Features, Feminism, Social Science

What is a Sexist?

What kinds of statements about men and women constitute sexism? Is it sexist to say, for example, that on average, men are taller than women or that women live longer than men? Most people already accept the obvious truth that men and women differ in these physiological respects, and it would strain credulity to argue that such statements are sexist. Suggestions about psychological differences, however, can stoke controversy.

Pressing the issue further by claiming that psychological and cognitive differences might partly explain wage gaps, employment gaps, and the like, will certainly invite harsh rebuke and likely a charge of sexism. Like “racist”, the definition of “sexist” seems to have ballooned in such a way as to include any claim about average differences between males and females from the neck up. Some feminists, in particular, fear that assertions about differences between men and women threaten the social progress we’ve made over the past few centuries. Perhaps they have a point (as we discuss below). But we should consider whether such an expansive definition of sexism is helpful, or whether it actually represents a hindrance to moral progress.

A Troubling history

For millennia women have been subjugated by men, who have used social norms, religious injunctions, and legal restrictions to reinforce their power. For example, the widespread cultural practices of female genital mutilation and foot binding are two egregious examples of men impinging on the health and wellbeing of women.

Many Chinese women a century ago were convinced that they should bind their daughters’ feet out of tradition. And many African women today are convinced that they should destroy or remove their daughters’ clitoris because religious purity requires it. Some European societies used the power of the state to punish “witches”, on the assumption that certain women were cavorting with the devil and thus presented a risk to both corporeal bodies and immortal souls. Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, in fact, still treat witchcraft as a capital crime. In short, refuting the idea that men have a history of subjugating women requires one to simultaneously ignore both history and current events.

Similarity without Sameness

Despite previous and ongoing problems, we’ve made enormous progress. For example, in Western countries like the United States and Australia more women than men graduate from universities, and the pay disparity between men and women is shrinking rapidly (though some of the gap remains as men and women scale the corporate ladder). Because there is still work to be done in the quest for female equality, many are on guard against claims that might deter women from pursuing the same goals men do. But facts are even more stubborn than pay gaps, and some extreme feminists have responded to factual claims about sex differences by flatly denying that there are two biologically distinct sexes, or by accusing those who argue for the existence of sex differences of “sexism.”

As we’ve urged for the term “racist,” we should strongly resist overextending the term “sexist,”
and reserve it for people who treat one sex as superior to the other, or who fallaciously use information about sex differences to justify treating individual men or women as mere members of a group. In a prime example of linguistic overreach, Christina Hoff Sommers recently defended herself against charges of misogyny and sexism for emphasizing how small average differences between the sexes might lead to substantial differences in career choices and social interests. The fact that Sommers, a tireless advocate for equal treatment of women, might be considered a sexist for asserting that men and women are not the same is astonishing.

As irony would, perhaps, have it, some of the most compelling insight regarding the biological differences between men and women has come from female scientists. Diane Halpern, for example, has made the case that there is strong evidence for some biologically-based differences in cognition between the sexes. These differences are generally small, and are mediated by a complex array of biological and environmental factors. But the existence of such differences is an empirical claim — it matters not at all whether we would prefer that these claims were false. Our political beliefs are uncorrelated with empirical truths.

Perhaps nowhere are the sexes less alike than on measures of violence and aggression. We have yet to locate a human society on the planet in which females engage in more overt displays of violence than males. Now, one explanation for this ubiquitous pattern could, of course, be that every culture on the planet socializes their little boys and little girls in exactly the same way, thus forcing little boys into the role of the physical aggressor in every human society. It would be miraculous indeed that, despite widespread differences in cultural traditions, every mother and father (from to New York to New Delhi) raised their children in precisely the same manner so as to induce more violence in males. Alternatively, we could embrace insight from evolutionary biology, and accept that men and women are different in some of their proclivities in part because of evolutionary pressures that shaped those differences in our species.

