Can we define Sexism? Exploring the term in light of recent events

Recent events make us wonder how we can define sexism? Is calling someone “stunning” politically incorrect? Does calling out inappropriate behaviour make you a feminist or “Feminazi”?

By Joel Davidge and Bobbie Mills


So, what exactly is Sexism?

A 1950s poster "if your husband ever find out" Sexism, Sexist, Feminism explained

So many wrong things here. Via Pinterest

Mention the word “sexist” and you might imagine 1950s attitudes where a woman’s role was to be a good housewife. Then in the 1960s the “sexual revolution” occurred; women challenged the traditional roles they were expected to fill.

So, how do we define sexism today?

When it comes to issues of gender, or gender politics the actual meanings of words sometimes get lost. For example, do you think of yourself as a feminist? OK, let’s try another question. Hands up if you’re in favour of equality between men and women?

Well, guess what – that’s feminism.

Say “feminist” and some people might think about women burning their bras in protest, or angry reactions to having doors opened for them. This is stereotypical and inaccurate; the word Feminism describes “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”.

So, let’s be clear;

Sexism is defined as the “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex”.

Yes, men can be victims of sexism too.

If you’re thinking about negative attitudes towards women you’re probably thinking of Misogyny. Misogynistic behaviour (apart from being really tricky to spell) is “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women”.


Give me some examples?

Amal Alamuddin, international lawyer. Was it sexism when the media reported her wedding to George Clooney focusing on the actor?

Top Lawyer: Amal Alamuddin

Sexism can be where a person’s professional credentials are ignored or belittled due to their gender.  For example, if a news story about an individual is covered in a particular manner due to their gender.

Take internationally recognised lawyer Amal Alamuddin. She represented founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange and Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Yet when she married a rather well-known actor the media started focusing on her husband’s acting career, rather than her many high-profile legal cases. OK, so her husband George Clooney is pretty famous, but even so.

UK parliament and political media coverage are often accused of being sexist. This is perhaps a fair criticism; today only 191 constituencies out 650 are represented by women.

New Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was criticised for the selection of his new Shadow Cabinet of ministers and advisors. Despite selecting a female majority for the shadow cabinet (16 women and 15 men) for the first time in history, people complained that he had given the top cabinet positions to men.

Labour Leadership Candidate Liz Kendall

Sexism; journalists asked Liz Kendall about her weight

It was reported that Angela Eagle was given the position of Shadow First Minister of State only after a Corbyn aide said “we are taking a fair amount of **** out there about women.” Corbyn defended his decisions, saying that Education and Health (the positions given to Lucy Powell and Heidi Alexander) were just as important as positions like Chancellor.

During the 2015 Labour leadership contest a journalist asked Labour leadership runner-up Liz Kendall about her weight. Kendall was understandably outraged. The article in question described Kendall’s “lithe figure”. Good to know the media had this important issue covered.

Back in 2010 newly elected Labour MP Stella Creasy was told to vacate a lift as it was for MPs only. The Tory MP challenging her had assumed she was a researcher. Sexist or no? In fairness to the MP in question, he apparently did apologize.

The Conservatives gave us Margaret Thatcher – the UK’s only female Prime Minister to date.

Thatcher had to deal with being a woman within a “man’s world”. She had voice coaching to lower the tone of her voice (because sounding like a woman was a no-no!). As campaigner Peter Tatchell puts it, Thatcher “got to the top in what had been a man’s world; largely by emulating the macho, testosterone-fuelled style of male politicians.”

Sexism: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of England is bid farewell on her departure after a visit to the United States.

Sexism: Former PM Margaret Thatcher took voice coaching to lower her voice

The image of a male dominated parliament still exists today. Currently Tories only have 68 female MPs, less than a third of their total number. Labour have 99, which is still below half.

The Conservatives have only 10 women compared to 20 men in their Cabinet. However, Theresa May does hold the office of Home Secretary. Traditionally this is seen as one of the four great offices of state (the others are Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary).

Even if you hold a top job, that doesn’t protect you from sexist comments, as one female barrister discovered;


Why are we talking about this now?

Barrister Charlotte Proudman's "stunnin" LinkedIn Picture was praised by lawyer Alexander Carter-Smith

Barrister Charlotte Proudman’s “stunning” LinkedIn picture. Via Twitter/@CRProudman

Everyone’s talking about Charlotte Proudman. She’s a barrister, specialising in female genital mutilation and vulnerable women. She’s currently studying for a PhD at Cambridge University.

This week Ms. Proudman logged on to business networking website LinkedIn to see a message from senior lawyer Alexander Carter-Silk. Though noting that it was “probably horrendously politically incorrect” Carter-Silk the message complimented Proudman on her “stunning” profile picture.

