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What is Sexism?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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.

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.

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 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.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Mar 10, 2021


I believe the reason that prophets are always male is because men tend to be morally superior to women. In fact, not just morally, but in pretty much every other way you can think of. Men are taller, stronger, faster, smarter, they have better character...etc. And the reason for that is the evolutionary pressure that men have always had to contend with. For as long as there are humans, women have always picked a mate that was "better" than they were in some way. They didn't want a man who was shorter than they were, they wanted a taller man. So, they selected taller men to mate with. Now, men with genes that predisposed them to greater height passed on their genes. And when this happens for enough generations, eventually you will end up with men who are generally taller. And the same thing happens for pretty much any other trait you can think of. This is the true explanation for men's superiority. It's biological. It's not because men got together and conspired against women.

Another thing: some people claim that men "objectify" women. They cite the fact men enjoy girlie magazines as proof. To me, they are simply putting a negative spin on it. The fact is that yes, quite a few men do peruse these magazines that feature scantily clad women. I don't argue with that. But I can spin it in a positive way: these men are admiring the beauty of the female physical form. And can you say that I am wrong? No. I am no more right or wrong than the people who put a negative spin on it. My point is, a lot of it is comes down to politics. Some people simply hate men and they wage a cultural war on them, finding fault with every little thing they do. Some of us see through this.

One last thing: some people, possibly feminists, seem to hate the fact that men prize youth and beauty in a woman. They believe this to be a form of sexism and they talk stridently about it. However, if you ask me, I don't think it's men's fault. It's simply the way we humans are designed by nature. Men want a woman with good genetics to mate with so they can successfully pass on their genes, and beauty and youth are very good indicators of genetics. Men are not "shallow" for doing this. In fact, women tend to be able to attract relatively more mates than men on average, and they can afford to be very picky when they are young and relatively attractive. But men do not whine about this. They don't cry sexism. They just suck it up and deal with it. That's how adults act. They know that sexually speaking men tend to be at a disadvantage, and that's not women's fault. They realize it's merely the way we are designed. Feminists need to learn from men and stop sniveling.

By anon328925 — On Apr 06, 2013

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.

By SteamLouis — On Feb 18, 2013

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?

By SarahGen — On Feb 17, 2013

@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.

By burcidi — On Feb 16, 2013

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

By anon134574 — On Dec 15, 2010

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.

By anon45952 — On Sep 22, 2009

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.

By gnr — On Nov 10, 2008

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.

By anon21028 — On Nov 09, 2008

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?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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