Why Do So Many Women Continue To Deny The Existence Of Sexism?

Kristen Pyszczyk
Feb 2, 2018 · 9 min read

A startling number of women participate in their own oppression. I once did too.

Sitting with a handful of my colleagues recently, the subject of our employee resource group for women came up. I mentioned that I didn’t attend the meetings of the group because I suspected I’d shut down the conversation in short order.

The women, all seasoned IT professionals, asked me why. I told them that I thought sexism in all areas of society was severely under-addressed and under-acknowledged, and that we dilute the issue when we form women’s groups to celebrate progress and mindlessly network while politely avoiding mention of the real reason we’re there and ignoring the work that still needs to be done.

(It should be noted that I said all this in a much meeker and less articulate way than I have portrayed here. After all, I’m a writer not a talker, and I’m a woman who has received her share of messages about when and how my voice should be used.)

My comments shut down that meeting, too.

One woman claimed that she got out of programming because she had been given too much responsibility, and told me that people needed to look around them if they thought sexism was still a thing. “It’s 2017 — come on!” She exclaimed.

Another woman looked at me blankly and simply said, “I don’t think so” when I expressed the opinion that it was harder for women in tech to succeed, as we are asked to constantly prove ourselves.

The third woman stayed silent and quietly worked with a smile on her face. She wasn’t getting involved, especially as the conversation spun increasingly out of control.

After this exchange, my manager — the sole man in the room — summed it up: “Well, that was a lively exchange of ideas!”

But was that all it was? And what’s really at stake here?

One would think that the election of an unqualified, proud sexist to the highest office in the U.S. over an extremely qualified woman would spur women to rethink their views on the existence of sexism. And indeed, this event coupled with the recent Weinstein and other high-profile allegations has surely caused some to rethink their positions.

But the sexism that women experience on a daily basis is so widespread in scope, and so deeply ingrained in how we move through the world, that to acknowledge its existence would necessitate a major re-evaluation of our worldview. It would mean seeing for the first time that we are second-class citizens, and that the messages we’ve received about the end of sexism have all been just another lie told to us by a society that wants to keep us in our place. It would also mean examining the ways that we are complacent in and actively participate in our own oppression.

In short, to acknowledge the continued existence of sexism would be traumatic, and most women have been through enough already.

I understand why many women do not want to live in a world that hates women (and women of color and LGTBQ women in particular), so they choose instead to blame themselves for being too abrasive, too hormonal, too slutty, too bitchy, too demanding. And in this way, they begin to hate themselves, and they become active participants in the oppression of other women when they project this blame outwards.

It can be hard to identify and quantify these attitudes, yet it is impossible to ignore if we look in the right places. In a study done for fortune.com, technology leader Kieran Snyder found in her analysis of 248 performance reviews that, “Men are given constructive suggestions. Women are given constructive suggestions — and told to pipe down.”

I understand why many women do not want to live in a world that hates women.

Snyder found that women’s reviews generally contained more negative feedback, and that words like aggressive, emotional, and bossy were alarmingly prevalent. In men’s reviews, the only of these words that came up was “aggressive” — and in two of the three times it was used, it was in the context of demanding more aggression.

The interesting part here is that the tone of the reviews was the same whether or not the reviewing manager was a woman or a man. Thus, we can see not only that women are discouraged from speaking up, but that we are discouraging other women from speaking up and taking charge, effectively perpetuating our oppression.

This is a hard thing to accept, so many women just don’t.

I understand why they don’t, but for the good of all women, I wish they wouldn’t: Internalized sexism “helps to maintain sexism as a whole via a system of social expectations and pressures enacted between women.” That is, a not insignificant chunk of women’s oppression is enacted, or at least upheld, by women.

But how did we get these ideas in the first place? The women’s lib movement of the 1970s helped both men and women understand that there was so much work to be done. But the story that’s been aggressively sold to women in subsequent years is that the movement did its job, and now we can all move on.

Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, I am part of a generation that received messages from the media that women can do anything, but, like many young girls, I received very mixed messages from peers and authority figures.

