Misogyny is alive and well in the 21st century. It’s nearly unbelievable that something so toxic could continue to thrive, but it’s a statement of fact. Learned in the home and at school, misogyny is well established in our culture, and it’s very difficult to uproot.
What is misogyny?
According to Oxford Languages, the origin of the word misogyny is Greek: “misos” meaning hatred and “gunē” meaning woman. Dictionary definitions are just as blunt: Misogyny means a “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women,” a “hatred or mistrust of women.” A form of sexism and a control tactic, misogyny was brought into being and put into place by a patriarchal society.
How misogyny differs from sexism
Anthropologist Dr. Mahri Irvine, who has been involved in the movement to end men’s violence against women and children since 2001, tells InHerSight that while misogyny is related to sexism, it is a much more terrifying problem for women to deal with because it goes so far beyond it.
Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s gender. When people are sexist, they are acting on the belief that the other person, usually a woman, is inferior simply due to their sex.
When people are misogynistic, they actually loathe women, Irvine explains. Women are viewed by misogynistic people as non-human animals—they are viewed as objects that can be used, abused, and discarded.
Demographics most affected by misogyny
Misogyny is not felt equally. For BIPOC women, its effects are magnified by racism.
In her powerful op-ed in The New York Times, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and expert on civil rights and Black feminist legal theory (who developed the concept of intersectionality in the late 1980s), wrote that “societal disregard for Black girls and women is an effect of a specific kind of racism and misogyny—an artifact from enslavement. Black girls are still adultified and blamed for the abuses they experience.”
That specific misogyny is why “Black women, who make up 40 percent of domestic sex-trafficking victims, are rarely featured in the documentaries, Hollywood films, media and social media narratives that hold up white girls as innocents to be saved,” Crenshaw argues. “It is why the #SayHerName movement had to be created to include the names of Black women killed by the police.”
Misogyny's origins in the United States
When InHerSight asked attorney and activist Karen Fleshman for a little history, she began with philosopher Kate Manne’s definition of misogyny: “Social systems or environments where women face hostility and hatred because they’re women in a man's world.”
Fleshman says misogyny is similar to racism, in that it’s a pervasive system of wealth and power accumulation on which the Founding Fathers organized our society. In Jamestown in 1619, white men sold the first Africans into slavery and brought the first white women to be their “tobacco brides.” For the next 230 years, women ceased to be people when they married, legally becoming their husbands’ property, and ran households while men participated in public life.
White women only won the vote by arguing that it would fortify white supremacy, and it took decades for women of color to enjoy the same rights, despite that 1920 amendment technically opening doors for those women, too.
“The federal suffrage amendment prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, but it did not address other kinds of discrimination that many American women faced: women from marginalized communities were excluded on the basis of gender and race,” states one PBS.org article covering the history of women’s suffrage. “Native American, Asian American, Latinx and African American suffragists had to fight for their own enfranchisement long after the 19th Amendment was ratified.” It wasn’t until the 1965 Voting Rights Act, for instance, that Black women’s voting rights were enforced.
From colonies to country, explains Fleshman, men have upheld misogyny by sexual and domestic violence, particularly toward Black women, Native women, and other women with multiple intersectional identities. Today violence against women is pervasive, with 1 in 4 women experiencing severe intimate partner physical violence and/or sexual violence.
Fleshman says that like racism, misogyny is learned in the home, firmly entrenched and normalized in our culture, and very difficult to uproot.
Examples of misogyny in plain sight
Misogyny pervades our culture and society, rearing its head in expected and unexpected places. Here are a few places you can spot misogyny.
The pornography industry
The vast majority of misogynistic people are, of course, men, and the pornography industry is a perfect example of misogyny, says Irvine.
“Today’s pornography is nothing like the pornography from the 1950s. For example, decades ago, Playboy was still very harmful to women and girls; this type of pornography depicted women as nothing more than sexual objects for men’s fantasies. However, it typically stopped there—it did not sexualize men’s degradation, abuse, and torture of women, which is what modern pornography does.”
You wouldn’t expect a furor over corporate sponsorship for women’s chess events, but that’s exactly what happened when the International Chess Federation struck a deal with Establishment Labs, maker of Motiva breast implants. Michael Levenson at The New York Times reports that many women in chess, who have “long complained of unequal treatment and misogyny” and of being underrepresented—with only 37 women “among the more than 1,700 regular grandmasters worldwide”—are concerned about the optics.
Two-time U.S. women’s chess champion and program director at US Chess Women, Jennifer Shahade, doesn’t think the implant company is a good fit. “It’s not like breast implants are categorically bad,” she tells Levenson. “It’s just another example of the ways in which women’s looks are often given more attention than their moves and minds.”
Athletics and law enforcement
The Larry Nassar sexual abuse case against Olympic gymnasts exposed the FBI’s culture of misogyny and patriarchy, and that culture directly led to the abuse of a further 70 girls and women, writes Alanna Vagianos, a gender reporter at HuffPost. The two FBI agents assigned to the initial complaints never bothered to open an investigation, and when they were found out, they lied about what they had done.
Former FBI agent Jane Turner said she was “not surprised by the way the FBI handled Nassar,” saying “that’s the FBI’s culture.” She doesn’t believe FBI Director Chris Wray’s apology or promise to do better, calling them platitudes. “Does this change the misogyny?,” she asks.
The political system
Fighting misogyny on every front is exhausting and never-ending, but unless we defeat it, misogynistic behavior will continue, even at the highest levels of leadership.
