivers, migrant workers, activists.
Ask yourselves, men, do you feel safe on your neighborhood streets? Do you choose where and when you shop or commute carefully? Do you have parking strategies, like not parking near vans? Do you use your keys as a weapon or take other similar measures? Do you avoid paying for a gym because you can exercise outside with no problems? We teach our children that these things are "normal" and to be expected. Talk about the costs to you with the people around you.
5. Sexism in media is entertaining. "Family-friendly" media marginalizes and objectifies girls and women, creates damaging ideals of masculinity for boys, and sustains mythologies that support a violent, male-dominated status quo. Not only do we live with this media, but most people, genuinely otherwise concerned with their children's well-being and future livelihoods, don't actively challenge entertainment companies or related media to do better. When you see a movie and there are 20 men for every one woman (usually just one or two) on screen, do you say something? Do you think about the fact that that's 20 times the number of onscreen jobs for men than for women? Or what that imbalance means on and off screen?
6. Women pay more for "our" products just because we are women and considered not "standard." A Jezebel article put it like this a few years ago: "Being born a woman is a major financial mistake." Marie Claire published a similar list. Until recently gender pricing for insurance, which resulted in women paying up to 31% more for apples-to-apples coverage, was perfectly legal. Think I'm kidding? Here's a 10 pac of Bic Cristal ball point pens for $5.89. Here's the $10.14, six-pack version "for her." Stop buying this sh*t.
7. Our language is profoundly biased, related to our social structure and affects the way we think. We pervasively use male generics and that has negative effects. I do it all the time -- I can't seem to break the "guys" habit. We still use male words, usually to denote positive categories, like "mankind," but female terms for negative ones, "hos," and "sluts." We don't, for example, sit kids down and talk to them about the social harms of "b*tch,"even when used affectionately. Women are routinely referred to as "girls" (childlike and dependent) and men "men." This is part of a larger problem with the infantilization of adult women. We're more likely to be referred to as animals, and with a purpose. It goes on and on. But, words are important -- if only because they show the dynamic interplay between ideas. This may sound trivial until you consider that Japan has gendered terms for all three pronouns, whereas the Nordic countries are trying to introduce gender-neutral ones. Why does this matter? Well, Japan is the least gender equitable place when it comes to men and women's labor and the Nordic countries the most. I'm not suggesting causality, just significant cultural correlations that we are not immune to.
8. We engage in prejudice against men that inhibits equality. I've seen women take babies away from their fathers in parks in order to change their diapers because "men aren't good" at that sort of thing. Or maybe you've listened to men call themselves their children's "babysitters," or sat through television ads that portray men as incompetent idiots, slobs, sexist dolts or children when it comes to taking care of domestic life. More dangerous, however, is the repetition of rape and abuse myths that endanger boys and men by perpetuating discriminatory ideas about who gets raped -- drunk girls who ask for it or make the mistake of stumbling into dark alleys.
9. We pretend street harassment, the public regulation women and LGTB people either doesn't happen or doesn't matter. I'd warrant that very few people talk to their daughters or non-gender conforming sons about street harassment before it happens. The effects of this harassment and really can't be underestimated.
10. We let our schools teach sexist lessons and perpetuate gender hierarchical systems of organization. First, our education system erases the contributions of women in history and fails to provide an accurate portrayal of the past or sufficient role models. Girls go into our schools with assuredness and ambition, but they don't leave that way.
Second, schools are filled with social norms that, if left unexplored, undermine diversity and equality, for example, dress codes enforcement.
Third, many remain structurally based on complementary models for men and women, from boards, which tend to be run by more men (because, you know, that's where the hard job of money is done) to everyday volunteering and PTA involvement (mainly, still, women). School administration and coaching continue to be male dominated in an industry, education, that is made up mostly of women. So, children are immersed in educational environments that continue to sideline women's historical labor, that sexualize girls with outdated rules about appearance and morality, that provide gender hierarchal examples of social structures and, for good measure, where classroom dynamics have been shown to fail at fairness in ways that hurt both boys and girls.
By the time boys and girls leave high school and enter college, boys are twice as likely to say they are prepared to run for office. I know hardworking individual teachers trying their hardest to offset these effects, but as institutions and cultures, many of our schools remain profoundly patriarchal. What if you challenged your school to make paying attention to core gender issues a priority instead of dancing around symptoms like homophobic and mean girl bullying, math problems, boy crises and more?
This is a short list. Setting aside the real physical harms that people can and do encounter, living with everyday sexism is like fighting a low-grade infection for your whole life. When women take note of sexism during their daily lives -- for example, talking openly about street harassment or workplace bias -- and name it for what it is, they stop accepting it as "normal." For female politicians dealing with biased commentary and political opponents all too comfortable in the boys' club of the public sphere, openly confronting sexism works. When men start to notice, when they think about the differences, they can empathize. Its the first step to understanding, as Jamie Utt put it, that "as it currently exists, masculinity is fundamentally an expression of patriarchal oppression." But, before this can happen, women have to tell their stories and register their legitimate objections and people have to listen and understand why its important. Prevailing cultural attitudes continue to minimize gendered harms.
However, women are clearly in a double bind because calling out sexism can result in real penalties. A recent study very depressingly showed what we all know: Women who advocate for equality, in the workplace, for example are actively penalized for doing so.
The sad fact is that while it is polite to express sexist ideas, confronting them is considered the height of rudeness and humorlessness and this social politeness prohibition is a significant impediment to positive, everyday change. When a man at a neighborhood party comments openly and rudely on my breasts or when another in a meeting interrupts me incessantly, it is me, not them, who is considered hostile, "strident," and unpleasant for saying, "My face is up here," or "Would you please stop interrupting me?"
The fact is, we are engaged in a tidal process of awareness-raising that requires everyone to look at the role that sexism plays in their lives. Are you acknowledging it when it happens, and what do you do about it if you do?
Follow Soraya Chemaly on Twitter: www.twitter.com/schemaly