Why Are We Deliberately Keeping Boys Ignorant About Sexism?


Young men think sexism is a thing of the past because that’s what we’ve allowed them to think and, in some cases, actively taught them.

During the past few weeks there has been a lot of news coverage of a Pew Research Center study revealing that more than half (56%) of men surveyed think sexism has been eradicated from American life. That already appalling percentage of sexism-deniers makes a monumental leap to 78% among conservative men. By comparison, 75% of liberal and progressive women say that sexism presents obstacles in their daily lives.

Headlines such as “American Men Say Sexism is Over,” however, masked an interesting fact: Men ages 18-34 are the most likely of any cohort to say that sexism does not affect women’s lives—62% of them, compared to the 63% of their female peers who say that it’s oppressive. This is, depending on your perspective, either a monumental failure or a monumental success.

The majority of men reject the idea that women face obstacles, but it is young men, in particular, who doubt that sexism exists or is a problem at all. It’s not birth year so much as experience that leads men to better understand what is happening to women. A similar pattern can be seen, for example, in police officer acceptance of rape myths. Officers with between one and seven years of experience working on sex crimes believe up to 50% of women are lying when they report rape. That number drops to 10% beyond eight years.

This is particularly true among men who identify as Democrats. Republican men, whose identities are most closely bound by gender norms, demonstrate the least flexibility over time. Whereas 53% of younger Democratic men say that sexism is dead and gone, only 23% of men 65 or older doubt that sexism is a force. This is a monumental drop and a stark contrast to the 72% of Republican men age 65 and older who say the same. For conservative men, the learning curve is less extreme and more erratic. The percentage that doubt sexism slightly increases between ages 24-64, from 76% of men ages 18-24 to 78%, then drops again to 72% after age 65.

Why are young men convinced that sexism is meaningless when girls and women are saying that it is not? There is a marked gender gap at every age, regardless of whether people are conservative or progressive.

Young men think sexism is a thing of the past because that’s what we’ve allowed them to think and, in some cases, actively taught them.

Hostile sexism may have decreased during the past half century, but both overt sexism and implicit biases with sexist effects are on vivid and regular display. Most teenagers, for example, don’t know that the top job for women today is what it was in 1960, secretary, or that men make up more than 80% of Congress, 75% of state legislators, 85% of corporate executive officers, 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs, 73% of tenured professors, 64% of newsroom staffers, 97% of heads of venture capital firms, and 87% of police departments. Few students are exposed to vital information about gender disparities in safety, violence, leadership, economic divides, health, or wealth. It is not until they get older that they have to process what it means that 75% of low-wage workers are women or that health care research continues to universalize white male bodies. Information like this, when it comes, is a rude shock, one that hits people, most frequently, in personal difficulty and, often, pain.

Part of the problem is that younger people have not yet encountered the realities of parenting. Well-documented fatherhood bonuses and motherhood penalties attest to the daily impact of gender inequality, but you have to live them to believe them apparently. However, kids are also not learning what it means, materially, that simply having a male name and a “white” one, for example, results in a higher likelihood of getting interviews, being hired, getting good job reviews, being promoted, getting flextime, finding mentoring, and getting a higher salary. Neither are they taught to think about why it might be that both men and women rate men as more competent, authoritative, trustworthy, and deserving of money on the basis of their gender. One study even revealed that people are willing to forgo higher salaries in order to have a man as a boss.

Today, a large segment of Millennial men are more conservative than Gen Xers when it comes to gender and gender role expectations. For example, when asked, only 41% of Millennial men say that they are “comfortable” with the idea of women as engineers, 43% with women as U.S. senators (this is compared to 64% of all Americans who say the same). This bodes ill for the next 30 years in terms of gender, leadership, and relationships, given that Millennial women are the most likely in the population to say serious changes are necessary to ensure women’s equality, particularly in the workplace. These women are thought to be less able, less knowledgeable and authoritative by their male peers because they are women. Male post-docs are 90% more likely to be mentored by Nobel laureates, because they are men. And yet, if the same women described these attitudes and patterns as sexist, these same men would vehemently deny it or, even worse, deflect to “those women over there” rationales. Whose fault is that?

Earlier this year, Octavia Calder-Dawe and Nicola Gavey released a study of what high school students think about everyday sexism. They described a general environment as one in which “gender equality is taken for granted and the possibility of enduring sexism is firmly rejected, along with any need for feminism.” They specifically focused on what they call the “‘unspeakability of sexism,” which makes it difficult for girls in particular to openly talk about their exposure to double standards, bias, and sexism.

Lacking a language or framework for understanding sexism, girls tend to frame their experiences as matters of personal choice and are, by adults, encouraged to think about sexism and double standards as matters of individual decisions and personal responsibility. This both shifts problems away from structural issues and buffers girls from the kind of social condemnation that often comes with identifying as a feminist, a short-term benefit, but a long-term cost. A relatively recent pro-feminist shift in media and marketing has offset this somewhat, but not sufficiently enough that it has closed the gender gap in understanding.