“Fifty years after Ruth Bader Ginsberg worked to secure constitutional equality for women, misogyny is still alive and well in the American political system,” Lori M. Poloni-Staudinger, Ph.D., J. Cherie Strachan, Ph.D., Candice D. Ortbals, Ph.D., and Shannon Jenkins, Ph.D., coauthors of Why Don’t Women Rule the World?, write. The impact of misogyny in public life is not just an underrepresentation of women, but a spiralling knock-on effect on public policy.
Women who might otherwise become involved in politics “can be discouraged by barriers that men do not face, including sexist media coverage, intrusive questions about their life choices, overt sexual harassment, online misogynist abuse, or accusations of lying,” Poloni-Staudinger, et al., explain.
Misogyny in the workplace
Casual misogyny permeates the workplace, writes growth strategist Adriana Rizzo, and is hardly noticed because it’s so ingrained. We recognize it when a woman is paid less than a man for the same job or is passed over for a promotion in favor of a male colleague.
Once in a while, women can be part of the problem, Rizzo notes. “[Casual misogyny] is on display when the female head of the business unit gives all the credit for a new pricing initiative to the man on the team, even though it was clearly a team effort. The other team members are all women.”
Still, it’s almost always men who are brazen and unapologetic misogynists, and Irvine is very concerned about the space they take up in the workplace. When women encounter men in work situations, certain questions come to mind, like:
Do these men respect their women coworkers as intellectual equals?
Are these men likely to support women for promotions and salary increases?
Do these men seek out advice and mentorship from women, and nominate them as leaders in their workplaces?
Do they seek out friendships with women?
Is it even possible for men to sit across boardrooms or conference tables and value their women colleagues as human beings?
Those questions are on the mind of every woman employee, maybe not all the time and maybe not even always consciously, but they are very real concerns that deplete bandwidth and energy.
Misogyny and the rise of remote work
You’d think working from home would make things better, but that’s not the case, writes NPR technology correspondent Shannon Bond. In fact, a survey of tech workers found that more than one-quarter of respondents actually experienced more gender-based harassment when working remotely.
And it gets worse.
“That figure increased, when race and gender identity were accounted for, to 39% of Asian woman and nonbinary people; 38% of Latinx woman and nonbinary people; and 42% of transgender people,” reports Bond, adding that “women of color were the most likely to report increased race-based hostility, including 45% of women who identified as African, African American or Black and 30% of women who described themselves as Asian or Asian American.”
It could be that there’s more scope for abuse when you’re working from home, using private online chat and messaging apps rather than interacting with lots of witnesses around in the office. The very privacy of online communication that allows misogynistic behavior to flourish in the first place can also make the harassment and other inappropriate behavior difficult to report and prove.
Tactics for dealing with misogyny
How you deal with misogyny often depends on its context. If you’re facing a personal attack, for instance, your response and internal behavior can make all the difference. For a broader defense, you can call in allies.
Two specific strategies
There are strategies women can use to tackle misogyny, Poloni-Staudinger, et al. write. “For example, women can practice a tactic called ‘name it, shame it, pivot’ to respond to an overt sexist attack; they can also learn how to avoid internalizing coded attacks and microaggressions that leave them feeling like impostors.” You can learn more about standing up for yourself here.
Involve all male allies
Certainly not all men are misogynists; some can even be considered allies. They call out misogynist humor and microaggressions at work and highlight the strengths of female colleagues.
And for those who don’t know how to confront other men about sexist behavior in the workplace, it’s actually pretty easy to do, says David Smith, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School, and coauthor of Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace.
“One way is just kind of fun,” he explains. “If you hear something, within about the first two or three seconds, that’s when we’re really going to make a difference. If we wait, we’re probably not going to do anything. So just say ‘Ouch.’”
Smith says that interjection buys you time. The conversation will stop and you can decide what you want to say. While you don’t want to create “some sort of a huge conflict,” you can say: “‘I’m not comfortable with that,’ or ‘that was offensive to me,’ or ‘I don’t appreciate the way you demean our women colleagues here today,’ or ‘that’s not who we are.’”
The reason men can be helpful as allies is simply that they’re men.
“Because they are in positions of power, authority and influence, they can sidestep some of the backlash that women receive, and their efforts to combat sexism are seen as more legitimate and more favorable,” write Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg, director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, respectively, and coauthors of Glass Half Broken, Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work.
And those efforts are helpful. Meg Warren, associate professor of management at Western Washington University, says “individual male allies...serve as a counterweight to the negative effects of everyday sexism.”
Women aren’t the only beneficiaries. Being a male ally is good for men too.
“Men who were more likely to act as allies to women reported proportionately higher levels of personal growth and were more likely to say they acquired skills that made them better husbands, fathers, brothers and sons,” writes Warren. “This tendency suggests the possibility that being a male ally creates positive ripple effects that extend beyond the workplace.”
About our sources
Karen Fleshman, Esq. she/her/hers is the founder of Racy Conversations, a workplace workshop facilitation company, with the mission of inspiring the antiracist generation, and of the Interracial Sisterhood Coalition. She is a soccer mom, an attorney, activist, a mentor, and mentee. She is writing her first book, My Name is Karen, and I am an Antiracist. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Dr. Mahri Irvine is an anthropologist who has worked with countless non-profit agencies and higher education institutions to improve sexual violence response and prevention efforts. Involved in the movement to end men’s violence against women and children since 2001, Dr. Irvine has academically studied gender-based violence, worked directly with survivors, and provided countless hours of guidance and assistance to professional service providers. She designed and taught college classes about gender and violence at American University for nine years. Dr. Irvine runs Luminosity Coaching, a career coaching business that helps non-profit and higher ed employees deal with workplace stressors, burnout, and career transitions. You can contact her at email@example.com.