In response to the misogynistic writing that was revealed in Elliot Rodger’s journal after his murder spree, the #YesAllWomen movement has emerged as a rallying cry for women to share experiences of sexism and misogyny in the form of domestic violence, sexual abuse, discrimination and harassment. The phrase "YesAllWomen" emerged to establish how pervasive and commonplace these experiences of discrimination are and to address the problematic, broad cultural attitudes towards women. The evidence is overwhelming that discrimination against women in all its forms has serious mental and physical health consequences and needs to be considered a top public health priority.
Discrimination against women is rampant across the world and seeps into many aspects of women’s lives. Recently the most extreme and horrifying example of discrimination is the Boko Haram kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls and threatening to sell them into sexual slavery. The World Health Organization has described violence against women as “perhaps the most shameful human rights violation, and the most pervasive,” with a staggering 35 percent of women worldwide having experienced either intimate partner violence (IPV) or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Twenty percent of women report childhood sexual abuse as compared to 5 percent of boys. Seventy-four percent of all childhood missing persons homicide cases are girls, with sexual assault being the motivation in the majority of cases.
But discrimination does not only manifest in the form of violence. Twenty-five percent of women report sexual harassment in the workplace. Further, women experience several forms of institutional disparity; for example, women still receive less money for the same job as men and are required to pay more in health insurance than men. The experience of sexism is so common that research suggests women can experience one to two instances of “everyday sexism” per week, ranging from stated gender stereotypes to being called denigrating names to sexual objectification.
Not only is discrimination commonplace, but the mental and physical health consequences have been clearly established. Sexual assault, IPV and sexual harassment have all been linked to a range of psychological problems, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as physical health problems such as gastrointestinal disorders and chronic pain. And these effects can be long-lasting. One study tracked a group of girls ranging in age from 6 to 16 at the start of the study for the next 23 years. This study found that in comparison to a control group of non-abused girls, abused girls had higher rates of depression and obesity, as well as problems with lower cortisol, which was interpreted as evidence of “burnout” from stress. Evidence suggests that even seemingly benign forms of sexism such as gender stereotypes predict increased depression and lower self-esteem in women. And it has long been held that societal emphasis on women’s looks and bodies perpetuates unhealthy body image and eating disordered behavior.
Why does this discrimination occur?
There are many paths to discrimination, but many point to something unseen: societal norms that send the message that men are dominant, better or preferred over women. These norms dictate expectations and evaluations of women. Researchers have demonstrated that in some cases this sentiment is expressed in what is called hostile sexism, in which a person has a negative view towards women (e.g., women are too sensitive). But this attitude does not have to be malicious in order to have an effect. Another type of sexist attitude is referred to as benevolent sexism, in which someone will not think negatively of women per se, but stereotypes women in specific ways that may be objectifying or limiting. As an example, the tendency to comment on a woman’s appearance more frequently than a man’s, even if in a positive way, sends a message that women are judged on their looks more than men.
While benevolent sexism may seem benign, evidence shows it is not only linked to hostile sexism, but has negative effects on women. In one study, researchers examined both hostile and benevolently sexist statements among 15,000 men and women across 19 different countries. They found that hostile and benevolent sexism tend to correlate highly across nations. Secondly, they discovered that benevolent sexism was a significant predictor of nationwide gender inequality, independent of the effects of hostile sexism. In countries where the men were more likely to endorse benevolent sexism, even when controlling for hostile sexism, men also lived longer, had higher levels of education and literacy, and had more money than women.
Further, sexist beliefs have been linked to violence against women. One meta-analytic review examined the relation of a range of sexist beliefs to sexual aggression (e.g., forcing a woman to commit a sexual act against her will or being sexually coercive) across 39 different studies. The review found that a range of sexist attitudes towards women predicted sexual aggression. These beliefs included stereotypical gender roles (e.g., “A wife should never contradict her husband in public”), beliefs of superiority of men as compared to women (e.g., “The intellectual leadership of a community should be largely in the hands of men”) and acceptance of interpersonal violence (e.g., “Being roughed up is sexually stimulating to many women”). Similarly, research also shows that dating violence is more likely to be perpetrated by men who find dating violence “justifiable.”
So what can be done?
Evidence suggests that changing the culture of gender bias requires a multi-level approach. It goes without saying that many of the issues discussed (e.g., sexual assault) require legal and law enforcement solutions. Further, treatment programs that address the psychological issues that often accompany violent offenders are crucial.
But more needs to be done on a societal and cultural level. Consistent with the spirit of the #YesAllWomen movement, it turns out that confronting men on their biased behavior in fact influences behavior. In a 2010 study, researchers asked men and women to collaborate on a problem-solving exercise. They then asked the women to confront the men either for sexism (e.g., assuming that a nurse would be female) or on a “gender-neutral” mistake. Men accused of sexism not only did not react with hostility, but consequently were more likely to apologize for their remark. Further, men accused of sexism were nicer to the women when solving a second set of problems, and at the end of the experiment reported liking their partners more than did the men who were accused of the gender-neutral mistake. The results of this study are consistent with initial data suggesting that brief educational interventions can attenuate benevolent sexism in men. More work clearly needs to be done to determine whether more hostile forms of sexism are also malleable.
The #YesAllWomen movement has reached over one million tweets and is growing. The stakes are high, as the effects of gender bias and discrimination are overwhelming. This will be a difficult change, as these attitudes are often deeply rooted and outside of awareness. But we must continue to increase awareness, for the benefits to addressing sexism and discrimination are considerable.
As the late Maya Angelou said: “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.