What is Sexism?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Sexism is a form of discrimination based on gender. While many people use the term specifically to describe discrimination against women, it can also affect men, intersexuals, and transsexuals, along with individuals who eschew traditional gender roles and identities, such as people who identify as genderqueer. Like other “-isms,” sexism has far-reaching effects in society, and the study of it is a complex field.

Sexism can be used against men who fulfill traditional female roles like teaching.
Sexism can be used against men who fulfill traditional female roles like teaching.

In addition to outright discrimination, sexism includes attitudes that support discrimination, such as stereotyping sex roles and generalizing an entire gender. It can be rooted in cultural traditions, fear, hatred, or superiority, with many sexists believing that their gender is superior for a variety of reasons. While many nations have laws which are designed to thwart sexism in places like the workplace, it often infiltrates society so thoroughly that these attitudes cannot be easily shaken off.

A sexist may believe that women are unsuited for traditionally male roles like military command.
A sexist may believe that women are unsuited for traditionally male roles like military command.

Discrimination on the basis of gender can take a wide variety of forms. For example, some people believe that women should stay at home to focus on rearing children and keeping house, rather than pursuing professional careers. This attitude can lead to severe criticism when career women are involved, and as seen in the 2008 US presidential primaries, high-profile women are not exempt from sexism, even when they are running for the office of president of the United States. Others may feel that men should not pursue “women's work” such as nursing, teaching, or homemaking, criticizing men who pursue these activities.

Incidents of sexism may be ambiguous and come from men, women or both.
Incidents of sexism may be ambiguous and come from men, women or both.

It is also possible to see sexism from within a gender, in addition to criticism from the outside. Members of the same gender often criticize themselves with arguments which are rooted in sexism, as for example when women criticize each other for being too masculine and defying traditional ideas about gender roles and how women should behave. It also manifests in language, as proved by the ample assortment of crude slang terms, most of which cannot be printed here, for women who defy the norm.

Sexism can undercut a woman in a position of authority.
Sexism can undercut a woman in a position of authority.

Sexism also does not occur in a vacuum. It can be combined with ableism, racism, and other prejudices. Defeating this and other forms of discrimination often requires a great deal of personal courage, and a willingness to call others out on their behavior while recognizing such behavior in oneself. Sometimes the most powerful way to fight discrimination is to set an example, showing critics that their ideas are baseless and proving that men can raise children, women can excel in mathematics and the sciences, and so forth.

Women are more commonly the target of sexual harrassment.
Women are more commonly the target of sexual harrassment.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


There are also many examples of sexism against men. Child custody arrangements, conscription, sentencing (much higher for the same crimes), non-sexual violence. There are also the societal sexism, breadwinning, disdain for emotive expression, etc. Of course women suffer the most from sexism, but it is not all one-sided.


Is there a religious background to sexist views?

I'm curious about this because I think that some religious beliefs emphasize the superiority of the male. For example, has anyone noticed that prophets are always male?

Where has sexism originated from? How does religion fit into all this? Or can we use religious education to fight sexism in our country?


@burcidi-- I think that violence is definitely an expression of sexism. I don't know if sexism has increased or not. It might just be that women have more courage now and express that they are being discriminated against more than they used to.

I also think that the liberties given to women such as property rights, voting and divorce are fairly new changes in history. This might be creating an increase in the expression of sexist views because people have not adapted to this new order so to speak.

I think that sexism will reduce in the following decades as the patriarchal tradition slowly shifts.


Violence against women has increased all over the world. Do you guys think that this is because of an increase in sexism?


I believe sexism is alive and well at Crossmark Inc,

because of their views on women especially during training. Women are told to wear men's clothing and also what color bra they should wear. I believe the entire company is out of date and out of touch when it comes to women's rights. Women are being discriminated against every day and it appears to be the norm for this company.


In my opinion, the article is valid. It explained and demonstrated how sexism has penetrated our society and how it is embedded in the ideologies of traditions passed down. Sexism is prevalent in society's first teachings to children. A baby girl is taught to play with dolls, while a baby boy is taught to play with trucks and guns. We expect girls to demonstrate passive gentle characteristics, while developing aggressive behavior in boys.


i don't think the author needs to "prove" that sexism exists. it's like saying, prove that racism still exists. it simply does. i've heard many comments from both men and women (women i thought were feminists) about palin's mothering, and a woman's ability to be president. that's sexism in its purest form. just run a simple search about women in the presidency, and i'm sure you'll find tons of commentary about it.


I think your charges about sexism in the 2008 presidential primaries & election need to be proven. There were many comments that women like Senator Clinton and Sarah Palin were subjected to extreme sexism. There were also charges that this was being used as a lever by those candidates to create division.

Both Clinton and Palin did this, and though there may have been some sexism, I believe it was overblown and often exploited. How much sexism are you talking about, because I think article is definitely slanted?

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