This module is a resource for lecturers  



Forms of gender discrimination


The following paragraphs discuss the notions of sexism, implicit sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault, all of which are common forms of gender discrimination against women.


Sexism is the prejudice or discrimination based on sex, especially in the form of discrimination against women ( Merriam-Webster). It can also mean the unfair treatment of people based on their sex or gender. Although the origin of the term as it is used around the world is not entirely clear, it is associated with the "second wave of feminism" which lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s, and was likely modelled on the concept of racism (Masequesmay, 2014). Sexism is based on the idea that women are inferior to men, and functions to oppress women in society.

One of the ways in which sexism is manifested in countries and cultures around the world is through the socialization of gender norms. For example, for centuries in the West, gender roles have depicted women as the more nurturing, emotional, and physically weaker gender. Thus, women have been relegated to the domestic sphere, while gender roles have depicted men as more fit for public life, leadership positions, activities in business, politics, and academia. Children can be socialized from an early age to believe that women and men have different and proper gender roles in society. Those children may then grow up to perpetuate the existence of these damaging and restrictive roles in society. An example of this process is the differences in toys marketed to boys and girls. This video shows that when adults think of a baby as a boy, they give the baby toy vehicles, action figures or construction equipment, and when they consider the baby to be a girl they offer her dolls and kitchen sets. As demonstrated in this video, sayings such as "run like a girl" or "throw like a girl" teach girls that they are physically weaker than boys and are also insulting to girls. It is important to note that these gender roles are limiting for everyone - while girls are taught that they are physically weaker ("run like a girl"), boys are taught that they are emotionally weaker ("boys don't cry"). These views of gender roles, and the socialization that keeps them alive, have led to discrimination against women in public life, as they are often seen as inappropriately defying their assigned gender role. Essentially, the power structure at the basis of discrimination and violence against women is reinforced through the process of internalizing stereotypes and gender roles. This historical process, it should be stressed, does not exclude any region of the world; however, in some regions it entails greater violence for women.

Sexism may arise because of socialized concepts of privilege and entitlement. "Privilege" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group". "Entitlement" is defined as both the "fact of having a right to something" and the "belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment".

An extreme form of sexism is misogyny, or the "hatred of women" (Masequesmay, 2017). The presence of misogyny in cultures and societies often leads to high rates of violence against women and the commodification and objectification of women. Structural and cultural norms can breed misogyny.

Although most forms of sexism and discrimination negatively impact women, men can be affected as well. According to a survey conducted in five countries (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, France and the UK), a significant number of men suffer from gender-based discrimination at the workplace, especially in areas with a greater presence of female compared to male workers, such in health-related services (Eurofound, 2018, p. 10). However, women suffer from discrimination in the workplace, including within the health sector, because of historical-structural conditions that have greater implications than cases of discrimination against men.

Implicit bias / implicit sexism

Prejudice and discrimination can be described as a form of intergroup bias. According to the US National Judicial Education Program, the most prominent forms of gender bias are "(i) Stereotyped thinking about the nature and roles of women and men; (ii) Devaluing what is perceived as 'woman's work'; (iii) Lack of knowledge of the social and economic realities of women's and men's lives" (Halilovic and others, 2017, p. 29).

Bias can often be implicit. "Implicit Bias," sometimes referred to as unconscious bias, is defined by Brownstein (2015) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as:

a term of art referring to relatively unconscious and relatively automatic features of prejudiced judgment and social behaviour. While psychologists in the field of "implicit social cognition" study "implicit attitudes" toward consumer products, self-esteem, food, alcohol, political values, and more, the most striking and well-known research has focused on implicit attitudes toward members of socially stigmatized groups, such as African-Americans, women, and the LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer] community.

Implicit sexism or "everyday sexism" has been highlighted through a project founded by Laura Bates in 2012. Through her website, more than 100,000 women and men have shared their experiences of gender imbalance. In Laura's TED talks, she highlights behavioural and policy changes that were triggered by the sharing of these anecdotes from around the globe. In Nigeria, playwright Ifeoma Fafunwa, has brought attention to similar issues through her play called HEAR WORD! Naija Woman Talk True, a collection of monologues based on true-life stories of Nigerian women that challenges social, cultural, and political norms. Implicit bias from the perspective of an African-American woman is discussed in the 2014 TED talk by Melanie Funchness.

Implicit sexism was first analysed through a study conducted on the "blind" auditions for the symphony orchestra in New York from the 1970s and 1980s. The findings show that blind auditions (using a screen to conceal the candidates' identity from the jury) significantly increased the chances that female musicians would be selected. This is explained further in this article and illustrated in this video.

