What Is ‘Sexism’?

A remarkable entry from Merriam Webster’s dictionary (which I found linked from the Wikipedia article):

sex·ism noun \ˈsek-ˌsi-zəm\

1 : prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women

2 : behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex

The first definition has been in use for a long time, and is (I would suggest) widely recognized. But note the second one. According to Merriam Webster, any expressed positive view whatsoever, however limited, of any historically-recognised (a.k.a. ‘stereotypical’) gender-based social roles is, by definition, sexist.

Have I understood that correctly?

27 thoughts on “What Is ‘Sexism’?

  1. I think you’re reading a little much into it. I think the second sense is supposed to cover things like what’s described here (rachelbythebay.com/w/2013/01/04/cal/) – a female engineer interviews a male candidate, who assumes she is not an engineer.

    I don’t think it’s meant to cover someone saying “I’d like it if my wife could stay at home with our children.”

  2. yes. same with stereotypes overall. we rarely think about it but stereotypes are often “positive”. and those bear the same social threats as the negative ones.

  3. Are you sure about the latter? The reason I was reading that article is that, on a mailing list of which I am a subscriber, someone said that someone else on the list (a woman) who generally sorts out arguments was “being mom”. Someone else described that as “sexist”. I thought that being described as a “mom” was not a term of denigration, and that the behaviours concerned were certainly “motherly”, so it couldn’t be. I still think it isn’t, but it seems Merriam Webster does not back me up :-|

  4. “I’d like it if my wife could stay at home with our children” surely makes me raise an eyebrow. Did you consider staying at home yourself? Is it what your wife wants? And I could continue: Does your wife “want” it because that’s what patriarchic society expects from her or does she *really* want it?

  5. Aren’t positive stereotypes about one sex implicitly negative about the other sex?

  6. Only in the same way that saying “that guy is an awesome athlete” is implicitly negative about everyone else’s athletic ability.

    Alternative response: only if you start from a position of believing that every behaviour is equally appropriate for everyone (the “there’s no difference between the genders”) position.

  7. A dictionary definition just means that the word has been used in that sense. It doesn’t imply any kind of value judgment. In this case, the dictionary doesn’t even say that the word is necessarily pejorative.

  8. I’m not sure that, in the mind of the average person, the word “sexism” or “sexist” has any non-perjorative meanings. Which is, in a sense, an issue – people who oppose any form of gender roles can use it, ‘correctly’, in the second sense, and everyone interprets it as the first sense. It’s a form of the ‘poisoning the well’ argument.

  9. no, that’s not exactly the same. if your boss singled out one of the colleagues from your office as “smart and hard working”, you wouldn’t necessarily feel bad that she didn’t mention you.

    but if she publicly said “Tom, Dick and Harry are very smart and hard working”, that could certainly be seen to imply that you and John are not..

  10. The second definition is certainly a common use of the word; the term racism is also used in an equivalent way.

    You can kind of think of it as a generalization of the original definition. In Western society, a lot of the problems women face are not due to *active* discrimination against women (what maybe most people think of as sexism) but rather the whole parcel of unspoken and unconscious attitudes that many (both men and women) carry. Unfortunately even if there is no ill will towards women, the societal effect is basically the same: systematic discrimination.

    Thus the term gets used to refer to not just the individuals who are actively misogynistic, but to the more abstract behaviors and cultural norms that produce similar results.

    Personally I think the use of the term in this sense might be unwise, since it tends to make people overly defensive. It is, nevertheless, how the word is used in many circles, and there are good reasons for it.

  11. I think you are equivocating on the word “discrimination”.

    Discrimination in common parlance can mean either A) “making a distinction”, or B) “treating someone worse”. All instances of treating someone worse are covered by definition 1), above. So definition 2) is not about treating people worse.

    There are many women and men who support the idea that men and women are different, and generally have different roles to play in particular spheres of society. Unless you believe that your personal worth and ontological value are tied to your job (which actually, is a sadly not uncommon belief in practice, but one which I assert is wrong, and I hope you agree), then such a belief in gender-based roles does not of necessity imply that anyone is treating anyone worse or thinks anyone else is a second-class citizen.

    So, when you say the effect of this is “systematic discrimination”, that would be true in sense A) but not in sense B). And yet you then go on to assume meaning 2) rather than meaning 1).

    I’ve tried to explain my point clearly – have I succeeded? :-)

  12. The way I see it:
    a) A positive stereotype against one gender can be interpreted as a negative stereotype against the other. Example: The expression “the fair sex” could be interpreted as meaning all men are ugly which in turn would be an insult to those men who hold their looks in high regard.

    b) A positive stereotype can be insulting to persons who in their self-image do not conform with it. Staying with the example above, the expression could be interpreted as meaning that a woman with no interest in conventional beauty is no “real woman” or that the outer appearance is more important than other aspects.

    Applying this to your example of someone “being the mom”. Not every woman wants to be a mom or to behave like one. If this is a professional environment, she most likely wants to be viewed as a professional, not as a mother figure.

