The science behind: sexism


Maggy Esserman

Talia Zitner

We’re lucky to live in a country that has made significant progress on gender equality. Despite this, societal sexism still very much exists, and is becoming much more of a conversation with the global #MeToo movement.

This is especially poignant right now, as the FBI investigation begins on Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. This conversation has started gaining a lot of traction at Wilson, whether it be on social media, between friend groups, or in the classroom.

Like me, you may have many questions about sexism and its expression. I’m going to aim to answer a few of them, but I am in no way an expert on the subject. Like anything else, I think science is the best way to approach this complex issue.

What is sexism?

Sexism is discrimination based on sex or gender. It is also the belief that men are inherently superior to women. Sometimes people are aware that their thoughts and actions are sexist, and sometimes they aren’t. This is one of the reasons why sexism is such a complicated issue, because often people don’t recognize why their thoughts or actions can be harmful to others.

Sexism can be expressed in a range of ways. Whether it’s as unintentional as over-explaining a concept to a woman (dubbed “mansplaining”) or as deliberate as passing over a woman for a job, or even using power dynamics to make an environment unsafe for women, all are considered sexist. You might ask, “but Talia, doesn’t this mean that anyone can be sexist?” By this definition, women can theoretically be sexist towards men, but the literal interpretation is not necessarily applicable to our society. Women could only be considered sexist in a system in which they had more economic, social, cultural, and political power than men, which does not exist today.

What is a power dynamic? Why does that apply to sexism?

A power dynamic is the way different people interact with each other in an environment in which one side inherently has more power. One power dynamic that we can all certainly recognize is that of the teacher-student relationship. Taken outside of a school setting, different dynamics may be at play, but inside a classroom, the teacher always has more power than the student does. Another factor that plays into this is an adult-child relationship, in which the adult holds the power. This is directly related to the issue of sexism because in a male-female relationship, the man will likely have more power than the woman will. Power dynamics are an incredibly complicated area of study, and are often very subjective and situational, but in the case of sexism power is skewed toward the man.

Why are people sexist? Where did that idea even come from?

Before the 1970s, there wasn’t even a word for the discrimination that women faced on a daily basis. As Australian writer, Dale Spencer, explained in an article, “It was not until the feminist writers… made them up, and used them publicly and defined their meanings… that women could name these experiences of their daily life.” Before the feminist movements of the 60s and 70s began, sexism was deeply rooted in the very ideas that we’re using to explain it right now: science.

Scientists used to believe that males were biologically superior to females, with stronger bodies and smarter brains. This reasoning is just one of the ways women were oppressed by a male dominated culture, constantly being told that just because they were born female, they couldn’t do the same jobs and activities or hold the same privileges that men could. While this idea was thrown out along with many other scientific myths, the repercussions are still around today.

If you look at the gap between men and women represented in STEM fields (76 percent male, 24 percent female as of 2015), a huge reason for this is that women were often told they lacked a “math gene,” thus making them bad at math and science. Science often impacts society, so we can see that this idea of male superiority wove its way into the popular culture, where it often remains today. This question however, is twofold. If we know that men aren’t scientifically better than women, why is that idea still around?

A huge reason for this is the widely interpreted definition of masculinity. Somewhere along the way, someone decided that to be man in the Western world is to be dominant, introducing the idea that men have to be dominant not just over women, but over other men too. The pressure to conform to these ideals might be one of the reasons why some men participate in sexist behavior, such as making a sexist joke or interrupting a woman in a workplace meeting.

At the end of the day, no one is born sexist. Sexism is an institutional system of biblical proportion (it’s obviously the fact that Eve is a woman that drives her and Adam out of Eden), but the cycle can be broken through education, tolerance, understanding, and above all, compassion for those around us. Masculinity is often overlooked when it comes to the conversation on gender equality, and it’s important to acknowledge every part of the issue. If you’re interested in learning more about toxic masculinity and its impact on society, I would check out the documentary The Mask You Live In (available on Netflix). Sexism isn’t just a male or female issue, it’s a human issue. We all must do what we can to combat it, and the first part of that is understanding fact vs. fiction. At least then, both ends of the conversation will be on the side of science.