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Why Do Some Women Support Sexist Behavior?

When sexism is no longer the status quo, women won’t need to support it anymore.

By Sophia Claas

From a young age, we begin learning about and valuing equal rights for all; we also start showing signs of aversion to inequality (Fehr et al., 2008). Living in the United States’ complex society, however, makes encounters with unequal social systems unavoidable.

These social systems didn’t just appear out of thin air; we’ve built them, we support them, and we tolerate them. But if at such a young age we learn to value equality, why do many women tolerate—and occasionally, even support—sexist behaviors and systems that they confront daily?

The Theory Behind Tolerance and Support for Sexism

To explain how we can value equality, yet continue to justify these unjust social systems, Dr. John T. Jost proposes System Justification Theory (Jost, 2020). This theory explains the motivations behind supporting systems and stereotypes that directly put us at a disadvantage.

System justification is defined as: “The psychological process by which existing social arrangements are legitimized, even at the expense of personal and group interest” (Jost & Banaji, 1994). In other words, an explainable psychological process exists behind why we justify and support systems, interactions, and even ideologies that aren’t fair to us. But how does this psychological process actually work?

Studies suggest that system justification is a motivated psychological process, not a passive one that just happens (Jost, 2019). People are motivated to engage in this psychological process because it offers many benefits.

Acknowledging that an oppressive social system is unfair leaves people with not only the feeling that their future might be out of their control, but perhaps even some sense of responsibility to help fix the system. Accepting that an oppressive social system is unfair also means accepting that society might view you—at least to some degree—as an outcast, which can result in feelings of insecurity or even make you feel threatened.

System justification offers the benefits of limiting uncertainty, ambiguity, threat, and insecurity, while simultaneously bolstering our ability to coordinate social relationships and attain a sense of shared reality. These benefits are therefore most appealing to those who are intolerant of uncertainty and feel more sensitive to threat (Jost et al., 2005, 2007).

Because engaging in system justification limits threats and ambiguity, it follows that people who exhibit high levels of system justification are overall happier, or more content. Research has even found that endorsing system-justifying ideologies is associated with less emotional distress (Jost et al., 2008).

System Justification Theory in Practice

Studies examining economic system justification have found that people who justify capitalism in the U.S., as compared to those who don’t, experience fewer negative emotions when seeing and interacting with people experiencing homelessness (Goudarzi et al., 2020). Applying these conclusions to women who justify sexism suggests that these women might also experience fewer negative emotions when confronted with examples of sexism than those who do not.

This may be explained by considering how different levels of system justification allow women to perceive sexist interactions differently. A woman who exhibits high levels of system justification might consider a sexist encounter to be more neutral, or maybe annoying, but a woman with low levels of system justification might find this same sexist encounter to be an insult to her identity and proof of a larger social system working to oppress her.

One study found that denial, compared to acknowledgement, of gender discrimination among women is associated with higher subjective levels of well-being (Napier et al., 2020). Taking this conclusion one step further, another study explored the effects of system-justifying beliefs on women’s anxiety levels in response to exposure to hostile sexism (Pacilli et al., 2018).

In this study, researchers exposed women to hostile sexism in the workplace. They found that anxiety in response to the exposure was highest among women with low levels of system justification (Pacilli et al., 2018). This research suggests that even in the face of direct sexism, high levels of system justification limit the harmful emotional effects of the exposure, helping to explain why women might engage in tolerating or even supporting sexism in the first place.

The Good News

While system justification offers safety and certainty, leads to a lower risk of alienation, and relieves the mental effort required to protest oppressive systems, it can only do so if the system being justified is popular. In other words, if sexism is no longer accepted by the public, then supporting and justifying a sexist system would make the person justifying it feel alienated, or maybe even threatened, and would not relieve the person’s uncertainty regarding the validity of a system now being opposed.

Dr. Jost reiterates this sentiment in one of his papers: “The system justification goal will finally be abandoned when justifying the system no longer satisfies epistemic, existential, or relational needs. This may occur when the status quo itself offers no stability or certainty or may even be regarded as a source of threat rather than reassurance, or when it has become counter-normative to stick with an old regime when a new one is gaining in popularity” (Jost et al., 2010).

He also provides a historical example of this phenomenon in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when several decades of Soviet Communist rule came to an end as “a new system or regime acquire[d] an aura of inevitability” (Jost et al., 2010). Once a new system feels inevitable, “system justification motives should lead people to engage in rationalization processes that will bolster the new system and bury the old one” (Jost et al., 2010).

Perhaps when a system becomes so controversial that neither opposing nor justifying it can offer any benefit, change and revolution become possible. When sexism is no longer the norm, women won’t have to tolerate—and will have no reason to support—sexist systems any longer.



Fehr, E., Bernhard, H., & Rockenbach, B. (2008). Egalitarianism in young children. Nature, 454(7208), 1079–1083.

Goudarzi, S., Pliskin, R., Jost, J. T., & Knowles, E. D. (2020). Economic system justification predicts muted emotional responses to inequality. Nature Communications, 11(1).

Jost, J. T. (2019). A quarter century of system justification theory: Questions, answers, Criticisms, and societal applications. British Journal of Social Psychology, 58(2), 263–314.

Jost, J. T. (2020). A Theory of System Justification. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jost, J. T., & Banaji, M. R. (1994). The role of stereotyping in system-justification and the production of false consciousness. British Journal of Social Psychology, 33(1), 1–27.

Jost, J. T., & Hunyady, O. (2005). Antecedents and consequences of system-justifying ideologies. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(5), 260–265.

Jost, J. T., Ledgerwood, A., & Hardin, C. D. (2007). Shared reality, system justification, and the relational basis of ideological beliefs. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(1), 171–186.

Jost, J. T., Liviatan, I., van der Toorn, J., Ledgerwood, A., Mandisodza, A., & Nosek, B. A. (2010). System justification: How do we know it's motivated? In The Eleventh Ontario Symposium on Personality and Social Psychology. Psychology Press.

Jost, J. T., Wakslak, C. J., & Tyler, T. R. (2008). System justification theory and the alleviation of emotional distress: Palliative effects of ideology in an arbitrary social hierarchy and in society. Justice, 25, 181–211.

Napier, J. L., Suppes, A., & Bettinsoli, M. L. (2020). Denial of gender discrimination is associated with better subjective well‐being among women: A system justification account. European Journal of Social Psychology, 50(6), 1191–1209.

Pacilli, M. G., Spaccatini, F., Giovannelli, I., Centrone, D., & Roccato, M. (2018). System justification moderates the relation between hostile (but not benevolent) sexism in the workplace and state anxiety: An experimental study. The Journal of Social Psychology, 159(4), 474–481.

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