In this story, I will aim to offer my take on the matter, specifically on female sexism. Additionally, my goal is to portray ‘Sexism’ as a more gender-neutral word.
First, let me clarify what I mean by female sexism. The word sexism is usually used to reference men or a larger group of society (this may include women and men), as well as certain industries, behaving discriminatively against women. However, the term itself does not specify the gender, which is being devaluated. Men may behave sexist towards other men as much as women, while women may behave sexist towards men or their own gender. An aspect that all types of sexism have in common is that one group feels superior and discriminates towards another social group that is perceived as inferior. In contrast to this definition, sexism is generally used to reference discriminative behaviour by men towards women. The issue of women imposing sexist behaviour on other women remains little to never discussed.
Furthermore, we can classify sexism into two main types. The first one is Hostile Sexism and the second one Benevolent Sexism. The latter refers to subjective evaluations of one gender by an individual or group. These valuations appear positively at first, however, if more widely adopted become damaging to the gender in question. For instance, many cultures impose on men expectations of masculinity. If an individual does not align with the perceived trend, he may be cast out, etc. Additionally, sexism against the dominant gender or group is referred to as Reverse Sexism. In contrast, hostile sexism enforces overly negative stereotypes on a group or individual. For example, the idea that women need protection and cannot take responsibility for themselves nor anyone else. Ambivalent Sexism refers to both negative and positive evaluations of gender or group.
My response to female sexism
It is quite common to tell girls and adolescents not to study STEM subjects since their gender is likely to be unrepresented. Meaning, the chances of experiencing discrimination by the majority (men) of the group is more likely. I have been told several times that I should focus on another industry, in which both genders are already more equally represented, to which I have the following responses:
- Why should I base my decisions on external circumstances and environment-specific industry characteristics, which should not be put up with in the first place? Unequal representation of both genders does not automatically lead to a discriminative treatment of one gender towards the other. I want to set an example for everyone else, boys and girls, on what they can, in general, achieve in tech and not ‘as a woman in tech’.
- My experience has shown me that it is as likely to experience female sexism as sexism imposed by men. In some cases, women even enhance sexism by supporting men’s or women’s discriminative behaviour.
- The most sexism and female sexism that I have had to experience was at university. In comparison, since I have been working in the field of DLT (blockchain), I did not have to encounter any form of direct sexism. Instead, I have been criticised and respected for my skills and knowledge as objectively as I could possibly hope for.
My perspectives on female sexism arose mainly from point three. Described below.
I first studied Information System Management at a Spanish university. We were fifteen students in my class, of which four were women. Towards the second semester, I realised a discriminative tendency by a few of my male classmates. The behaviour varied from ‘I will insult you no matter what you say because I don’t value your opinion on any matter’, over ‘let’s make everyone laugh about you’ to ‘whatever you say in group work should not be taken into account’.
On single occasions, this is something to ignore or to mention to the person in question directly since it could also be a simple misunderstanding. The person might have had a bad day and did not mean their behaviour to come across as discriminative. The latter was my general response. I went to the person in question and explained that I do not respect to be treated in such a way.
These situations continued and triggered further female sexism. In a (European) company setting, I would have been able to take such matter to HR, take it to another authority etc. At university, you are a bit limited. From what I heard of friends in German and English universities, they generally have an equality committee, who is responsible for such matter. This particular university approached such complaints as in ‘if we don’t talk about it, then it does not exist. Especially, since we are an international university, we should all respect each other by definition.’ This is obviously complete bullocks and cannot work out effectively. To the university’s defense, my degree was the first to launch, technically focused, with an over-representation of men. Thus, in other degrees, it might be a completely different discussion.
Having been limited in my response to the situation, I took this matter to the program director and student life. Overall, while student life could nor want to become active, the program director invited another woman from my class and myself to her office, just to tell us that if we are treated disrespectfully by colleagues, it is because we do not demand respect. To achieve the contrary, we must change our behaviour. The ‘pep-talk’ followed by a workshop on equality to which none of the relevant parties showed up.
Long story short, after this semester and other issues in the following semesters, I left the university.
