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  1. Blog
  2. Guides to Discrimination

The Origins of Sexism & Why It’s Just as Toxic as Ever

“The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: ‘It's a girl.’” ―Shirley Chisholm

Historical photograph of a man measuring women's swimsuit lengths to ensure they are not six inches above their knees
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Everybody’s sexist: men, women, society, and now even artificial intelligence.

As Dr. Ludmila Praslova, director of research and professor of organizational psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California, tells InHerSight: “Bias is a feature of the human mind, and any human has the potential to feel prejudice, have stereotypical beliefs, and engage in discriminatory behavior.”

That makes sense, and it’s backed by research.

According to a 2020 report by the United Nations Development Programme, “91 percent of men and 86 percent of women show at least one clear bias against gender equality in areas such as politics, economic, education, intimate partner violence, and women’s reproductive rights.” Findings include that “globally almost 50 percent of people say they think men make better political leaders, while more than 40 percent feel that men make better business executives.”

Read more: What Is Marginalization & What Can You Do About It?

What exactly is sexism and who started it?

The European Institute for Gender Equality has a great definition: “Sexism is linked to beliefs around the fundamental nature of women and men and the roles they should play in society. Sexist assumptions about women and men, which manifest themselves as gender stereotypes, can rank one gender as superior to another. Sexism can touch everyone, but women are particularly affected.”

And no surprise as to who started it.

In a 2018 New Scientist article called The Origins of the Patriarchy, Anil Ananthaswamy and Kate Douglas say male rule started 12,000 years ago when we moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. With property to protect, the physical strength of males became important. Women would leave their own families to join their husbands. The patriarchal society, where men have ownership and power, was born.

Read more: A Thousand Paper Cuts: Microaggressions in the Workplace

Sexism takes many forms

Examples of sexism are embedded everywhere: Most men automatically assume women drivers are less competent and that women executives are assistants (or physicians are nurses). Women’s appearances are overvalued to the extreme, and catcalling is something most girls and women have endured.

The result of this constant bombardment has women experiencing everything from self-esteem issues and self-censorship to low pay, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment. When’s the last time a male journalist suffered public sexual abuse like CTV News anchor Krista Sharpe?

And even when sexism is seemingly benevolent, it’s damaging. The attitude taken by men exhibiting benevolent sexism is that women be protected; however, it’s based on the belief that women are inferior and less competent than men.

Read more: There’s a Difference Between Condescension & Advocacy in the Workplace

Why benevolent sexism is so damaging

Dr. Leigh Camacho Rourks, an assistant professor at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, tells InHerSight that “benevolent sexism infantilizes a person, underscoring what the perpetrator sees as their deficiencies.”

She gives the example of the person—who sees themselves as a “protector”—often speaking for their colleague (“What I think Karen was trying to say there was…”). This emphasizes the idea that she cannot speak or stand up for herself. The result is that the woman “loses her voice and her agency, not just around the perpetrator, but to her other colleagues who often experience her through the perpetrator’s words and not her own.”

Benevolent sexism is difficult to stop. 

Complaining about someone who is trying to help is often viewed as an attack, Rourks says. And while benevolent sexism may not necessarily be worse than overt sexism, Rourks explains that “it is pervasive and continuous and socially acceptable, which means it does have an incredibly detrimental impact that is cumulative.”

“A woman who is constantly infantilized by a colleague may be less likely to be seen as competent or ‘leadership material’ by others in her organization, meaning every aspect of her success could potentially be affected by one person’s need to feel like her ‘hero.’” 

Read more: Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference in the Workplace?

Individual vs. societal sexism

What allows sexism to exist at all—and flourish—is a society that accepts the behavior as normal, thereby encouraging it.

Praslova says that while individual-level bias can be expressed in many forms and can be harmful, it should be distinguished from institutional or systemic bias. Historic examples of blatant institutional bias is legislation that prevents women from voting, obtaining an education, or owning property. 

But there are examples of more subtle and modern forms of systemic bias, too, she notes. One is “the wide-spread use of an algorithm that shows female job-seekers lower-level jobs while showing prestigious jobs to men.”

Although women certainly can act in a discriminatory manner toward males when they have the power to do so (e.g., a woman bus driver intentionally passing a lone man waiting at the bus stop or a woman boss engaging in quid-pro-quo sexual harassment), Praslova says that because of deep-rooted systemic bias, the balance of power still favors men. This is true even in female-dominated fields such as nursing, teaching, and social work, where men advance faster and are paid more than women (read more about occupational sorting to better understand this).

Read more: Gender Discrimination at Work: How to Find It & Deal with It

How to stop sexism

To stop sexism, all incidents of sexist behavior must be addressed and dealt with as they occur. In the workplace, it’s important to document each case so that you can bring it to HR if necessary and possibly to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. One of the laws the EEOC enforces is prohibiting discrimination against a job applicant or employee because of the person’s sex.

Societal sexism needs to be changed at both the top and bottom, starting at the home and in schools. Large corporations also need to take meaningful action, in order to set examples and expectations. One organization attempting to change the typical all-talk no-action corporate stance on diversity, equity, and inclusion is Starbucks.

Theresa Agovin, workplace editor at the Society for Human Resource Management, writes that the coffee company “said part of its executives’ pay would be based on their ability to build inclusive and diverse teams.” While diversity in and of itself isn’t a direct solution to eradicating sexism, the more women that are hired and promoted to higher levels of management (and not just as tokens), the less likely sexist behavior will continue in the workplace.

About our sources

Dr. Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D., (Industrial/Organizational Psychology) SHRM-SCP is the director of research and professor with graduate programs in industrial/organizational psychology at Vanguard University of Southern California. Prior to her academic career, she built and led successful intercultural relations programs and facilitated cross-cultural collaboration in global organizations. She uses her extensive experience with global, cultural, demographic, ability, and neurodiversity, and cultural psychology research to help create inclusive and equitable workplaces.

Dr. Leigh Camacho Rourks, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English and humanities at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, where she teaches the Gender, Race, and Class course among others. Beacon College is a nonprofit liberal arts school and America’s first accredited baccalaureate institution dedicated to educating primarily neurodiverse students with learning disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning differences.

Rourks is the author of Moon Trees and Other Orphans (Black Lawrence Press), a collection of “grit-lit” short stories. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry has been published widely and she is the recipient of the St. Lawrence Book Prize, the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, the Robert Watson Literary Review Prize in Fiction.

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