Why is sexism such a big deal ?
“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking” — Virginia Woolf
Sexism is the belief that a human of one sex is intrinsically superior to the other. Common sexist claims stem from traditional stereotypes and patriarchal gender roles. Empirical studies have found widely shared cultural beliefs that men are more socially valued and more competent than women at most things. We have all heard them at some point in our lives: women are not good at maths, all women are maternal by birth, men are better at taking decisions, women cannot drive etc
The Everyday Sexism Project exists to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day to day basis.
Gender stereotypes are widely held beliefs about the characteristics and behavior of women and men and transgender people. Stereotypes can affect the assessments people make of their own competence. These “biased self-assessments” have far-reaching effects because they can shape men and women’s educational and career decisions. Daily newspapers feed these stereotypes all the time. How many women’s sports feature in the sports pages ? And how many men write in with household tips ?
When we were medical students, not so very long ago, many patients assumed that the young women on the wards were all nurses and wanted a ‘doctor’ to see them.
Sexism in language
Research has found that the use of he as a generic pronoun evokes a disproportionate number of male images and excludes thoughts of women in non gender-specific instances. Nearing the end of the 20th century, there is a rise in gender-neutral language in western worlds, which is often attributed to the rise of feminism. eg Chairperson instead of Chairman.
Mis-gendering men using female-gendered pejoratives is another representation of such attitudes. When men are accused of possessing female attributes in common slurs like “pussy” or “sissy”, we are reminded that to be female is a step down from being male. Inversely, women are often complimented by misgendering: “she’s got balls”, “she’s a tomboy”, and so on.
Some English words, especially the name of some professions, are basically of common gender, namely, they can be applied to both sexes. However, people usually will habitually associate them only with male. Consequently, we have to add “woman” before those names if we want to refer to female of those professions. For example: Doctor , Professor, Engineer, Lawyer, Reporter girl reporter.
One tendency involves words that are clearly restricted in reference to one sex
or the other, with female words tending to have less favorable meanings. A classic pair is master and mistress, where the male meaning is ‘good’ and the female is ‘bad’; specifically, a mistress but not a female master but someone who is a partner for extra-marital sex.
The word “governor” refers to “a person appointed to govern a province or state, whereas the word “governess” just means “nurse maid”.
“The man in the street” and “ The woman in the street” is in the same situation, yet the former one just shows that the man is an ordinary person, the latter one can indicates that she is a prostitute Ref :http://www.jllonline.co.uk/journal/5_1/5LingLei.pdf
Sexism in media is a huge topic by itself and while some advertisements from the 1950s such as this one may make us cringe and say but this is 2013 !
Well, here is an ad from 2011 and an article from 2012.
This article in the Irish Times talks about how sexism thrives even in spite of the women’s movements. Here’s an extract:
“I was asked to go to a meeting of senior managers to give a presentation on a report I had written. As the meeting started, one of the senior managers took one look at me and announced loudly ‘Oh good, we have someone here to take the notes.’ “He was very red-faced when I said I was in fact there to give a presentation on the high-level report being discussed in the meeting.”
But why does sexist language matter ?
As Sheryl Kleinem puts it so succinctly– Words are tools of thought. We can use words to maintain the status quo or to think in new ways — which in turn creates the possibility of a new reality. It makes a difference if I think of myself as a “girl” or a “woman”; it makes a difference if we talk about “Negroes” or “African-Americans.”
All those “man” words — said many times a day by millions of people every day — cumulatively reinforce the message that men are the standard and that women should be subsumed by the male category. We know from history that making a group invisible makes it easier for the powerful to do what they want with members of that group.
Most of us can see a link between calling women “sluts” and “whores” and men’s sexual violence against women. We need to recognize that making women linguistically a subset of man/men through terms like “mankind” and “guys” also makes women into objects. If women are not even worthy of equal words and terms how can we expect equal respect, rights and treatment ?
From thinking of women as objects, sexual objects, to street harassment, comes the publically aggressive and threatening behavior and then the sexual assault and rape. In the UK on an average two women die every week of domestic violence. Women are overlooked at jobs, expected to run households and raise children while competing with men who bond over drinking and staying late in the office, when there is no wage parity or remotely equal occupancy of senior posts ( CEOs, Judges, Members of Parliament) , that is when it starts to matter.
These words eventually have a way of becoming a an oppressive reality and a roadmap for how the men and the boys will think of women and girls and how the women and girls will think of themselves ! And that is why it’s such a big deal.