What is Sexism?

Sexism refers to prejudice or bias toward people based on their sex or genderOpens in new window. It encompasses beliefs (e.g., that men are superior to women), emotionsOpens in new window (e.g., disliking powerful women), and behavior (e.g., sexual harassment) that support gender inequality.

Sexism agaisnt women
Sexism primarily affects female gender but there can also be sexism against the men gender. Graphic image courtesy of Northwestern School of Education & Social PolicyOpens in new window

Although sexism is originally conceived as antipathy toward women, it includes subjectively positive but patronizing beliefs (e.g., that men ought to provide for women). Extreme cases of sexism may engender sexual harassmentOpens in new window, rape, and other related sexual violence.

Sexism primarily affects female gender but there can also be sexism against the men gender, insofar as people believe women are superior to men.

Historical Background

Research on sexism developed rapidly in the 1970s. Since then the term ‘sexism’ has gain recognition as an ‘ideology based on the belief that one sex is superior to another’. It involves the discriminationOpens in new window, prejudiceOpens in new window, or stereotypingOpens in new window on the basis of gender, and is most often expressed toward the female gender. Researchers have observed that sexism represents an antipathyOpens in new window toward an oppressed group—hatred of women or an ingrained prejudice against women, who have historically had less power than men.

The Attitudes toward Women Scale, which measured whether respondents thought that women ought to remain in traditional gender roles (e.g., raising children rather than working outside the home), became the most prominent measure of sexist attitudes.

Sexist attitudes, however, inherently involve comparisons between the sexes. In the late 1980s, Alice H. EaglyOpens in new window and Antonio Mladinic contrasted attitudes toward each sex, finding the women are wonderful effect: As a group, women are rated more favorably than men (by both women and men). This effect challenged the idea of sexism as antipathy toward women because subjectively positive views of women can nevertheless support gender inequality.

Specifically, women are viewed favorably because they are perceived as more communal (nice, nurturing, empathetic), whereas men are viewed as more agentic (competent, competitive, ambitious). Although women are likeable, their assigned traits suit them to domestic, lower status roles (which require nurturing others), whereas men’s stereotypical traits suit them for high status, leadership roles. In short, women are better liked but less well respected than men. Recent research measuring implicit attitudes (what people automatically and nonconsciously think) supports this conclusion.

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