Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on sex or gender. It affects every level of society, from institutions and governments to personal relationships. Sexism affects women and other marginalized genders most severely. Indirectly, it also harms men.
Sexism creates inequity between different sexes and genders. It also fuels gender-based violence and hate crime. Worldwide, the economic cost of institutional gender discrimination is $12 trillion, or 16% of the world’s total income.
This article looks at what sexism is, what causes it, types and examples of sexism, and its impact.
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 and discrimination against people based on their sex or gender.
A person’s sex is assigned at birth based on biological traits, such as genitalia and chromosomes. Gender involves how a person feels and self-identifies. Gender also exists as a social construct. This consists of societal and cultural roles and norms considered appropriate for various genders.
Any action, speech, law, practice, or media representation that places a higher value on one gender or sex over another is sexist. This applies whether the person or institution meant to cause harm or not.
Worldwide, sexism affects women and girls most often. This is because in most cultures, being male or masculine is more highly valued than being female or feminine.
Sexism also affects people who were not assigned female at birth but who express themselves in a way that people perceive as feminine. This includes trans and gender-expansive individuals.
It is possible to be sexist toward men. However, because men possess more power and status in most countries, the harm that they experience is usually an indirect result of sexism toward women.
For example, if a person believes that women are weaker than men, they may feel that they have to be strong or tough at all times — even if this means risking their health or participating in violence.
Sexism begins with prejudices. A prejudice is a bias against a person or group of people. It is often based on myths, stereotypes, and generalizations that a person learns from others.
Biases about sex and gender can be explicit, something that a person is aware that they have. And they can be implicit, in which case, a person is not consciously aware of their biases.
A common prejudice about gender is called “gender determinism.” This refers to the idea that men and women are fundamentally different in ways that cannot change and that these differences determine their personalities, behaviors, and abilities.
This includes the stereotype that women are naturally better at looking after children than men — or that men are naturally better at math or science.
Gender determinism also causes prejudice against transgender people. This is because people who believe that gender is determined solely by biology may not understand how being transgender is possible or refuse to accept that it is. This is known as cissexism.
Prejudice based on sex or gender can have different forms. Some are more obvious and easier to identify, while others are more subtle. Types of sexism include:
- Hostile sexism: This involves any overtly hostile attitudes about women, such as the belief that women are manipulative, sinful, weak, or resentful, or that they owe men sex. Hostile sexism is dangerous and fuels gender-based violence.
- Benevolent sexism: This is based on the idea that women are naturally kind, pure, and innocent. These may not seem like negative qualities, but they stem from the opinion that women are weaker than men. This is what makes benevolent sexism harmful.
- Ambivalent sexism: Ambivalent sexism is a combination of benevolent and hostile sexism, which often work together as part of a system. For example, a person might have benevolent sexist views about mothers, such as that they always put their children first. If a mother enters the workforce, though, the person might display hostile sexism by openly judging or punishing that person for having a job.
Sexism can also occur alongside other forms of oppression, such as racism or ableism, affecting people who belong to more than one marginalized group.
Sexist beliefs can lead to discrimination. Discrimination is prejudice in action, and it occurs whenever a person or group treats others unfairly based on an aspect of their identity.
Gender discrimination can manifest itself at any level of society, including the:
- Institutional level: Institutional sexism occurs when sexism affects the practices of a whole institution or system, such as a university, healthcare system, or legal system.
- Interpersonal level: Interpersonal sexism occurs within personal relationships and social interactions. Examples include catcalling, verbal insults, and abuse.
- Individual level: People can have internalized sexism, which refers to sexist beliefs about a person’s own sex or gender. This may cause them to discriminate against others who belong to the same group.
Discrimination does not have to be obvious or intentional to be damaging. Smaller acts of discrimination can have a cumulative effect on mental and physical health. These acts are known as microaggressions.
