Sexism refers to prejudice or bias toward people based on their gender; it encompasses beliefs (e.g., in different roles for men and women), emotions (e.g., disliking powerful women), and behavior (e.g., sexual harassment) that support gender inequality. Although originally conceived as antipathy toward women, sexism includes subjectively positive but patronizing beliefs (e.g., that men ought to provide for women). There can also be sexism against men, insofar as people believe women are superior to men.
History and Current Usage of Sexism
Research on sexism developed rapidly in the 1970s. Initially, researchers assumed that sexism, like other prejudices, represents an antipathy (dislike or hatred) toward an oppressed group (specifically women, who have historically had less power than men). The Attitudes toward Women Scale, which measured whether respondents thought that women ought to remain in traditional gender roles (e.g., raising children rather than working outside the home), became the most prominent measure of sexist attitudes.
Sexist attitudes, however, inherently involve comparisons between the sexes. In the late 1980s, Alice H. Eagly and Antonio Mladinic contrasted attitudes toward each sex, finding the women are wonderful effect: As a group, women are rated more favorably than men (by both women and men). This effect challenged the idea of sexism as antipathy toward women because subjectively positive views of women can nevertheless support gender inequality.
Specifically, women are viewed favorably because they are perceived as more communal (nice, nurturing, empathetic), whereas men are viewed as more agentic (competent, competitive, ambitious). Although women are likeable, their assigned traits suit them to domestic, lower status roles (which require nurturing others), whereas men’s stereotypical traits suit them for high status, leadership roles. In short, women are better liked but less well respected than men. Recent research measuring implicit attitudes (what people automatically and nonconsciously think) supports this conclusion.
In the 1990s, Peter Glick and Susan T. Fiske coined the term benevolent sexism to refer to subjectively favorable but patronizing attitudes toward women (e.g., that women, though wonderful, are weak and need men’s help). Sexists tend to endorse both benevolent sexism and hostile sexism (negative attitudes toward women who seek equality or powerful roles in society). Benevolent sexism rewards women for staying in traditional (e.g., domestic) roles, whereas hostile sexism punishes women who attempt to break out of those roles. The two forms of sexism work together to maintain gender inequality. Cross-cultural comparisons reveal that nations in which people most strongly endorse benevolent sexism also exhibit the most hostile sexism and the least gender equality (e.g., lower living standards for women relative to men).
- Eagly, A. H., & Mladinic, A. (1989). Gender stereotypes and attitudes toward women and men. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15, 543-558.
- Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2001). An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and sexism as complementary justifications of gender inequality. American Psychologist, 56, 109-118.
- Rudman, L. A. (2005). Rejection of women? Beyond prejudice as antipathy. In J. F. Dovidio, P. Glick, & L. A. Rudman (Eds.), On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years after Allport. Malden, MA: Blackwell.