Definition Essay On Sexism

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Brian S. Slevin

Sexism by definition is discrimination by members of one sex against the
other, especially by men against women, based on the assumption that one sex is
superior. It regards women as inherently inferior intellectually,
psychologically, and physically to man. This view, is shared by both men and
women, and has historically shaped institutions of world society. It has been
continued through the cultural modification of groups of people through
prolonged and continuous interaction involving intercultural exchange of
generations of children with resulting differences between the sexes.
On-job sexual discrimination such as low-level work experience caused by
traditional sexist viewpoints has hindered allot of female job promotion. Women
with the same qualifications as a man that applied for a job would be turned
down based on the simple fact that they are a woman. Prior to the Women's
movement women were constantly discriminated against in this manner. Sexual
discrimination still exists but its occurrence has drastically reduced, subtle
discrimination is however, still quite prevalent in our society. Salary is one
aspect of this still present discrimination, a vast majority of women employed
in the work force today receive less of a paycheck for the same amount of hours
worked on the same jobs as men. This is reinforced by the low number of women
who have a high paying, high powered job. There are a significantly higher
number of women who have little or no power in decision making and earn a low
salary. The women that do get promoted are often the subjects of rumor and
remarks made in poor taste. Men just can't stand to see they're egos shattered
and so they lash out against the woman with authority. They demean her position
and make it seem less important or trivial. All of this does hurt female self-
esteem and is just one of the ways sexism hurts women.
Women are not just harassed verbally but physically. "As in the movie
Flashdance, the male employer comes on to the female employee. In lawsuits,
such "coming on" is considered sexual harassment; by definition it is considered
a misuse of his power. When she resists and he persists, as in both the movie
and the Harlequin formula, it is an even clearer form of sexual harassment." In
many cases if a woman does not give in to a man's sexual advances she stands the
chance of losing her job! This was the tendency and in many instances still is
the tendency of many men who have authority over women. Sexism runs rampant in
every facet of our society. It even reached the Presidency a number of times
and the Supreme Court. Two prominent examples are Bill Clinton and the
accusations made by Jennifer Flowers and Judge Thomas's alleged sexual remarks
to Anita Hill. Granted these were never a hundred percent proven cases of sexual
harassment but they are sufficient enough to show that sexism reaches everywhere
in our society.
Women in many instances have to be very cautious as to what they wear to
work. If they're employer finds them attractive it could mean a sexist advance
or two. Any woman has to be on her guard against traditional sexist men. "If
femininity got lost in the pursuit of independence, a woman would lose power
(because real power means having control over one's life), which is having the
option to work and not to lose one's gentler side." Sexist tendencies don't
just abuse women in the work place but also at home. The traditional sexist
view of a head of any household is the man. When this idea is threatened, it is
as if their masculinity were being stripped away.
Physical violence is sometimes caused by a sexist man who feels as though
he has to reclaim his home. This is the type of man that feels women should be
kept underfoot. There are plenty of other reasons men batter their wives, but
this ranks highly among them. Contrary to popular beliefs (both of men and
women) the incidents of men who are physically violated in comparison with
women is relatively equal.
Sexist men are influenced by many sources in society, one very basic source
is that of the father. He would often, inadvertently and sometimes purposely
plant the seed of sexism in an impressionable young mind. The media, which is
also sexist tends to portray a woman at home cooking, cleaning, and taking care
of her children. Now with the accusations of sexism running rampant in the
media they have toned down on female portrayal as being weak. They now have
more opposition then they used to have from feminist organizations (National
Organization for Women) and Brian S. Slevin discrimination laws.
Today's sexist man is a careful and disheartened individual. Long gone are
the days when sexist viewpoints can run free in society. This is allowing women
to finally gain momentum in their overall goal for equality. There is somewhat
of a balance between traditional sexist tendencies and the new sexist man. This
balance is maintained by, subtle differences between the two. The traditional
sexist man believed that being a devious man was a good plan in life, and that
devious women were merely plotting against them. But the new sexist man might
say that women use power deviously when they marry for money. Stubbornness and
weakness are still looked at as female traits among many new sexist men. This
balance is a complicated one and traditional sexist beliefs both influence and
reinforce new sexist tendencies.
