Sex discrimination refers to the unequal and harmful treatment of people, usually females, because of their gender. This unfair behavior is based on prejudicial assumptions that regard women’s talents, skills, and abilities as inferior to those of men. Women are thus relegated to social and economic roles that restrict their full participation in society and also overburden them with the unpaid tasks of housework and childcare. In addition, sex discrimination creates a context in which interpersonal violence is likely to occur and is often tolerated. The majority of women are not direct victims of brutal violence, but they live in an environment that discriminates against their sex in myriad ways. For most women, everyday sexist discrimination is more prevalent in their lives than sexual assault and therefore will have greater effects on their daily life and their long-term well-being.
Sexist discrimination occurs throughout societal institutions. Due to its ubiquity, unequal relations between men and women are often perceived as a natural part of the human condition. This attitude presupposes a strict dichotomy between the two sexes, each with an inherent set of characteristics determined by biological factors that govern their behavior. The promotion of the idea that there are essential differences between males and females not only justifies the unequal and often aggressive treatment of females, but precludes any attempt to examine this treatment as wrongful.
This attitude has promoted a segregated workplace, where women are accorded lower status, reduced opportunities for advancement, and lower pay than their male counterparts. Women generally earn two thirds of the salary of men in comparable positions and are often herded into gendered employment roles that hold less prestige and power in society. Not only are women routinely paid less than men, they are also more likely than men to be laid off or fired, less likely to be promoted, and less likely to have adequate health insurance and other benefits, such as vacations, even when number of hours worked are taken into account. This inequality is even greater among women of color, where racial and ethnic discrimination intersects with sexism. In the fields of business, medicine, law, government, the military, science, education, and technology, fewer women (than men) are represented in positions of management and administration. Even in traditionally female professions, such as teaching and social work, men hold the majority of administrative jobs and earn more than women in their fields.
This discrimination against women is replicated in other societal structures as well. Organized religions tend to relegate women to inferior positions, even while extolling female virtues. Laws designed to protect women and their fetuses are often designed to limit women’s full participation in society and to control their reproductive lives. Social customs create separate and unequal roles for women that often include a double day of employment and housework for women and almost exclusive responsibility for family care. (Even women working outside the home report twice the number of hours spent on housework than their husbands.) Gender roles tend to leave women in positions of economic dependence and vulnerability that result in poverty when marriage is unavailable or unstable. Current welfare regulations do little to assist women (and their children) who cannot be self-supporting.
Interpersonal sexism encompasses a continuum from blatant aggression between sexes to subtle everyday discrimination against women. The daily interactions between the sexes that occur in personal relationships, the workplace, schools, and the social environment often mirror institutional sexism. In surveys designed to measure interpersonal sexism, women report chronic exposure to demeaning and disrespectful treatment due to their gender from workmen, service people, physicians, teachers, colleagues, bosses, family members, and partners. Women’s most common sexist experience is having to listen to sexist jokes, both in the media and among their associates. Other experiences include being ignored, excluded, stereotyped, belittled, objectified, and harassed because they are women. Several studies have demonstrated that subtle sexism can be psychologically damaging and can produce trauma symptoms similar to those engendered by sexist assault.
It is difficult to differentiate between institutional and interpersonal acts of sexist discrimination, as one leads to the other and both are mutually supportive. Words and behaviors that demean women create psychological wounds that disable women’s attainment of their rights in the workplace as well as in the home. Sexist institutions support insidious sexist behavior, which in turn solidifies sexist gender roles and their inherent limitations. When women and girls are devalued by the prevailing social ethos, discriminating, harassing, and even brutalizing them becomes easier.
The daily interactions that comprise sex discrimination form a structure that creates and supports a patriarchal society. These interactions vary from blatant sexist exclusion to subtle everyday practices of condescension. This chronic sexism can distort a woman’s personality, limit her potential, and threaten her physical and psychological health. The effects of sexist discrimination are manifold: psychological, physical, financial, and emotional damage ensues from the debasement and exploitation of women. Countries that deny women full civil rights have less success in establishing democratic institutions and economic prosperity. For these reasons, various local, national, and international women’s rights organization are working to reverse sexist laws, create protections for exploited women, enhance female participation in government and other institutions, establish equality in the workplace, and design nonsexist education.
- Benokraitis, N. V. (1997). Subtle sexism: Current practices and prospects for change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Landrine, H., & Klonoff, E. A. (1997). Discrimination against women: Prevalences, consequences, remedies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Rambo Ronai, C., Zsembik, B. A., & Feagin, J. R. (1997). Everyday sexism in the third millennium. New York: Routledge.
- Willie, C. V., Perri Rieker, P., Kramer, B. M., & Brown, B. S. (1995). Mental health, racism, and sexism. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
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