Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex or gender. It can lead to many harmful behaviors, from acts of violence to subtle comments that reinforce stereotypes.
All manifestations of sexism are harmful and have a negative impact on society. Women are most severely affected, but sexism also affects people of other marginalized genders. Less directly, it also harms men.
In this article, we describe the different types of sexism and give some examples that people may commonly encounter.
A note about sex and gender
Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.
Sexism is prejudice or discrimination against a person or group based on their sex or gender. It primarily affects women and girls, and it is the root cause of gender inequity worldwide.
Sexist acts include any that frame one sex or gender as inferior. Sexism can be conveyed in:
- laws and policies
- practices and traditions
People categorize sexism in several ways. Sexism can be:
These terms come from the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, a framework that researchers use to understand and measure the effects of this prejudice.
Sexism can operate on different levels in society. It can be:
The following sections describe these types of sexism in more detail.
This refers to beliefs and behaviors that are openly hostile toward a group of people based on their sex or gender. Misogyny, or the hatred of women, is an example of hostile sexism.
People who hold views that are hostile and sexist may view women as:
- capable of using seduction to control men
- needing to be kept in their place
These views may also apply to anyone with feminine traits and anyone who expresses their gender in a way that is associated with femininity.
People who perpetuate hostile sexism want to preserve men’s dominance over women and people of other marginalized genders. They typically oppose gender equality and may also oppose LGBTQIA+ rights, seeing these things as a threat to men and the systems that benefit them.
Hostile sexism is dangerous. According to 2019 research, it is a risk factor for sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
A 2015 study found that men who endorsed hostile sexism were more likely to be physically abusive toward their partners, with alcohol use — another common risk factor — having less of an effect on rates of intimate partner violence among this group. This suggests that hostile sexism is a powerful driver of abuse in relationships.
A 2019 study in Indonesia also found a positive link between hostile sexism and sexual assault. People who endorsed hostile sexism were more likely to believe in “rape myths” that place the blame for sexual assault on the victim, not the perpetrator.
Examples of hostile sexism include:
- using sexist language or insults
- making threatening or aggressive comments based on a person’s gender or sex
- harassing or threatening someone for defying gender norms, online or offline
- treating people as subordinates based on their sex or gender and punishing them when they “step out of line”
- believing that some victims of sexual assault “ask for it” due to their behavior or clothing
- engaging in physical or sexual assault
Benevolent sexism includes views and behaviors that frame women as:
- caring and nurturing
- fragile and in need of protection
A 2020 study involving participants in the United States and United Kingdom found that people who believed in humanity’s dominance over nature and who saw women as being more closely connected with nature than men were more likely to exhibit benevolent sexism.
In comparison to hostile sexism, benevolent sexism can be less obvious. It is a more socially accepted form and is much more likely to be endorsed by men and women. However, despite its name, this type of sexism is not truly benevolent.
While benevolent sexism applies some positive traits to women and femininity, it still frames one sex or gender as weaker than another. These ideas can lead to policies and behaviors that limit a person’s agency, or the ability of someone to make their own choices.
For example, the 2020 study found that men who endorsed benevolent sexism were more likely to support policies that limit the freedoms of pregnant women. Benevolent sexism also undermines girls’ confidence in themselves and their abilities.
Some examples of benevolent sexism include:
- basing a woman’s value on her role as a mother, wife, or girlfriend
- focusing attention and praise on someone’s appearance rather than their other attributes
- believing that people should not do things for themselves, such as manage money or drive a car, because of their gender
- assuming that a person is a nurse, assistant, or secretary — not a doctor, executive, or manager — based on their gender
- supporting policies that make it difficult for women to work, have independence, or deviate from traditional gender roles
This is a combination of benevolent and hostile sexism. People who engage in ambivalent sexism may vary between seeing women as good, pure, and innocent and seeing them as manipulative or deceitful, depending on the situation.
Some researchers argue that hostile and benevolent sexism support one another as part of a system.
Benevolent sexism offers women protection in exchange for them adopting a more subordinate role, while hostile sexism targets those who deviate from this. For this reason, some refer to the former as “Plan A” and the latter as “Plan B.”
Some examples of ambivalent sexism include:
- glorifying traditionally feminine behavior and demonizing “unladylike” behavior, in media coverage, for example
- hiring someone because they are attractive, then firing them if they do not respond to sexual advances
- differentiating between “good” women and “bad” women based on how they dress
This refers to sexism that is entrenched in organizations and institutions, such as:
- the government
- the legal system
- the education system
- the healthcare system
- financial institutions
- the media
- other workplaces
When policies, procedures, attitudes, or laws create or reinforce sexism, this is institutional sexism.
Institutional sexism is widespread. It can be hostile, benevolent, or ambivalent. One of the clearest indicators is the lack of gender diversity among political leaders and business executives.
Another indicator is a gender pay gap. This refers to a difference in the median earnings between women and men. In the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a woman earns 82 cents for every dollar that a man earns. Overall, women earn less than men in almost every occupation.
This gap is wider for women with children and for Black, Latina, Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific Islander women.
This manifests during interactions with others. It can occur in the workplace, within relationships, among family members, and in interactions with strangers.
Examples of interpersonal sexism include:
- telling someone to be more ladylike
- judging someone for not fitting into stereotypes of femininity, such as by being caring or submissive
- making inappropriate comments about someone’s appearance
- talking down to someone based on assumptions about their gender
- engaging in unwanted sexual attention or touching
- justifying sexist behavior by saying “boys will be boys”
Internalized sexism refers to sexist beliefs that a person has about themselves. Usually, a person adopts these beliefs involuntarily as a result of exposure to sexist behavior or the opinions of others.
Internalized sexism may cause feelings of:
It also causes people to unintentionally collude with sexism.
Research suggests that the lower rate of women working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics may be due to internalized sexism. Studies have shown that sexist stereotypes affect academic performance. As many believe that boys are better than girls at math and science, this could cause a lack of confidence.
Some other examples of internalized sexism include:
- making self-deprecating jokes about one’s gender, such as “blonde jokes”
- someone basing their self-worth on how desirable they are in the eyes of men
- feeling ashamed of aspects of being female, such as having periods or female genitalia
- feeling that it is essential to conform to gender ideals, even if this means harming oneself, through restrictive dieting, for example
There are many types of sexism. This prejudice and discrimination can be hostile and overt or seemingly benevolent and more subtly harmful.
Many countries that consider themselves to be tolerant instead perpetuate a mixture of types, forming a system of ambivalent sexism.
All types of sexism are harmful to the health of society. To stop sexism, it is crucial to understand how it manifests and then to challenge sexist attitudes and practices at all levels — from the internal to the institutional.