Women growing up in this era have been relentlessly sold a story that we are living in a post-feminist world: The Barbie I grew up with was a doctor, an army medic, an astronaut, and an executive. But she was still Barbie, the toy that sent deeply problematic messages about how a woman should look, and even what girls should spend their time doing. (Barbie and I made sure her home was immaculate, and a good chunk of my time consisted of choosing Barbie’s outfits.)

Moreover, girls receive messages about their behavior from an early age that radically conflicts with the “women can do anything” message that Dr. Barbie drilled into us. Little girls cannot be bossy, they cannot be too loud, they cannot be lazy. My exuberant and silly nature got me in trouble more times than I can remember, while my brother would go unpunished for identical behavior.

It would have been easy to internalize the message that I needed to “pipe down,” and for a long time, I did. I stopped speaking up in class, I became withdrawn, and I didn’t really know who I was. I blamed these things on — surprise! — my own personal failings, and it took me years to unlearn the lessons taught to me in my youth. I often wondered what was wrong with me, especially as I looked at my brother, who seemed to have such a clear idea of who he was and what he wanted to do.

As a young adult, I thought feminism was silly because of all the messages I had received about women’s potential. Why was I able to move about freely in the world and make my own decisions if I was oppressed, I snarkily asked.

Girls receive messages about their behavior from an early age that radically conflicts with the ‘women can do anything’ message.

I wasn’t alone: The Women Against Feminism movement is still going strong on Facebook, with over 45,000 followers and some dangerously flawed reasoning. I see my former self in many of these young women holding up their reasons for not needing feminism.

After a taste of the sexual harassment, victim blaming, and belittlement that women routinely experience, I began to have doubts. But it wasn’t until I got into the corporate world that I really began to understand what we’re up against. Which brings me to the present: sitting with three women in a conference room, being told to my face that I don’t experience sexism.

I came into the business world thinking I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I no longer believe this, and I’m not alone. The Cut recently shed light on a plight that I can completely identify with: that of the ambitious career woman who realizes around the age of 30 that she doesn’t really have the same opportunities as the men around her. So she gets out, or raises children, or starts phoning it in. “It’s as if the women have cleared spaces in their lives for meteoric careers, and then those careers have been less gratifying, or harder won, or more shrunken than they’d imagined.”

For me, it wasn’t the big stuff. I wasn’t getting harassed or assaulted, but I had a nagging feeling that I just wasn’t quite as respected as the men around me. We can’t really report being left out of important meetings, or getting feedback that we’re too nice, or too aggressive, but this stuff matters. Little things add up over time, but it’s easy for women to blame these little things on themselves. It’s easier than speaking up, in many cases.

Perhaps this is because the most compelling reason for women to deny sexism is that when we do, we align ourselves with those who hold the most power in our society: cis, white, hetero men. (It’s worth noting, too, that it’s typically white women who align themselves with these men, as more power is accessible to them if they do.)

Take the Women Against Facebook example. The phrase “man-hater” comes up repeatedly in followers’ rationale for not needing feminism. These women respect men, they aren’t angry man-haters, men aren’t their enemies, and so on.

Women are conditioned to associate speaking out or making a fuss with being difficult and argumentative. We diminish our social capital among men in certain environments each time we call out a sexist comment, or stand up for our rights. Our position is already so precarious that it’s just easier to deny, and our silence is rewarded by the men in power. Our safety often depends on our silence.

I am reminded of the incentive to stay silent when I compare my own comments section with that of the Margaret Wentes of the world. Feminists on the internet receive death and rape threats and all manner of violent and ugly vitriol, and meanwhile Wente’s comments section is full of praise. In a clear juxtaposition of the safety of not speaking out vs the dangers that vocal feminists are subject to, a handful of Canadian female columnists took the harasser’s side during a criminal trial in which a man was accused of harassing and cyber-stalking two prominent Canadian feminists.

Women deny sexism for a variety of reasons: To admit that it exists can put significant strain on our worldview, our view of ourselves, our position in the world, and even our safety. But while it shouldn’t be solely our responsibility to end it, denying sexism’s existence will only perpetuate women’s inequality.

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Kristen Pyszczyk

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writer | editor | cheese enthusiast | kristen.pyszczyk@gmail.com

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