Sexism Alive and Well in 2012

International Women's Day 2012 is just minutes away. What happens if I say that June 12 of this year will be International Men's Day? It won't, of course, but did you chuckle at the thought that we might need a day set aside to make sure that we don't forget to celebrate men? Most people do. Why does this strike us as funny? Isn't it because more than four decades after the Second Wave of the women's movement began, statistics show that men are more likely to be celebrated and appreciated than women?

There are exceptions of course, and I expect to receive the usual enraged comments from someone who knows a terrible woman or someone who knows (or is) a terrific man. You'll get no argument from me about that. There are vast individual differences. But in the U.S. and too many other nations, women are still paid considerably less than men for work of equal value or even difficulty; old women are more likely than old men to live below the poverty level; men are more likely than women to initiate violence against their partners,'s too devastating to list any more of the daunting arenas in which misogyny still thrives.

I recall how I had longed to be surprised when we started the Voices of Diversity research project, asking undergraduate students in four different universities how they felt when experiencing or witnessing a sexist act and a racist act. As a longtime feminist, I had learned that it makes little sense to construct a hierarchy of bias and oppression, and I hoped against hope that the students would report being as upset about sexism as about racism.

What we found in the study, however, was that many students, regardless of sex, considered racism to be a more serious problem than sexism. This was especially disturbing, given that the manifestations of sexism were far more likely to involve acts of physical assault—sexual assault by men against women—than were the manifestations of racism. In fact, interviewing the students one at a time, it became unsurprising to hear yet another report about sexual assault but extremely rare to hear reports of race-based physical violence.

It should go without saying that both sexist and racist acts of any kind are unconscionable, but what should we make of the students who told us that sexism is a less serious problem than racism because sexism is "natural"? Is it natural for there to be no male equivalent of "slut"? For women who are sexually assaulted in the military to be very likely to be silenced or punished for reporting the violence, while the male perpetrators are protected? For the same scientific research report presented as written by a woman to be rated as inferior to that paper when it is presented by a man? For mothers to be more likely than fathers to be harshly judged in the court system? Once again, the number and array of consequences of sexism are legion, and the truth is that I haven't the heart to list any more of them here.

What I shall do to celebrate International Women's Day tomorrow is to attend the Association for Women in Psychology's conference in Palm Springs. The four-day conference promises to be terrific, beginning with tomorrow morning's keynote address by the stellar bell hooks (if you are not familiar with her multitude of books, grab some, and read them—and those are not typographical errors; she spells both her names without capital letters). AWP has been an important organization that takes brave stands about, among many other subjects, biases of all kinds in psychiatric diagnosis, reproductive rights, sexual orientation, and every conceivable form of oppression. The conferences are thought-provoking, welcoming, nurturing, and energizing. It's so lovely to have places to go where one need not be challenged to prove that we still need to struggle against sexism.

About the Author

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D.

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.

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