Some sexist ideology is actually sometimes good for women. Most sexist men
still think women shouldn't work or pay for things. To a woman with low self-
esteem this could be a plus, because she could stay at home and only have to
shop and basically live life as a maid. The new sexist man may split some of
the money making and spending responsibility, but he is eventually the one that
makes the final decision in where and how the money will be spent or saved.
Confusion is often the grave result of this uncertain balance in decision
and responsibility. "A woman often finds she has difficulty fully sharing
responsibility for the income. He finds, often, he has difficulty fully sharing
responsibility for the child care and housework." For women who are not already
married, simply dating can be a powerful dilemma. Many single men share a
sexist ideology and a great deal of women are finding that they have to
compromise on their aggression and power in order to find a mate. Almost all
sexist beliefs hold pride as one of the highest traits of a man. A sexist man
would find the idea of having a successful and aggressive wife to be a threat to
their pride. These sexist tendencies in men lead to allot of disappointment
from women.
Advertising is also a reinforcing characteristic for sexism. Women see a
man sitting behind a big desk giving orders and see women receiving the orders.
Almost all forms of advertising done in the past was sexist. It is still a
sexist industry, but now women can dispute how they are represented in an
advertisement. I interviewed Miss Edie Lanzano of Jackson Hgts. (age 23). When
asked,"How do you feel about the way women are portrayed in advertising?" She
replied,"I think it is very degrading to see a woman always on the bottom of
everything. Also it makes women look like mindless idiots and makes men look
very smart." To get a better feel of how women felt about women's portrayal in
advertising I interviewed two other females. The first was Mrs. Emilia LoSciuto
of Woodside (age 45). When asked the same question she replied,"I feel that
they are being exploited, especially in the way they dress. They seem to be so
ignorant that it makes men look like the greater sex." In my final interview
with Mrs. Mary Fabio of Woodside (age 70) I asked the same question but also
added,"How do you feel about advertising's past portrayal of women?" She
replied,"Some are very bad and most have hardly any clothe on, they are
literally disgusting to see. In the past they were much better then what you
see now. They were much more dignified and respectable looking." Speaking as
a man who has discussed this issue with other men, I can honestly say that most
men sexist or not do not care how women are portrayed either way. I have
discussed women's portrayal in advertising because, next to your parents, many
images of how you should act come about from what you see advertised. These
impressions can cause men and women to become what they are as members in our
In the Christian bible (the old testament) women have traditionally been
thought of as lower or powerless unless they were "specially" selected by God.
Women were given the arduous task of bearing children freeing men up to go about
and attain a job or a powerful status. Until Mary gave birth to the "Messiah" a
boy, no woman had really exuded any power. Of course without God's ordaining
that Mary give birth to Jesus this would never have happened. Jesus went around
and in all the parables and stories told in the bible, women would flock to his
feet and he would always protect and help them. Meanwhile men in the stories
would often attain Sainthood and become heroes. To quote the bible,"God, made
man in his own image." In other words if God is the supreme being then we at
least look like him and women were only created to bear our children. Also when
God created Adam and Eve he took a rib from Adam to make Eve. "Then the Lord
God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it; he breathed
lifegiving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live."
"Then the Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and
grow it. Then the Lord God said,"It is not good for the man to live alone. I
will make a suitable companion to help him. So he took some soil from the
ground and formed all the animals and all the birds. Then he brought them to
the man to see what he would name them; and that is how they all got their
names. So the man named all the birds and all the animals; but not one of them
was a suitable companion to help him. Then the Lord God made the man fall into
a deep sleep, and while he was sleeping, he took out one of the man's ribs and
closed up the flesh. He formed a woman out of the rib and brought her to him."
It is also true that according to the bible "woman" not "man" was the one
that was fooled by the devil and was also the one that forced the fruit onto the
"man." This in and of itself is a sexist idea and teaching of the bible. But
these are only two stories taught by the Catholic church, there are a great many
more. It is precisely because of these blatant sexist ideas that some Catholic
men and women are the way they are. Sexism is found everywhere in our society
and to discuss everywhere that it is found would take forever but I feel I have
covered the most important realms of sexism and there effects on men and women.
Sexism however, remains a major influence on both conscious and unconscious
assumptions in American mass culture.