    The point with all these arguments is that you don’t need to agree with my interpretation of the meaning of these expressions, you just have to agree that someone else might interpret it that way.

  13. Who decides what is “better” and “worse” treatment? Example: A reason I often hear for enforcing gender separation and forcing women to wear niqābs or burqas in islamic countries is that it “protects women from sexual harassment and men in general”. This might actually be the true intention but does it make the laws and traditions any less discriminating?

    Fighting against discrimination can just as well mean “stop oppressing me!” as it can mean “stop trying to help me!”

  14. So your argument is that we can never be sure whether a given measure will be helpful or actually perpetuate discrimination? In which case, surely the only thing to do is to do nothing? But hang on, that might also perpetuate it by inaction… You seem to be stuck in a mire of indecision.

    Or are you saying that it would all be much better if you got to decide everything, then we could be sure that all the rules would be good ones? :-)

    (Also, are you sure that every woman or even most women who wear a niqab or burka are forced to do so?)

  15. Following social norms to their logical extreme practically always leads to absurd results. That’s like saying, “You should not state facts of which you are not sure that they are correct. In most contexts there is always a margin for error. Therefore you should never state facts.”

    All I’m saying is: Be sensitive towards other people’s interpretations of what you said and when in doubt, don’t say it. In your “being mom” example, why not say “she is a good moderator” or “she is acting like a mod”? You avoid any sex, gender or race associations and still have room to phrase the statement so that it is a praise or a criticism of her behavior. In fact, I’d say it’s more accurate.

    To cite Jeph Jacques: “You as an author have control over the intent of your work, but you do not have control over how other people will interpret it. And if someone’s interpretation of your work differs from your intent, while you can defend your intent, it does not necessarily render their interpretation invalid.”

    Re niqābs and burqas: Acceptance or approval of discrimination against oneself does not invalidate the fact that it is discrimination. In our society, the fact that there are beauty salons and cosmetic surgery doesn’t mean it is any less sexist that conventionally good looking women earn significantly more in their jobs on average than conventionally ugly ones. More importantly, it doesn’t render my argument invalid that the intention to oppress is not a necessary requirement for the discrimination.

  16. Views on this matter vary with local culture. In extremely liberal areas, merely expressing the view that there are indeed some actual differences between men and women would be viewed as sexism, and suggesting that in some cases perhaps it’s good for a woman to stay home with her children while they are young would cause people to see you as the scum of the earth.

    In more conservative areas, where the former view is considered a basic biological fact and the latter is widely accepted, “sexism” is defined somewhat more narrowly.

  17. Incidentally, no, I’m not aware of any significantly non-pejorative meanings of the word “sexism”. (Like any pejorative term, it can occasionally be applied in sarcasm or irony to imply the opposite, but the basic implication of the word itself is still negative.) Perhaps the cultural attitude toward sex and gender varies more than the word “sexism” itself.

    Incidentally, I remembered something else that is considered “sexist” in some circles: using the pronoun “he” or “him” when the gender is indeterminate.

  18. You’re understanding what the dictionary says, yes. But that’s not what is accepted as a definition – the real definition is prejudice + power. Here’s a good article:


    So even though something like a ladies’ only gym falls under the dictionary definition of sexist, it is not sexist culturally in the context of cultures that are male-dominated (almost all cultures).

    I think the section on “benevolent sexism” in the article above will also help put some questions to rest (though it may spark more!).

  19. That’s really interesting – thank you :-) The clarity with which the author writes actually helps me to more clearly understand some of the underlying worldview differences between me and her (I’m assuming it’s a woman, given some of the things she writes about it being inappropriate for men to make these points).

    While saying “well, OK, women can be _prejudiced_ against men, just not sexist” makes it a little better, I do think the definition of sexism put forward there, in that “women can’t be sexist”, allows the author to avoid considering the gender biases of her own worldview.

  20. It is difficult to counter ancient wisdom. Especially that wisdom from the Church fathers, of which I firmly believe any so-called “wisdom” coming from man in the later centuries, is simply a retelling or re-stating of those of previous centuries:

    “O ye subverters of all decency, who use men, as if they were women, and lead out women to war, as if they were men! This is the work of the devil, to subvert and confound all things, to overleap the boundaries that have been appointed from the beginning, and remove those which God has set to nature. For God assigned to woman the care of the house only, to man the conduct of public affairs. But you reduce the head to the feet, and raise the feet to the head. You suffer women to bear arms, and are not ashamed.”
    — John Chrysostom (AD 344-407), Homily on Titus.

    And is Chrysostom simply restating St. Paul, in his letters to Timothy? When we talk about sexism, we are talking about submission, and order of gender roles in society. Dare I say, we are also delving into racism? It is simply a statistical fact, that the negroid races produce far superior athletes to other races. Especially in terms of speed, power, and agility.

    Now since this has also come as an issue to the forefront, Chrysostom does address the “suffer women to bear arms.” I am a U.S. Marine veteran. Allow my serving commandant to address this, simply restating Chrysostom, restating St. Paul:


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