Abilities or Interests

In fairness, charges of sexism are less likely to come when discussing violence, and much more likely to follow from assertions about differences in psychological traits across groups. More controversial is the claim (repeated by Larry Summers) that although average IQ is similar, the distribution for men and women differs such that men are more likely to be found at the high and low end of the IQ spectrum. Men are further out in the tails of the curve, as a social scientist would phrase it. This, coupled with differences in certain kinds of spatial reasoning, may go some way toward explaining why STEM majors at elite universities are more often men than women, but also why low-skilled men are becoming less employable than women, and are dropping out of the workforce at higher rates in industrialized countries.

Apart from small differences in cognitive styles, men and women often have divergent interests and temperaments, driven partly by biological differences that exist across groups. Small differences in abilities or interests can lead to significantly different outcomes — including the kinds of careers men and women choose, their relative ranking of the importance of family and career success, and even the kinds of literature and movies they enjoy. Consider too that many biological differences that exist are likely to be exaggerated by culture, as the division of labor tends to encourage people to sort themselves into college majors and job occupations that they’re reasonably good at and enjoy doing.

The more important point here, though, is that even in the absence of differences in cognitive abilities, there still may be differences in interests that can help explain different outcomes. To take one example, Steven Pinker argues that “there are consistent differences in the kinds of activities that appeal to men and women in their ideal jobs.” For example:

[T]he desire to work with people versus things. There is an enormous average difference between women and men in this dimension…And this difference in interests will tend to cause people to gravitate in slightly different directions in their choice of career. The occupation that fits best with the “people” end of the continuum is “director of a community services organization.” The occupations that fit best with the “things” end are physicist, chemist, mathematician, computer programmer, and biologist.[1]

Summing up

Two things can be true simultaneously: women and men can differ on average for certain traits, and any given man or woman might possess talents, interests, and abilities that suit them well for certain careers and hobbies, and less so for others.

As Pinker has argued, “it is crucial to distinguish the moral proposition that people should not be discriminated against on account of their sex — which I take to be the core of feminism — and the empirical claim that males and females are biologically indistinguishable… Whatever the facts turn out to be, they should not be taken to compromise the core of feminism.”

Most importantly for our current discussion, charges of sexism should not be launched against people who have argued for the existence of differences between men and women. And “sexist” should not be a catchall term used to describe any verbal misstep, lewd comment, or even crass joke. Real sexism is far more insidious than that — despite how distasteful we might find any of those behaviors to be. Charges of sexism should be restricted to systematic mistreatment of people based simply on their biological sex, or the gender with which they identify.

While it is true that sexism need not be consciously motivated by malice to exist, it remains all too easy to infer that any disparity in behavior or outcomes between men and women must be a result of discrimination, bias, or injustice. We have come too far to derail the efforts of prior feminists who advocated tirelessly for women to be treated as individuals. If we confuse the moral imperative to treat people as individuals, with a desire that two groups be statistically indistinguishable, we have made a mistake.

We do not need biological sameness in order to have equal treatment. We need equal treatment, full stop. Recognizing the existence of differences between men and women should not be considered a regression for the women’s rights movement. Charges of sexism should represent a precision beam, capable of shining a light on instances when a person is actively discriminated against, solely because of their sex or gender. If everyone is a sexist, then no one is. And for moral progress to continue, we need to know who the real sexists are.

 

Jonathan Anomaly is a Lecturer at Duke University and Research Assistant Professor at UNC Chapel Hill

Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @fsnole1

 

[1] Pinker is summarizing research conducted by Richard Lippa in the 1990s. Pinker’s remarks are taken from an excellent overview of the state of research (as of 2005) into sex differences:

The Science of Gender And Science Pinker Vs. Spelke A Debate

Jonny Anomaly and Brian Boutwell

Jonny Anomaly and Brian Boutwell

Jonathan Anomaly is a Lecturer at Duke University and Research Assistant Professor at UNC Chapel Hill.

Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @fsnole1
Jonny Anomaly and Brian Boutwell
Filed under: Features, Feminism, Social Science

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Jonathan Anomaly is a Lecturer at Duke University and Research Assistant Professor at UNC Chapel Hill. Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @fsnole1

38 Comments

  1. Great post, as usual.

    In a prime example of linguistic overreach, Christina Hoff Sommers recently defended herself against charges of misogyny and sexism

    “Sexism” is old hat. “Misogyny” is the current hip word.