Some examples of gender-based microaggressions include:
- interrupting or talking over someone
- questioning someone’s competence because of their gender
- denying that sexism exists
- using sexist language or making sexist jokes
One location where gender discrimination occurs is the workplace. A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, in the United States, found that 42% of women have experienced gender discrimination at work, such as:
- being paid less than a man for doing the same job
- being denied a promotion because of their gender
- being treated as less competent because of their gender
- receiving less support from management than a man doing the same job
Gender discrimination also occurs in healthcare. In a 2021 study, more women doctors than men said that their gender had negatively affected their careers, limiting the level of respect that they felt they received.
Almost 100% of the women in the study had been mistaken for patients or support staff, compared with 29% of the men.
Sexual harassment is sexualized mistreatment. It includes any unwanted sexual comments about a person’s appearance or sexuality. Often, these comments are tinged with aggression.
Sexual harassment can take place anywhere, including workplaces, public restrooms, and between friends and family members.
Unlike flattery or flirting, which happens between consenting adults, sexual harassment is often one-sided, and it exploits an uneven power dynamic. This is what makes it threatening.
A 2018 online survey found that sexual harassment is an extremely common experience among women, with 81% saying that they had experienced some form of street harassment.
Sexual harassment is also common in workplaces, particularly among women who work for tips, who work in male-dominated fields, or who do not have permanent legal immigration status.
Examples of sexual harassment include:
- someone making a remark about a person’s body from a moving car or on the street, then using a gendered slur when the person does not respond
- an employer making inappropriate comments about a female employee’s appearance
- unsolicited online comments about a person’s body or sexual activities
Sexual harassment can make people feel uncomfortable, scared, and even traumatized. Even if a person does not feel physically threatened at the time, it may cause or reinforce a fear of walking alone, wearing certain clothes, or being sexually assaulted.
Common examples of gender-based violence include:
Intimate partner abuse
This type of violence occurs in intimate relationships. It is also known as domestic abuse. Anyone can experience intimate partner abuse (IPA), but it disproportionately affects women. Gender inequity, sexist beliefs, and cultural practices that devalue women all increase the risk of IPA.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around
Female genital mutilation
This harmful practice involves removing parts of the female genitals, such as the clitoris and labia. People usually perform female genital mutilation (FGM) against the person’s will and in unsterile conditions. Often, this happens before the person has reached the
FGM causes significant mental and physical trauma. It also carries a risk of infection, sexual health problems, and fertility problems, as well as birth complications if a person becomes pregnant. The WHO estimates that more than 200 million females alive today have undergone FGM.
Sexual assault includes any unwanted, coerced, or forced sexual contact. Anyone can experience or commit sexual assault, but most survivors are female.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
The long-term impact of widespread sexism is gender inequity. This refers to unfair and preventable differences between genders. Most research on this focuses on the inequities between men and women.
Gender inequity is present in:
A 2018 study from Spain found that women in heterosexual relationships were involved in more than double the household chores that their male partners were. This is due to traditional gender roles and expectations.
When heterosexual couples freely choose these roles, it may not cause problems. However, the study found that women who did more household labor reported higher levels of family conflict.
The uneven distribution of household labor also contributes to economic inequity. A 2017 report states that one-fifth of women who live in poverty in Europe are not employed, due to their domestic and caregiving responsibilities.
Health and healthcare
Sexism negatively affects health and the healthcare system. Exposure to prejudice, discrimination, and higher levels of unpaid work can cause chronic stress, which contributes to mental and physical health conditions.
Lower wages also make it more difficult to access quality healthcare. And even when a person can access healthcare, sexism affects how doctors treat people.
For example, a
Learn more about gender bias in medical diagnosis.
The cumulative impact of sexism on the worldwide economy is huge. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, gender inequity is associated with:
- lower national incomes
- lower levels of productivity
- lower levels of education
- an artificially reduced talent pool
Gender equity would result in a better quality of life for women and other marginalized genders, as well as economic gains that benefit everyone.
Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on sex or gender. It is widespread globally, and it can affect every aspect of a person’s life, including their relationships, mental and physical health, life expectancy, and income.
Dismantling sexist institutions, laws, and practices is important for the health and empowerment of everyone, regardless of their sex or gender.