Many believe that sexism has been eradicated and that women have achieved full equality. Middle class girls and young women have many more opportunities and options than was the case forty years ago. Women have achieved success in a range of professions. Many girls and women do not identify themselves as feminists because they do not believe that such struggles for equality are necessary in this day and age.
This belief is proven false upon examination. It becomes clear that inequality is still a reality when Canadian social conditions affecting women are exposed. The frequency of sexual assault and all forms of violence against women and girls is another key indicator and devastating consequence of inequality (see Women’s Inequality, produced in September, 2008 by the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, at westcoastleaf.org).
Sexism has not disappeared, though it may have grown new sprouts connected to the systemic roots of inequality.
Sexism is predicated upon the notion that biological sex divides men and women into distinct, separate and hierarchically-ordered groups. What emerges from this social arrangement is the primacy of men and everything that is considered “masculine” over women and everything that is considered “feminine”. The result is the undervaluing, hatred or disparagement of everything and everyone labelled feminine, known as “misogyny” (see Glossary). Unequal power relations between men and women result in various forms of male dominance (for example, sexual assault and violence against women). These filter through society’s institutions and down to interactions between individual men and women.
Sexism is inextricably and profoundly connected to homophobia through gender-based discrimination, with insidious consequences for the way people learn to behave and to identify as girls and boys, women and men. A strict polarization between what is considered “masculine” and what is considered “feminine” (behaviour, attributes, appearance, activity, etc.) is manufactured and enforced through rigid gender norms. Women and men are expected to adhere to gender norms and are punished when they stray from those expectations.
Women and girls who step outside of proscribed gender rules risk rejection, judgment and violence. Rigid gender roles also cause serious and far-reaching consequences for men and boys, such as negative impacts upon their self-perception and ability to form healthy, egalitarian relationships. While boys and men gain social status, power and privileges when they follow gender rules, they are severely punished through gender-based discrimination for breaking them (see Homophobia and Gender-Based Discrimination).
Our society’s rules around gender have loosened to the extent that it is now more acceptable for women to play some non-traditional roles, particularly in the workforce. However, the rules have remained fixed for men, who may be mocked for pursuing roles and activities that are still considered “feminine”. It is interesting to note that girls who are considered “tom boys” are generally more accepted and acceptable than boys who are considered “effeminate”, and that telling a boy he does something “like a girl” is still a common insult (see Tadelesh).
- What have I learned about being a woman/man?
- What do I expect from others about being a woman/man?
- What happens when I act according to those expectations?
- What happens when I do not act according to those expectations?
In a sense, everyone is targeted by sexism through gender expectations that limit our ability to be fully ourselves and fully human. Women and girls, men and boys all fall prey to these restrictions. However, it is important to note that sexism is a specific form of systemic injustice against girls and women; those who adhere to traditional feminine gender norms gain acceptance but lose social status and power.
Gender norms constitute a kind of box in which all men and women are expected to live according to their biological sex. If they step out of that box they may experience gender-based discrimination. However, the term “sexism” refers specifically to the ways in which society is organized to create and perpetuate women’s inferior social status.
Explicit Forms of Sexism
In a school setting, conscious or unconscious beliefs about male superiority can reproduce and reinforce women’s inequality in many ways. They can lead to blatant expressions of misogyny, disdain and hatred of women, their sexuality and everything that is considered feminine (which may be perpetrated either by girls and women or by boys and men), for example:
- Sexist slurs and jokes
- Misogynist insults – “girl” as an insult to boys
- Rumours about girls’ sexual activities
- Demeaning sexual terms, such as “whore”, or “slut”
- Sexist cyber-bullying, for example, demeaning sexual terms directed at someone on Facebook
- Sexist, misogynist websites
Sexism can also be manifested through direct physical and sexual interpersonal violence by boys and men against women and girls, for example:
- Sexual harassment (for example, rating girls, calling out sexual comments, inappropriate and unwanted touching)
- Sexual assault (including pressure to have sex or sexual contact)
- Violence and control in intimate or romantic relationships
(For definitions, see Glossary.)
Subtle forms of sexism
Male dominance and misogyny are not always explicitly aggressive. Some attitudes and behaviours may inadvertently serve to reinforce women’s inequality. Many forms of sexism are subtle because they are embedded in our culture. They reflect the attitudes that are at the root of inequality and violence against women. In a school setting, sexism may be manifested in the following ways:
- Double standards for girls and boys: There may be unfair or different standards of behaviour for girls and boys. For example, boys who assert themselves or express anger, or who are sexually active, may be accepted and viewed differently than girls, who are severely judged or criticized for the same behaviours.
- Catch 22 for girls: Girls are still caught in a polarized categorization based on their sexuality when they are forced to choose between one of two extremes, neither of which allows them to be fully human. Depending on a host of behaviours (e.g. dress, personality, interactions with boys), girls may be labelled by demeaning sexual descriptors on the one hand, or as sexless “prudes” or “nerds” on the other hand. Nowhere in this conceptualization of young women is there room for a healthy, grounded female sexuality.
- Attitudes about girls and math or science: In subtle ways, girls may still receive the message that they are not very good at or do not need to learn math or science.
- Pressure to “act feminine”: Girls may be subtly discouraged from engaging in activities that are considered masculine, such as wearing short hair and doing sports.
- Sexual objectification of girls: At younger and younger ages, girls are pressured to act and dress in ways that are considered “sexy”. It is common to see hyper-sexualized images of girls in the media. This has an enormous impact on teen (and pre-teen) culture. The line between sexual objectification and choices around sexual expression may not always be clear when there are powerful cultural pressures at play.
- Overvaluing boys: In indirect and subtle ways, boys’ and men’s voices may receive more attention and be given more value than those of girls and women. For example, male teachers may automatically be viewed by children as figures of authority.
- Less opportunity: In some instances, girls may have fewer opportunities than boys, for example, when there is no girls’ sports team.
Pressure to be Sexual
Sexual activity among teenaged girls may elicit a range of responses from concerned adults. Some of these may be due to personal and moral values related to sex and sexual activity. Other concerns relate to the forms of sexual activity that are currently common among teenaged girls.
Pressure to “be sexy” is promulgated by the media and reinforced by traditional notions in our culture about male and female sexuality and power relations between boys and girls. Such pressure may be a factor when girls engage in oral sex aimed solely at pleasuring boys and increasing their social status.
All these forms of explicit and subtle sexism are part of a continuum of inequality and violence against women and girls. They are connected in that they are all rooted in an imbalance of power and the intent to dominate, humiliate and control women and girls, either individually or collectively.
The reality of sexism in our society and schools highlights the need for dialogue. Teachers can encourage initiatives in schools, recognizing and validating the voices and experiences of girls and women (see Resources/Resources on Equity and Inclusive Education/Sexism). We can seek to provide safe forums for those of us who are girls and women (students, staff and parents) to:
- give voice to our needs and experiences;
- be heard and have our experiences and concerns validated by the school community;
- engage in a process with all members of the school community at every level to build bridges and create a climate of fairness and belonging for all.
For resources to facilitate discussion about sexism and sexual harassment with students, visit