Berkowitz, Bob, What Men Won't Tell You But Women Need to Know,
New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990

Carison, Dale Bick, Boys have feelings to: growing up male for
boys, New York: Htheneum, 1980

Farrell, Warren, Why Men are the way they are: the Male-Female
dynamic, New York: Mcgraw-Hill, 1986

French, Marilyn, The War Against Women, New York: Summit Books,
1992 Friedman,

Sonya, Men are just desserts, New York: Warner Books, 1983

Halas, Cella, I've Done So Well--Why do I feel So Bad?, New York:
Macmillan, 1978

Lerner, Gerda, The Creation of Patriarchy, New York: Oxford
University Press, 1986

Steinmetz, Suzanne, Victimology, vol. 2, 1977-1978, Numbers 3-4,

Unknown Author, The Bible, Genesis 2,3, New York: American Bible
Society, 1976

Interviews: 1) Edie Lanzano 2) Emilia LoSciuto 3) Mary Fabio


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Short definition: Sexism is both discrimination based on gender and the attitudes, stereotypes, and the cultural elements that promote this discrimination. Given the historical and continued imbalance of power, where men as a class are privileged over women as a class (see male privilege), an important, but often overlooked, part of the term is that sexism is prejudice plus power. Thus feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have.

Sexism versus gender-based prejudice

Quick jump: Sexism vs Prejudice | Benevolent Sexism | Unintentional Sexism

If you’re here, chances are you’re familiar with the feminist definition of sexism = prejudice + power and chances are you think that, in itself, is sexist.

Let’s start off by looking at an explanation of why the “power” is in there (Kristi is discussing racism, but the same argument applies to sexism):

That ‘+ power’ portion of the equation is one of the most important parts. This is not to say that the disenfranchised cannot be prejudiced, because many of them are, but without power, they are not actually working within the systematic framework of advantage created by the majority to privilege themselves. Thus it is only “racism” if the person is capable of using that framework; otherwise, it is prejudice.

[Kristi (Failure to Communicate): Prejudice.]

Now, before I say anything else, the obligatory disclaimer: When feminists say that women can’t be sexist towards men, they aren’t saying that women being prejudiced against men is a good thing, or something that should be accepted. Prejudice is bad and should not be accepted.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at why feminists make a distinction between sexism and gender-based prejudice when the dictionary does not. A running theme in a lot of feminist theory is that of institutional power: men as a class have it, women as a class don’t. Obviously the power dynamics do shift around depending on the culture and the time period (not to mention the individual, the other privileges that the person does/does not have, etc etc), but ultimately the scales remain tipped in favor of men in general (if you disagree with that statement, please go read the Why do we still need feminism? FAQ entry first before proceeding).

What this imbalance of power translates to on an individual level is a difference in the impact of a man being prejudiced towards a woman and a woman being prejudiced towards a man. While both parties are human, and therefore have the same capacity to be hurt by the prejudice, whether they like it or not, the men have a whole system of history, traditions, assumptions, and in some cases legal systems and “scientific” evidence giving their words a weight that the women don’t have access to.

Consider this analogy:

Personally, I mean in the little picture, this [assertion that men can be victims] is absolutely true. As in the example below, a woman can absolutely fire a man because she does not like men… this is where we use the term “prejudice.” This is mainly because she doesn’t have anything institutional to back her up.