In another study, focused on hiring practices at university science faculties, staff members were asked to review several job applications. The applications reviewed were identical, apart from the gender of the name of the applicant. They found that science faculty members (both male and female) were more likely to rate the male candidates as better qualified than the female candidates and want to hire more men than women. They also found that male candidates were given a higher starting salary compared to female candidates, and that the employers were willing to invest more in the development of the male candidate than the female candidate (Moss-Racusin and others, 2012).

Other studies show that women are interviewed more critically than their male counterparts, and are interrupted more often (Yorke, 2017). Implicit bias impacts not only the recruitment decision, but also the salary of the individual and the amount of development that is invested in their ongoing progression. Similarly, the study by Eagly and Karau (2002) found that it is more difficult for women to become leaders and to achieve success in leadership roles because a perceived incongruity between the female gender role and leadership roles leads to two forms of prejudice:

(a) Perceiving women less favourably than men as potential occupants of leadership roles.

(b) Evaluating behaviour that fulfils the prescriptions of a leader role less favourably when it is enacted by a woman.

Another interesting study focuses on gendered wording in job announcements. The study shows that when job ads mostly include words associated with male stereotypes (e.g. 'leader', 'competitive' and 'dominant') they are found less appealing by women compared to job ads that mostly include words associated with female stereotypes (e.g. 'support', 'understand', and 'interpersonal'). Therefore, job ads with more "masculine" wording reinforce gender inequality in traditionally male-dominated occupations and thereby amount to "institutional-level mechanism of inequality maintenance" (Gaucher and others, 2011). Finally, this interesting report discusses why women are less likely than men to apply to jobs for which they do not meet all of the advertised requirements.

Sexual harassment and assault

Sexual harassment is a legal term that refers to unsolicited verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). It includes any sexually motivated behaviour that the recipient finds offensive. Women and girls can be victims of sexual harassment in the home, the workplace, in school, and the larger community, among other places. Examples of such harassment could be unwanted touching, comments of a sexually suggestive nature, rude or offensive comments about one's gender identity or gender expression, questions prying into the personal private life about their sexual history or orientation, just to name a few. Boys can also be victims of sexual harassment, with the harassers almost always being men. This illustrates that sexual violence stems from male supremacy over what is considered undervalued or what can be dominated through the body. It is important to emphasize the effects of this patriarchal power, which is expressed in everything that is considered undervalued and hierarchized by that supremacy.

One example of public sexual harassment that exists in many cultures around the world is "catcalling." Some defend this behaviour, saying that it's part of the culture and is not intended to offend or cause any distress. In France, for example, a law has been proposed which would criminalize this form of harassment and impose fines against men who catcall women. Marlene Schiappa, the French Minister of Gender Equality who is promoting this law, has said that she hopes the law would embarrass the men who harass women and would then lead to change. She stated that there has been opposition to the planned legislation, and that men have responded by saying that catcalling is merely "French culture" (Bell and Jones, 2017).

Sexual harassment extends beyond the street, workplace, or other physical space women may occupy and is ever-present in the virtual world. Women are harassed on social media and the Internet has provided a large platform for the abuse, objectification, and harassment of women. Despite all the benefits social media brings in marshalling and supporting like-minded people, the anonymity afforded by social media also creates an additional forum for women to be abused. Many people feel that more should be done by social media owners (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) to protect the vulnerable and to act against those inciting violence, racism and sexism online. As illustrated in the example provided in Exercise 5 of this Module, women in the public eye, rather than men or other vulnerable groups, are particularly singled out for online abuse (also known as "trolling") simply for doing their jobs (in this case, sports journalism or commentary).

Sexual assault or sexual abuse is another pervasive issue that women face around the world (UN Women, 2017). This form of violence and discrimination perpetrated on women because of their gender is particularly prevalent in university campuses. Studies in the United States have uncovered that one in five women in universities in the US have experienced sexual assault (Krebs and others, 2016), and this has been replicated in other parts of the Western world (AHRC, 2017). Sexual assault is the manifestation of misogynistic and sexist societal norms, and is very widespread across the globe today.

The very public exposure of sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace has gained a new level of awareness, when high profile women have thrown their support behind the #metoo campaign, that was started by black activist Tarana Burke in as early as 2007, and called out inappropriate behaviour by male colleagues in Hollywood and national media stars, stating "Time's Up". In addition, there are several large ongoing investigations of sexual abuse allegations against established religious organizations, children's charities, sporting organizations and other government institutions. It appears that community attitudes are changing and vulnerable people feel more confident and comfortable speaking out against abuse and discrimination caused by those in more powerful positions in society.

However, women continue to face discrimination and other types of harm because of their gender, and it remains imperative that we ask ourselves what we can do to eradicate violence against women and ensure that women have equal rights and power in society. These issues are at the heart of feminism and feminist ethics.

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