Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on sex or gender. It affects every level of society, from institutions and governments to personal relationships. Sexism affects women and other marginalized genders most severely. Indirectly, it also harms men.
Sexism creates inequity between different sexes and genders. It also fuels gender-based violence and hate crime. Worldwide, the economic cost of institutional gender discrimination is $12 trillion, or 16% of the world’s total income.
This article looks at what sexism is, what causes it, types and examples of sexism, and its impact.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth.
Sexism is prejudice and discrimination against people based on their sex or gender.
A person’s sex is assigned at birth based on biological traits, such as genitalia and chromosomes. Gender involves how a person feels and self-identifies. Gender also exists as a social construct. This consists of societal and cultural roles and norms considered appropriate for various genders.
Any action, speech, law, practice, or media representation that places a higher value on one gender or sex over another is sexist. This applies whether the person or institution meant to cause harm or not.
Worldwide, sexism affects women and girls most often. This is because in most cultures, being male or masculine is more highly valued than being female or feminine.
Sexism also affects people who were not assigned female at birth but who express themselves in a way that people perceive as feminine. This includes trans and gender-expansive individuals.
It is possible to be sexist toward men. However, because men possess more power and status in most countries, the harm that they experience is usually an indirect result of sexism toward women.
For example, if a person believes that women are weaker than men, they may feel that they have to be strong or tough at all times — even if this means risking their health or participating in violence.
What causes sexism?
Sexism begins with prejudices. A prejudice is a bias against a person or group of people. It is often based on myths, stereotypes, and generalizations that a person learns from others.
Biases about sex and gender can be explicit, something that a person is aware that they have. And they can be implicit, in which case, a person is not consciously aware of their biases.
A common prejudice about gender is called “gender determinism.” This refers to the idea that men and women are fundamentally different in ways that cannot change and that these differences determine their personalities, behaviors, and abilities.
This includes the stereotype that women are naturally better at looking after children than men — or that men are naturally better at math or science.
Gender determinism also causes prejudice against transgender people. This is because people who believe that gender is determined solely by biology may not understand how being transgender is possible or refuse to accept that it is. This is known as cissexism.
What are the different types of sexism?
Prejudice based on sex or gender can have different forms. Some are more obvious and easier to identify, while others are more subtle. Types of sexism include:
- Hostile sexism: This involves any overtly hostile attitudes about women, such as the belief that women are manipulative, sinful, weak, or resentful, or that they owe men sex. Hostile sexism is dangerous and fuels gender-based violence.
- Benevolent sexism: This is based on the idea that women are naturally kind, pure, and innocent. These may not seem like negative qualities, but they stem from the opinion that women are weaker than men. This is what makes benevolent sexism harmful.
- Ambivalent sexism: Ambivalent sexism is a combination of benevolent and hostile sexism, which often work together as part of a system. For example, a person might have benevolent sexist views about mothers, such as that they always put their children first. If a mother enters the workforce, though, the person might display hostile sexism by openly judging or punishing that person for having a job.
Sexism can also occur alongside other forms of oppression, such as racism or ableism, affecting people who belong to more than one marginalized group.
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