In the big picture, we are talking about grand narratives that say XYZ about women, or where certain behaviors are enacted disproportionately against women. And it has something institutional behind it. For instance, the overarching trend of not wanting to hire women between the ages of 25 and 35 because it’s assumed that either a) she wants a family or b) she has a family and will the primary caretaker of the family so she will make a bad employee. This, for purposes here, it’s what called “sexism”. It’s just used to describe the big picture and not the small picture.

[Comment by madamjolie (Feminist): Definitions of Sexism.]

Men are undoubtedly affected by sexism, but because of their privilege they don’t experience it the same way that women do; this difference in experience is acknowledged through the distinction of sexism versus gender-based prejudice. For more discussion on this topic, please refer to the links under A deeper look at how sexism affects men.

Hostile versus benevolent sexism

Quick jump:Sexism vs Prejudice | Benevolent Sexism | Unintentional Sexism

Typically when people think of sexism, images of cartoon-like villains proclaiming, “Men are stronger and more intelligent than women!” or “A woman’s place is in the home, barefoot and pregnant!” come to mind. Other concepts that might be evoked are workplace and educational discrimination or the wage gap. These adversarial approaches to gender relations are generally termed “hostile sexism”. For the most part, people get why hostile sexism falls under the heading of “sexism”. What’s harder for people to understand as sexist practices, however, are ones that — on the surface — seem to be putting women in a positive light. These beliefs are called “benevolent sexism”.

In other words:

Although benevolent sexism may sound oxymoronic, this term recognizes that some forms of sexism are, for the perpetrator, subjectively benevolent, characterizing women as pure creatures who ought to be protected, supported, and adored and whose love is necessary to make a man complete. This idealization of women simultaneously implies that they are weak and best suited for conventional gender roles; being put on a pedestal is confining, yet the man who places a woman there is likely to interpret this as cherishing, rather than restricting, her (and many women may agree). Despite the greater social acceptability of benevolent sexism, our research suggests that it serves as a crucial complement to hostile sexism that helps to pacify women’s resistance to societal gender inequality.

[Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality”.]

In some ways, benevolent sexism is more virulent than hostile sexism. This is mainly because hostile sexism is often (though not always) recognized as such, and at least a certain amount of lip service is paid to minimizing it. With benevolent sexism, it is not seen as sexism at all but rather a “natural” expression of being male or female (see the But men and women are born different! Isn’t that obvious? FAQ entry for an example of this). Add this to the fact that many of the beliefs and practices of benevolent sexism do work out positively for those women whose values and desires are in line with the traits ascribed to women and men and it becomes easy to see why the traditions that make up benevolent sexism have been subject to so little mainstream critique.

Unintentional sexism

Quick jump:Sexism vs Prejudice | Benevolent Sexism | Unintentional Sexism

While there are many instances of intentional sexism — when the speaker is acting out of a conscious feeling that women are inferior and should be treated that way — the facts are that most sexism today are unintentional on the speaker’s part. You’d be hard pressed to find people who would say that they do, in fact, believe that women aren’t as good as men. But those same people who profess that they believe in equality will go on to say or do things that marginalize and otherwise trivialize the experiences of women.

The tendency to use intent, rather than result, to measure whether something was offensive and inappropriate (and therefore sexist) is tied into male privilege and the way that it enables sexist practices to be seen as normal.

Put in slightly different terms:

A lot of bigotry probably comes from a place of ignorance about The Other. There’s a tendency to assume that our experiences are similar to the experiences of Other People.

[Roy, Blatant Sexism *Isn’t* Benign, Thank You Very Much….]

The sexism that Roy is referring to is one born out of ignorance, not malice. People tend to filter the world through their own experiences, but this can lead to sexism because there is still a lot of subtle (and not so subtle) sexism in our social environments.

Let’s take an example of a male professor who likes and respects his female colleagues, but has noticed that there are much fewer of them than there are of his male colleagues. It would be very easy for him to come to the conclusion that — since they obviously have the capabilities to succeed — women must have less drive to be in academia than men do. That conclusion is sexist, but his intent wasn’t. The problem is that he has never experienced the discrimination first hand, so the natural approach, using himself and his experiences/thoughts as a frame of reference, won’t work because he has no basis for understanding what it takes for a woman to succeed in the academic track.