    Indeed, the former implies that it’s equally applicable to discrimination against men. In practice, that almost never comes up. Indeed, there’s a name for this: the Althouse rule.

    Here’s an example, from something I posted elsewhere:

    Here are two true statements. But which do you think is more likely to get people riled up?

    1. Men are more likely to do stupid, dangerous things and get themselves killed doing them.

    2. Women tend to be more emotional and are typically less able to reason dispassionately.

    Men are further out in the tales of the curve, as a social scientist would phrase it. This, coupled with differences in certain kinds of spatial reasoning, may go some way toward explaining why STEM majors at elite universities are more often men than women

    There’s this:

    Perceptions Of Required Ability Act As A Proxy For Actual Required Ability In Explaining The Gender Gap | Slate Star Codex

    In short, math ability is a very strong predictor of the percentage of women in various college disciplines.

  2. “For millennia women have been subjugated by men, who have used social norms, religious injunctions, and legal restrictions to reinforce their power. For example, the widespread cultural practices of female genital mutilation and foot binding are two blatant examples of men impinging on the health and wellbeing of women.”

    -> The enforcers of these practices were (and are) the mothers and grandmothers, who used these means in order to attract potential high quality spouses for their daughters.

    These practices were not subjugation of women by men, but a strategy of female intra-sexual competition for the best mates, whose hefty price was paid not by oneself but by one’s daughters.

    • Reply to Jens:

      You’re right that women often enforce these conventions, but men have arguably benefited far more than women have from their existence. Footbinding and Female Genital Cutting are two “solutions” to the same problem: ensuring paternity confidence for men.

      Cristina Bicchieri and Gerry Mackie have argued that even when mothers enforce these conventions, this doesn’t imply that they want to do so (all things considered), or that it benefits women more than men. Instead, the conventions are often shrouded in moralistic or religious justifications involving false virtues like piety or chastity — fake justifications for the real reasons the practices exist.

      Often, nasty norms are equilibrium points in games (in the technical sense of the word) that the players would be better off not playing. The only argument I can think of that these conventions had anything other than awful affects is that they may have initially had eugenic effects by allowing high status men to sire offspring from many different women .

      • Neither Footbinding or FGM have ever been European/Western methodologies for oppressing women. So hardly “nasty norms” in the most dominant culture.

  3. LFP2016 says

    Superb piece. I’ve been making similar arguments for years.

    Feminists have been denying biology for 40+ years now — it’s long past time for them to get out of that social constructionist 1970s rut. Obviously, some human behavior does indeed result from social conditioning, but some has a clear biological basis (eg, mating/reproduction-related behavior, violence and aggression, etc).

    Why does that simple truth upset the delicate sensibilities of feminists so much? As long as innate gender differences don’t translate into legal/political discrimination, I don’t see the problem. Fighting reality is a losing battle.

    In other words, vive là différence!

    • Racial differences are being denied in an even more brutal and oppressive fashion. It often seems to me that it is not so much the falsehood of denying biological differences that provokes the backlash against feminism, as the way it impinges on the sexual proclivities of powerful males. Stings those bankers right in the cock.

      • Consider the concept of “disparate impact”. Under that theory, any test that yields results that vary by race is racist. This idea has even been recognized by the courts. Has the null hypothesis that a non racist test should never yield results that vary by race ever been tested?

  4. DiscoveredJoys says

    That should be ‘tails of the curve’. However it does touch on the debate over feminism and discrimination.

    People arguing about such things typically switch backwards and forwards between discussing individuals and discussing populations. Populations are handy labels and come with statistical properties – but statistics are models and (even without common misuse) discard information about individuals.

    This is particularly noteworthy when discussing ‘the pay gap’. In many Western countries people *generally* now get equal pay for equal jobs. But to simply compare ‘womens pay’ with ‘mens pay’ is misleading. No consideration is given to people working different hours or occupations through their own choice to people being denied the opportunity to do so.

  5. The insistence by some feminists that men and women are the same, with sex differences a social construct, strikes me as highly selective and disingenuous. It only ever seems to apply where it supports the arguments and policies that those particular feminists are promoting.

