Sometimes, when people talk about sexism, they talk about one person being sexist or doing a sexist action. There is a tendency to individualize sexism, to attribute it to a person, small group of people, or a specific context.
This can be tricky because sexism can also be viewed as system of disadvantages (or advantages) that are complex, interconnected, and not any one person's fault. To change individual sexism, we simply need to change sexist individuals. But to change systemic sexism, we would need to change the whole system.
Thinking about sexism systemically can be hard, because it's abstract. To help us think through how sexism can function like a system in our Research Training Internship, we used this checklist. We read the following list of statements to our teens (who are women) and had them take a step forward if they felt the statement was true for them. We also had our Marketing, Outreach, and Communications Director (who is a man) taking a step forward if he felt the statements were true for him. Afterwards they had a lively discussion.
Read through the list and see what you think! Do you experience advantages or disadvantages based on your gender?
The statements below are not neutral. They were designed to show a discrepancy between male and female experiences in our culture. But we thought you might have questions or want clarification about some of these statements. Included below are link to research and statistics which explain why we believe that these statements can illustrate systemic sexism. [Our statements are adapted from here]
As a child, I could choose from a huge variety of children’s media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own sex. I never had to look for it; protagonists of my sex were and are the default.
I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented.
My elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more this is true.
If I’m clumsy or not especially athletic, it won’t be attributed to my sex.
If I get excited about something frivolous, it won’t be attributed to my sex or be understood as indicative of a general inability to deal with serious issues. I never have to worry about being called ditzy, shallow, or an ‘airhead.’
If I’m shy or quiet, I won’t be perceived as ‘cold’ or ‘bitchy’
If I am aggressive, or critical of someone or something, I will not be perceived ‘bitchy.’
If I am merely outspoken, I will not be perceived as too emotional or ‘bitchy.’
If I get publicly angry or upset about something, it won’t be attributed to my sex. No one will call me a “drama queen” or accuse me of being irrational. I will likely be perceived positively, as ‘principled’ or ‘committed to my beliefs.’
If I am knowledgeable on a subject, I will be taken seriously. I will not not be called a “Know-it-all,” made fun of, or ignored.
If I interrupt someone of the opposite sex in public, it’s unlikely that anyone will say or do anything about it. Members of the opposite sex almost never interrupt me.
If I speak in public, in front of a large group, I can feel assured that my audience will not comment on my choices about clothing or what my clothing says about my sexuality.
The grooming regimen expected of me and of members of my sex is relatively cheap and consumes little time.
If I make unconventional choices about my clothes, hair, or grooming, it’s unlikely that I will face any negative consequences.
I do not have to worry about the message my wardrobe sends about my sexual availability.
Even if I am very promiscuous, there is no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut.” People of the same sex as me will almost certainly praise or valorize me for my promiscuity. People of the opposite sex may also valorize me for this.
If I am heterosexual, magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad members of the opposite sex intended to appeal to me sexually.
In general, I am under very little pressure to be thin. If I am not thin, I do not suffer especial social and economic consequences.
If I am heterosexual, it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover.
Complete strangers generally do not walk up to me on the street and tell me to “smile.”
If I am in a dense crowd or packed subway car, I don’t worry about being groped or harassed.
Sexual harassment on the street virtually never happens to me. I do not need to plot my movements through public space in order to avoid being sexually harassed, or to mitigate sexual harassment.
My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.
Violence that happens to members of my sex is called “crime” and is a general social concern; Violence that happens to me or members of my sex is never put into diminutive special interest categories like “acquaintance rape” or “domestic violence.”
If I’m a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped, sexually assaulted, or sexually harassed are relatively low.
On average, I am taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces much less than members of the opposite sex.
I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. Language like mankind, “All men are created equal,” mailman, chairman, and freshman, all refer to my sex.
I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if I don’t change my name.
If I choose not to have children, my masculinity / femininity will not be called into question.
If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity / femininity will not be called into question.
If I have children and I provide primary care for them, I’ll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I’m even marginally competent.
If I have children and a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.
If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.
The decision to hire me will not be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.
Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is pictured as my sex.
Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my spouse and children should be subservient to me.
If I have an opposite-sex spouse, chances are we’ll divide up household chores so that he or she does most of the labor, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks.
If I have children with my opposite-sex partner, I can expect him or her to do most of the basic childcare such as changing diapers and feeding.
If I have children with my partner, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should not be mine.
image via Flickr