While intent isn’t wholly unimportant, it also shouldn’t be used an excuse not to examine one’s own behaviors. Continuing with the above example, let’s say that the male professor muses to his female colleagues about the lack of women and how he thinks that most women are just not competitive enough to remain interested in pursuing a career in academia. The women point out that his statement is sexist. If he responds defensively that he wasn’t intending to be sexist and therefore he couldn’t be sexist, he loses the opportunity to revisit and reevaluate his beliefs while simultaneously communicating to the women that he feels that his opinion, as a man, on an issue that affects women is more valuable than theirs as women (ie. people who are part of the group that’s actually being discussed).

The best way that the male professor in this case could show his good intent would be to make the assumption that the women, who are the targets of sexism, are probably seeing something that he was not. This also applies in cases when male allies, who spend their time studying subjects such as sexism, call out other men on sexist behavior. From there it’s a matter of the person who was called out trying to see what the feminists see and understand why they’re seeing it.

In the end, though, the important thing to remember is that sexism is defined by the result, not the intent so when people are called out for having said something sexist, it’s not a comment on their intent or character, but rather on the message that was conveyed.

Related Reading:


  • Amanda Marcotte (Blogging Feminism): Blogging While Female In A Male-Dominated Blogosphere
  • Flora Davis (University of Illinois Press, 1999): Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960
  • Lorraine Code (Cornell University Press, 1991): What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge.
  • Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality”

Clarifying Concepts:

  • Defining sexism through a woman-centered lens:

    The Feminist Dictionary insists on the primary reference to women’s experience, defining ‘sexism’ as “a social relationship in which males have authority over females” (citing Linda Phelps)… The contrast [between common definitions and the above one] demonstrates the term’s political force in naming experiences “central to women’s lives, which [were] wordless for many years.” Introducing the term into common parlance made it easier to recognize (=know) and conceptualize the experiences for purposes of constructing strategies of opposition and resistance.

    [Code, Lorraine (Cornell University Press, 1991): What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge, p. 64.]

  • Problems with the dictionary definitions of sexism:

    The Feminist’s Dictonary‘s discussion of ‘sexism’ is a case in point. The authors cite the Macquarrie Dictionary definition of ‘sexism’ as “the upholding or propagation of sexist attitudes,” and its definition of a ‘sexist attitude’ as one that “stereotypes a person according to gender or sexual preference, etc”: definitions in which the word’s specifically feminist origins and purposes are invisible.

    [Code, Lorraine (Cornell University Press, 1991): What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge, p. 64.]

  • On apologism enabling sexism:

    This sort of attitude is interesting- it’s essentially saying “Because I didn’t know that I was being offensive, I can’t have been offensive.” Interestingly, I’d guess that people engaging in this form of apologism don’t mean to engage in apologism, either. This kind of apologism ignores the ways that positions of relative power or authority can lead to bigotry, or how easy it can be to be ignorant about the experiences of other people when one is in a position of power. It’s easy not to notice how many people go hungry when you’re feasting on steak every night.

    [Roy (No Cookies For Me): Blatant Sexism *Isn’t* Benign, Thank You Very Much….]

  • Another explanation of the difference between the -isms and prejudice:

    Racism and Sexism are different from race-based or gender-based prejudice. I don’t have to have any particular power to hate a white person. I don’t have to be in any particular position in society to say nasty things to one on the street or give them dirty looks. That’s prejudice. Based on race. However, if I do any of these things, it doesn’t really matter. It might hurt a white person’s feelings if I did that. It might cause them momentary discomfort. But that’s about it.

    That’s not to minimize how you feel when these things happen to you, but it is to put those things in perspective. Making you uncomfortable does not rise to the level of racism. Racism is not merely a bad attitude toward people of another race. Harassment is definitely wrong, and I’m sorry you experience it. Still, that’s all it is.

    [the angry black woman (The Angry Black Woman): International Blog Against Racism Week – Ask the ABW.]