    For example, feminists who argue that sexist discrimination is the explanation for disparities in average wages or enrolment in STEM fields, don’t also argue that the greater male prison population is down to misandry. In fact, you’re more likely to find them arguing that female criminals are victims, that they shouldn’t be treated like men by the justice system, and even calling for the abolition of women’s prisons on the grounds that women’s crimes are the result of male oppression.

    The inconsistently applied rejection of biological sex differences strikes me as self-serving rhetoric (not to mention a tool to use when they want to label people as sexist), rather than a coherent ideological position.

    • Christian dlP says

      Agreed – Self-serving rhetoric is the universal identifying marker of contemporary feminist ideology, which, at this point in time and place, is both incoherent and destructive.

  6. “You’re right that women often enforce these conventions, but men have arguably benefited far more than women have from their existence. Footbinding and Female Genital Cutting are two “solutions” to the same problem: ensuring paternity confidence for men.”

    Men have an interest in paternity confidence. Women have an interest in raising the price of sex. They overlap but are not identical. Evidence suggests genital cutting is more about the latter than the former.

    http://www.femininebeauty.info/suppression.pdf

  7. Dear Mr. Anomaly, dear Mr. Boutwell, thank you for this interesting article. I’d like to make a few comments:

    When you state that “For millennia women have been subjugated by men, who have used social norms, religious injunctions, and legal restrictions to reinforce their power.” it seems to me an over-simplification of the way that social or cultural norms develop and manifest themself. While it is true that there are cultural norms in many societies that are restricting to women, it is by no means clear that this was the result of a conscious effort of men to create social norms to that effect. And it seems obvious to me that blaming today’s men for what we as a society have inherited as culture is not only morally wrong, but also extremely unhelpful in our efforts to change society for the common good – such behaviour risks generating a cultural backlash, as we are currently witnessing in the US.

    Your definition of sexism as “instances when a person is actively discriminated against, solely because of their sex or gender” seem valid, but their practical application is difficult. Who is to decide whether you didn’t get your job because of your qualifications or your gender? Finally you’ll end up making assumptions about the intentions of the person who is acting – and these are hard to prove. This is not helpful and, in my experience, reliably shuts down any open discussion. And more importantly, asking people to treat everyone the same is not only unrealistic, it is against human nature itself. Everyone discriminates against everyone else all the time and for all sorts of reasons. Some of them might be sex or gender.

    • To Stephan Eckner:

      Thanks for the comment. I agree with you (and FA Hayek) that most social norms are emergent orders, not consciously designed rules. Norms that have the effect of dis-empowering women are no different. Gerry Mackie’s paper on foot-binding and female genital cutting is especially interesting because he shows how norms are often justified by their adherents in different ways over time. He also shows how hard it can be to change them even when they makes lots of people worse off.

      As for your comment about defining sexism, I agree that it is hard to prove someone’s intentions. It’s actually impossible, since we only have imperfect evidence for what anyone believes. But as we say in philosophy, the “epistemic” problem of knowing someone’s intentions is separate from the “ontological” problem of whether they exist.

      I also agree that discrimination is not always bad — quite the opposite. People have excellent reasons to discriminate in who they choose to employ or marry or play basketball with. But some forms of discrimination are bad, and those are the kinds of things we think terms like “sexist” and “racist” should single out (though these terms don’t encompass all forms of unjust discrimination).

      • Dear Mr. Anomaly, Thank you for your reply. As for the question of what kind of discrimination is bad, the bottom line for me personally is that – as for the way we organise our society – I am against every measure or concept that is aimed at equality of outcome, but I support everything that leads to equality of opportunity. As for purely personal decisions, I agree that there is no ground for demanding non-discrimination from anybody about anything.

        Thank you again for your sensible contribution to what often is a heated an irrational debate.

        • S. Eckner: “equality of opportunity”

          What kind, objective, or subjective? Formal equality (objective equality of opportunity) will lead to different and greater opportunities for people who are (inherently) more intelligent than others.