When students described sexism, Calder-Dawe and Gavey found that both male and female students thought of sexism as affecting men and women equally. The students they surveyed went out of their way, regardless of gender, to stress symmetry in sexism’s effects. When asked, students elided stereotypes, bias, prejudice, and discrimination, often reversing the trajectory of sexism in order to portray boys and men as the greater victims. They rarely, if ever, included power dynamics in their descriptions and had no sense of how historical misogyny shaped their world.

Despite the drive to make things equal, boys and girls parted ways when describing actual sexism. Sexism against boys and men was primarily talked about in rhetorical, theoretical, and speculative ways, whereas sexism against girls and women was shared in individual examples and experiences. When students were asked, “Where, if anywhere, does sexism come up in your everyday life?” all of the girls related personal stories, which fell into three areas (sexual harassment, gendered denigration, and stereotyping), but none of the boys did. All of the students reported witnessing acts of sexism against girls and women, some providing profuse examples. There were almost no specific examples of anti-male sexism, sexual harassment, sexual objectification, or gender-based degradation.

The disparity is even more troubling given the tendency of all of the students to minimize harms when girls experienced them. “When accounting for sexism in an abstract sense, interviewees oriented to sexism as a serious issue, identifying men and boys as its hidden victims,” explained Calder-Dawe and Gavey. “When accounting for their own experiences and observations of sexism (toward women), participants characterized sexism quite differently: as irritating, a bother, but not a big deal.”

During the past two years, I have engaged in similar conversations, with similar results, with hundreds of students at more than two dozen high schools and colleges. Like these researchers, I repeatedly hear students arguing for equality for all, rather than equality for girls and women. They are not making connections between their lives and the systems they operate in.

Part of the reason children, even teenagers, are kept in the dark, according to parents and school administrators, is to protect them. The reason I often hear about not talking to children in age appropriate ways about sexism is that adults worry that boys will feel bad or guilty, that it’s not fair, and besides, we have a boy crisis in education. That, or they don’t want to depress girls or scare them. I have had people say these things to me repeatedly. But, really, who are we protecting?

Girls have no choice to but come to terms with the crushing fact of sexism. That includes being silent rather than incurring bullying or mockery for defending themselves. Boys don’t have the experiences that girls do and it is difficult for them to reconcile what they are being taught (nothing) with what they are being told by their female peers. When no one encourages them to cross-gender empathize, the sexist deal is sealed.

It’s understandable to be concerned, no one wants to hurt boys. However, at best, this is a lazy response to this problem and, indeed, sexist and grounded in the very gender norms that support inequality. The perceived risk to boys’ psyche’s is entirely avoidable if lessons are embedded in teaching from the perspective of empathy and not domination. Allowing boys to cross-gender empathize however is strongly discouraged in a culture of boyhood in which boys are held to rigidly hegemonic masculinity norms, especially by fathers. This thoroughly patriarchal instinct to cultivate gendered innocence is how adults collude to sacrifice girls’ and women’s rights and well-being. This is universally true and, in the United States, compounded by deep racism that is indivisible from sexism.

Very few adults ever talk to children about street harassment, sexual coercion, violence, or the rampant sexual harassment that women continue to encounter in the workplace. In the past year alone, for example, women have come together publicly to reveal widespread discrimination in the field sciencestechphilosophy, astronomyeconomics, the financial sector, the political arena, media, the military, trucking, constructionsports, and in the retail and restaurant industries. And yet, we blithely send men and women into these environments unprepared to behave in ways that might alter these dynamics. The underlying core of this problem, by the way, fuels the finding that almost one third of men in college say that, if there were no consequences, they might rape a woman.

Sexism is normalized to an astounding degree in our culture. In the absence of information, people fill in the gaps with their own experiences, which, for the most part if you are young, appear to support the idea that women and men live as equals. It makes sense that children—in their families, for example, or in schools, where belief in meritocracy continues to trump easily identified evidence of systemic inequalities—grow up feeling equal. At the same time, girls, socialized to be quiet about what is happening to them, intuit the high costs of “making a fuss,” and learn to minimize their own needs. People, particularly men, routinely dismiss what girls are experiencing as not serious enough to merit attention or action. If that sounds like a blanket condemnation of men, it’s not. It’s a statement of fact—the reality is represented by the gap in men’s and women’s assessments of sexism.

For the majority of men, sexism remains an abstraction. For most women, it substantively shapes life, whether they care to acknowledge it or not.

While it’s heartening to think that as men age they are more likely to appreciate what sexism is, it’s too little too late. It is possible to raise boys for whom girls’ equality does not represent a threat, many people do. Many more don’t, however. As parents, we try to teach kids good eating and sleeping habits, how to read, write, be safe, be kind, and do no harm. Basically, practice for a healthy and ethical adulthood. All of this comes quickly apart when it comes to gender inequality and how to end it. So, why hide this information from them?

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism, and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media, and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded the school’s first feminist undergraduate journal, and studied post-grad at Radcliffe College. She is currently the Director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.

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