  • Ambivalent sexism:

    Ambivalent sexism is an ideology composed of both a “hostile” and “benevolent” prejudice toward women. Hostile sexism is an antagonistic attitude toward women, who are often viewed as trying to control men through feminist ideology or sexual seduction. Benevolent sexism is a chivalrous attitude toward women that feels favorable but is actually sexist because it casts women as weak creatures in need of men’s protection.

    [S. Plous ( Frequently Asked Questions: Ambivalent Sexism.]

  • Types of hostile and ambivalent sexism:

    Hostile and benevolent sexism consistently emerge as separate but positively correlated factors. Furthermore, three benevolent sexism subfactors typically appear: protective paternalism (e.g., women ought to be rescued first in emergencies), complementary gender differentiation (e.g., women are purer than men), and heterosexual intimacy (e.g., every man ought to have a woman whom he adores). Hostile sexism items also address power relations (e.g., women seek to gain power by getting control over men), gender differentiation (e.g., women are easily offended), and sexuality (e.g., many women get a kick out of teasing men by seeming sexually available and then refusing male advances), even though the factor structure of the Hostile Sexism scale has proved to be unidimensional in both the United States and elsewhere (Glick & Fiske, 1996; Glick et al., 2000).

    [Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality”.]

  • Hostile and ambivalent sexism working together:

    These results suggest that hostile and benevolent sexism can be simultaneously endorsed because they are directed at different female subtypes. The complementarity of these ideologies (and their sexist tone) stems from how women are split into “good” and “bad” types; women who fulfill conventional gender roles that serve men are placed on a pedestal and rewarded with benevolent solicitude, whereas women who reject conventional gender roles or attempt to usurp male power are rejected and punished with hostile sexism.

    [Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality”.]

  • On intent:

    I find all the talk about ‘intent’ interesting, and for a couple of reasons. First, it assumes that *everything* we do, we *intend* to do. Nothing just kinda… happens. And second, it assumes that if we didn’t intend whatever terrible consequence, we can’t be held responsible for it. Which… bizarre. And third, and this is particularly important in this case, it assumes that the only possible way for something to be sexist is for someone to *intend* it to be so. And that *their* perception of the situation *counts* for more: it is the ‘reality’. The fact of the matter is, lots and lots and lots of sexism and racism and homophobia and ageism and ableism and so on happens without people being conscious of it, and often without ‘intent’. Why this should mean that those things don’t exist is bizarre.

    [Comment by WildlyParenthetical (Feminist Gamers): “I do not think it means what you think it means.”.]

A deeper look at how sexism affects men:

  • Discussion on the usefulness of distinguishing sexism vs prejudice:

    But why say that a man who has been discriminated against on the basis of his gender by a male supremacist power structure hasn’t experienced sexism? What does that distinction get us?

    [Comment by brooklynite ]

    Because he isn’t being discriminated against for being male. He’s being discriminated against for being not-male. The assumption inherant is that female is bad. This assumption is sexist because it is harmful to women.

    [Comment by sabonasi]

    Citation: brooklynite (Definitions of Sexism.): comment thread

  • Sexism and compulsory gender roles:

    And while a man can’t experience sexism, he can be limited by gender roles. And gender roles are often sexist against women even if the limitation is being directed against a man. i.e. The OP in previous post was told that he needed to cut his hair to look more manly. This implies that one needed to be a man to do the job, and this is sexist against women.

    One way I look at it is to ask, “Does the idea being presented have a backing in institutionalized sexism?”

    [Comment by sabonasi (Feminist): Definitions of Sexism..]

  • Gender-based prejudice and the concept that “the patriarchy hurts men, too”:

    I agree that he didn’t experience “sexism”, but I think this is a perfect example of how “phmt” – and also yet another manifestation of patriarchy and misogyny, as the idea that he has to cut his hair to “be a man” is implying that long hair = woman and woman = bad/something not to be or look like.

    [Comment by goodlookinout (Feminist): Sexism.]


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