          Further, let’s say an airline only wants to hire stewardesses, no men. Is that a kind of inequality of opportunity to object to, and – if so . why?

          • Dear Stephan, thank you for your questions. I am strongly in favour of what you call formal equality or objective equality of opportunity. I believe that in our incredible complex modern societies there are many different ways to make for a living – and that it is the responsibility of everyone to make a personal choice that fits their own interest and capabilities. That way, not all come out equally, but that is what motivates people to thrive.

            Regarding you second question, I firmly believe that it is the right of a privately owned company to disciminate when hiring for whatever reason they see fit. If you require companies not to do so, they will just continue and stop being transparent and outspoken about their hiring criteria. So nothing really changes unless you start to force quotas by law, leading to equality of outcome – which I am strongly against.

  8. You name the people with whom you agree, but the ones who you argue against are just bundled up in a sweeping ‘militant feminists’. When arguing a point, it’s common curtesy to justly sum up that point, before arguing against it. Also, if you provide the names of the people you argue against, your readers have a chance to form their own opinion about them.
    As a feminist and former science journalist, I would say there are a lot of interesting points being made about how the brain changes depending on how you live your life. If you do yoga for two weeks, for example, changes can be measured in the brain.
    Considering that, I find it hard to brush off the idea that women are socialized to be more caring than men. After all, we give girls dolls to practice on before they can even speak! And sure, astonishing might be the appropriate word to use when considering how little boys are socialized in such a similar way globally. But considering mankind took up agriculture simultaneously all over the planet, without knowing the same behavior occurred on the other side of the world, perhaps it is less impossible to think other behavior patterns are shared also. Such as raising boys to be fighters and girls to be carers.
    The only way we can truly find out what the biological gender differences in the brain really are, is to treat men and women completely equally for several generations. And nobody would be happier than me if that happened!

    • Lena: “But considering mankind took up agriculture simultaneously all over the planet, without knowing the same behavior occurred on the other side of the world, perhaps it is less impossible to think other behavior patterns are shared also.”

      How do you note see an innate component in this? This would like the development of agriculture is part of human nature, largely independent of environments, The common example, by the way, is the invention of boats. The idea is convergence.

      That said, since sex differences are so wide-spread, you have an indication that men are better at some things, and women better at others. Inter-group conflict ensures that specialization occurs. This is like a market economy, replete with competition. You have physiological dimorphism. Psychology is genetically rooted (see behavioral genetics). And there have been long, strong, and divergent selection pressures on men and women. So yes, psychological dimorphism is pretty certain.

      “The only way we can truly find out what the biological gender differences in the brain really are, is to treat men and women completely equally for several generations. And nobody would be happier than me if that happened!”

      You want to treat groups and individuals who are different the same? For all their lives. Do you find that totalitarian? Why would you not treat them differently, in accordance with their differences? Why would you not treat them differently when it is eminently likely that differences are inherent rather then externally created?
      Increased dissimilarity in gender-egalitarian countries, and such experiments In Kibbutzim speak against your road to hell..

    • Joseph Lammers says

      “But considering mankind took up agriculture simultaneously all over the planet,” Actually this is incorrect. Agriculture, as far as is known, first began in Mesopotamia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neolithic_Revolution. Its adoption in different areas was separated by up to several thousand years.

    • Dennis says

      Kate Manne. There is a link to her in the article. She is very angry, dismissive of opponents, almost conspiratorial in her thinking. A case study in how some on the extreme left of politics are just as insensitive to evidence or arguments as extreme right wing creationists and neo-nazis.

      • Johnathan Haidt refers to people like that as the illiberal left. Leftists can be authoritarian and conservatives can believe in freedom and liberty.

  9. The MRAs at Honey Badger Radio along with Karen Straughan have been arguing that women under Islam are “privileged and entitled” vs men and that it is men who are really oppresed whilst women live the easy life of no responsibility.