Female sexism in this case
The response of the program director was sexist. She should have addressed the problem directly between the parties, i.e. the root of the problem. If someone grew up in a men-dominated society, that person might behave in accordance to familiar values, even if these are not appropriate, nor justified, in the given setting. Instead, I was held responsible. ‘If I experience discrimination, it must be because of something I do wrong, not to fit in, even if that is just speaking my mind and standing up for my values. If my values offend those of the majority, they probably have to be adjusted.’
Additionally, I was told by a female classmate of mine that I overreact, I should let it go and not make a fuss. Such comments are easy to state for a bystander, and I don’t blame her. However, with such an attitude, women are supporting sexism, even unconsciously. Shutting your mouth and conforming in the wrong moments can make you part of the problem.
Alone, I am one complaint, as a group, we are a collective with common goals, and a collective has more bargaining power.
Characteristics of female sexism
I would classify the following scenarios as female sexism:
- Not speaking up against, or even supporting sexism by women against women, or women against men. Being a witness assigns responsibility.
- Suppressing women. This may be dependent on the perceived superiority based on skills, beliefs, background, ethnicity etc.
- Victim blaming; as in, ‘you are discriminated against, then you are the problem.’
- Deliberately behaving inferior to men; as in ‘I am a woman, therefore, I cannot show character traits similar to men, which might be perceived as, e.g. rude. Similarly, other women should not show such character traits.’
- Imposing constraints on other female group members to limit their reputation/credibility, or action space.
- Can you think of additions?
I thought about whether or not there may be one type of woman that is more likely to behave sexist over another. While I have encountered the groups listed below to behave sexist towards somebody else or myself, I do not aim to generalise. This is just a mere observation. Solely because someone fits the briefly described characteristics does not mean I categorise that person as being sexist.
- Women in power positions, who might or might not have experienced sexism on their way up the career ladder. ‘If they had to go through it, so will others.’ To be fair, many women in similar positions become mentors and are highly supportive, pulling each other up.
- Women, who feel envy, pressured, insecure towards other women, superior or inferior. In this case, I would classify female sexism as a defense mechanism.
- The above mentioned are the ones that I encountered, feel free to add.
What can Men and Women do to counteract female sexism?
Below are different suggestions on what women and men could do to counteract female sexism (most of them are applicable to other social settings):
- Be clear about your own values. In the moment, it is often easier to follow the majority and play along to be perceived as part of the group and not become another target. If you have your own values straight, you will find it easier to stand up against discrimination.
- Either speak up against the person, who discriminated, or make it clear that you do not feel comfortable taking a position (we cannot expect everyone to take a stand). I encourage men to speak up against women, who are sexist, even if this might be perceived by others as reverse sexism or generally, sexism. Arguably, in some cases, the situation even remains better left uncommented.
- Try not to judge. What one perceives as sexism might not be what society labels as sexism; it all depends on the individual’s perspective. However, social constructs and scenarios are all relative to our current understanding and beliefs. This is exactly what makes it so difficult to talk about discrimination.
- Offer support behind the scenes. The silence of your friends can be more hurtful than the noise of your enemies. Sometimes, it is enough knowing that there are people who understand your situation and stand-up for fairer treatment.
- Make a constant effort to promote compassion and equality.
- Anything to add? — Please comment.
We have to deal with different kinds of sexism. In contrast to the stereotypical usage of the word ‘sexism’, it is not gender-specific, thus, it does not reference the gender that is discriminated nor discriminates. Generally, female sexism can be labelled as the discrimination of women against the same gender or men. Situations, in which women suppress, discriminate, or misjudge based on feelings of superiority, etc., can be labelled as female sexism. Additionally, sexism is not dependent on an industry nor social group but can arise in various settings. In some cases, it might even be left unidentified.
I encourage the distinction between sexism and female sexism since it offers a description of individual cases of sexism. As such, it does not encourage the stereotype of sexism, in which men are portrait as the villain.
This story is based on my thoughts and experiences, it does not provide a formal account of reference. Feel free to correct, argue, and generally, contribute to the matter.
If you liked this article and would like to make sure others read it as well, don’t forget to give it a few claps 👏 (you can clap up to 50 times).
For future thoughts, follow me on Twitter.