Proudman was not impressed, replying that she found the message “offensive” and that she was on LinkedIn for “business purposes not to be approached about my physical appearance or to be objectified by sexist men”.

“Think twice before sending another woman (half your age) such a sexist message.”

Ouch. Proudman then proceeded to upload a snapshot of the conversation to Twitter. A media frenzy and lots of heated discussions over the definition of sexism ensued.

Proudman claims in an Independent article that she spoke out for all women. While her partner was receiving offers of work via LinkedIn, Proudman describes a “catalogue of similar incidents”; this wasn’t a one-off. She’s not alone; many other women have since reported they’ve been chatted up on LinkedIn.


Lawyer Alexander Carter-Smith's message to Barrister Charlotte Proudman praising her "stunning" LinkedIn Picture

Sexist? Alexander Carter-Smith’s message to Charlotte Proudman. Via

Defending the message he sent to Ms. Proudman, Mr. Carter-Silk said that “my comment was aimed at the professional quality of the presentation on LinkedIn which was unfortunately misinterpreted”.

Regardless of the intention, Proudman experienced the message as a sexist. This should not be ignored. Having received several messages she deemed sexist in the past she may have been predisposed to see Carter-Silk’s message as just another of the same. Yet this just reinforces the point that there is a problem.

Proudman wanted to call out everyday sexism on LinkedIn and to see if other women had similar experiences. However this backfired as the media have mostly focused on this individual occurrence rather than the structural problem that she was trying to highlight.

Proudman was attacked for ageism (stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age) for mentioning that she was half Carter-Silk’s age in her reply.

Others criticised Proudman for publishing the photo online.

Lastly, Proudman was branded a “Feminazi”; a derogatory term was coined by an American talk show host in the early 1990s to describe extreme or radical feminists. It references the German extremists in World War II.

The debate now seems to be over whether she overreacted to the comment, and whether it was wrong to post the snapshot online, rather than the fact that many women seem to be receiving similar messages online.

Because as we’ll see, sexism goes way deeper than comments made online;


Everyday Sexism?

Sexism isn’t confined to professions like politics, law and journalism. Research concludes that due to the pay gap between what men and women earn, women effectively work for free from November 4th until the end of the year. That’s despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970 supposedly stopping men being treated better than women in terms of pay and conditions of employment.

It’s not just about comments. The actress Helen Mirren recently announced that she is annoyed when men put their arms around women, seeing it as a sign of ownership. In an “infamous” 1975 TV interview in 1975 TV host Michael Parkinson drew attention to Mirren’s “physical attributes”. He even introduced her by referencing a reviewer’s description of her as “the sex queen” of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Writing about this encounter years later the Daily Mail suggested Mirren “get over it already”.

Writing for the Guardian Lucy Mangan suggests a practical solution; keep a score of all these unwanted sexist attitudes. She does make another interesting point, however.

“Men are – I think quite genuinely, and almost reasonably – confused”.

Sir Richard Timothy "Tim" Hunt FRS, FMedSci is a British biochemist. He was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Paul Nurse and Leland H. Hartwell for their discoveries of protein molecules that control the division of cells

Sir Tim Hunt: Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”

In the case of Alexander Carter-Silk, if he had wished to offer a genuine comment, is that wrong? The rules of the game change so fast it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Each time a story like this breaks we rapidly redefine what is and isn’t acceptable.

Jokes or behaviour which might have been acceptable in the past are suddenly able to kill your career stone dead. Sir Tim Hunt lost his position at the Royal Society after making misjudged comments about girls in Laboratories.

This is not to defend Hunt – he made an error of judgement. Yet the massive backlash on social media seemed rather disproportionate.

In the Guardian, Mangan notes that the only way to avoid the confusion, where a potentially innocent comment or arm on the shoulder can lead to a witch-hunt, is to create a society where women are truly equal to men.

“Then there would be no question of ownership being indicated through or read into random physical gestures. Compliments and everything else will be freely exchangeable between the sexes because they will stand on exactly the same footing. Jokes will never be misinterpreted.”

Sounds like a good idea to us. At the very least, people should be able to call out bad behaviour without being called a hypocrite.


Sexism Explained; what’s wrong with a compliment?

To boil down something very complicated, it’s about right place, right time. Is this all wrong because it was on LinkedIn?

Is it difficult for women to stand up for their rights without being branded a “Feminazi”? Should we feel able to compliment people on their looks without fear of being publicly named and shamed?

Got a sexist story you want to share? Everyday Sexism Project (@EverydaySexism) documents “experiences of sexism, harassment and assault to show how bad the problem is and create solidarity”. Think there’s an angle we haven’t covered? Let us know


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