  10. Graham Palmer says

    Bullying is the weapon of choice by Sociopaths seeking power over others.
    Sexism, racism, inciting bigotry are all tools of the trade.
    Divide and conquer.
    Used by men and women of all races and religions and political beliefs throughout history to manipulate the masses without mercy.
    Political Correctness is the tool of choice for enforcing Political Censorship of any who might question the orthodoxy.
    The Holy Inquisition was the past master of Political Correctness. The role model for all fascists seeking power.
    The voice of reason is to be shouted down and violently opposed where ever it raises its reasonable voice.

  11. Speaking of sex differences, if you’re going to speak with authority over another gender’s movement, you should lay off the didactic, unsupported statements:

    “And ‘sexist’ should not be a catchall term used to describe any verbal misstep, lewd comment, or even crass joke. Real sexism is far more insidious than that — despite how distasteful we might find any of those behaviors to be. Charges of sexism should be restricted to systematic mistreatment of people based simply on their biological sex, or the gender with which they identify.”

    I’m confused how you could understand that sexism is systemic yet not understand that lewd comments and crass jokes are a result of the system. Obviously, they also act to reinforce it.

    Just because an act is on the smaller end of the scale, doesn’t mean it isn’t “real.”

      • I don’t disagree with the definition in the article. I disagree with the application. I also disagree that the authors have authority to decide the scope of this particular movement.

        • Liz,

          I disagree with whatever that definition appears to be. The idea that “sexism” has to be “systematic” is designed to limit the extent of it, to limit what it encloses. That makes the attempt flawed. Take a look at what I wrote about sexism below. I’d be interested in your thoughts. Merry Christmas.

  12. Is a preference for feminine women “sexist”? Is it wrongful discrimination to prefer beautiful people? Is it wrongful discrimination to prefer humorous people? Is it wrongful discrimination to prefer empathic people?

    All of these things have a genetic aspect. You could only resort to “distributional justice”. But then you’d have to determine the distribution and value of all goods. You won’t be able to, because of uncertainty and incommensurability. You can neither rely on (alleged) historical, nor on (alleged) contemporary disadvantage. “Sexism” holds little to no objective imperative. It can’t command.

  13. Apparently gay men are misogynist if they are not attracted to femme guys. Yep, this is the newest complaint of feminists.

  14. As we learned with Brexit and the election of Trump, to liberals sexism, racism or any other kind ism or phobia is merely a rhetorical device used to slander and smear their opponents with.

  15. peterschaeffer says

    For the record, let me be very clear about this. Foot binding was utterly evil. However, the actual history of foot binding was more than just male subjugation of women. Foot binding was also (to a degree) a form of Han (ethnic Chinese) protest against foreign (Mongol and Manchu) rule. The foreigners (Mongols and Manchus) did not bind their women’s feet. Hence foot binding became a way of distinguishing the Han from the foreign conquerors.

    That doesn’t make foot binding any better. It does provide a partial explanation of why it was practiced.

  16. Pingback: Sexist?

  17. Days of Broken Arrows says

    This would be a much better article if the photo of Christina Hoff Sommers showed her legs — which could put the gams of most any Millennial woman to shame. Priorities, people.

  18. Patrick A says

    Terrific article, but this statement in the article – “Perhaps nowhere are the sexes less alike than on measures of violence and aggression. We have yet to locate a human society on the planet in which females engage in more overt displays of violence than males.” – interested me in particular. I was under the impression that back in ancient times, Sparta, was exclusively ruled by females and males were only in existence for fighting wars and fornicating for breeding purposes. Granted, the ruling females did not directly engage in violence, but they would have decided who or who not to engage in battle. Either in a defensive or offensive nature. But overall the premise of males being more overtly violent than females is accurate.

  19. Jim Austin says

    There’s a whole lot of politics involved in the use of terms like “sexist” and “misogynist,” particularly as one goes to the left.

    Previously, leftists would refer to as “fascist,” anybody to the right of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kin Jong Un. That never did work, but they never tired of it. However, they have recently expanded their vocabulary. They now use “racist,” “sexist,” “misogynist,” “homophobic,” “xenophobic,” etc., etc., ad nauseam to describe those to the right of Stalin, et al.

    Still doesn’t work as most people summarily dismiss such appellations as part of the dementia long associated with the far left.

  20. Pingback: ¿Qué es ser “sexista”? | ideofilia

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