See? See why I get hysterical?!?

Research shows that subtle sexism is more damaging to women's self-esteem than glaring examples.

Published June 30, 2008 8:55PM (EDT)

One of the most irritating side effects of being a self-identified feminist is constantly being told that instances of sexism I point out aren't really there, and that I'm "just looking for things to get pissed off about." (Actually, plenty of them drop in my lap without my ever having to look.) The problem is, most sexism isn't "Iron my shirt!" blatant. Most of it can be explained away, however poorly, by something else. They wouldn't mind hiring a woman -- just not any of the women who applied! They don't want to punish women for having sex -- they're just trying to protect the wee unborn babies! He doesn't think all women are trollops and c***s -- just his own wife! That sort of thing. Usually, whether a given action or statement is sexist is open to interpretation, and if your interpretation is, "Hell, yes, that was sexist," you can bet someone will soon come along and explain that you're hysterically overreacting. Just like a woman.

But the problem with dismissing all but the most obvious examples of sexism is, those aren't even the ones that really hurt. A study by Leiden University doctoral candidate Sezgin Cihangir recently confirmed what many women have learned the hard way: Glaring sexism is easy to brush off, but the more ambiguous forms are the ones that nibble away at your self-esteem. To conduct his study, Cihangir set up mock job interviews, during which women were asked sexist questions. After the interviews, all of the candidates were rejected -- but half were told it was because they'd given the wrong answers, and the other half were told it was because they were women.

Those in the latter group were able to take the rejection in stride, knowing the blame lay with the chauvinistic jerks who'd interviewed them. But the other women, says Cihangar, "looked for the reason for their rejection in themselves, which resulted in a low self-image and poorer performance in tests such as IQ tests." See how it works? Blaming oneself for other people's sexism leads to poor performance, which leads to more chauvinistic jerks thinking women can't compete: A perfect Ouroboros of suck for the ladies. That's why some of us put so much effort into calling out the subtle stuff where we see it, in case you were wondering. We're not looking for reasons to get pissed off -- we're trying to help other women get pissed off at the people who really deserve it instead of themselves.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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