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Defining sexism

Over the past week I overheard a group of friends (girls) discussing their future and outlining the different goals that must be achieved by a certain age. Included in these goals was having children by a certain age and of course being married by a certain age to a certain looking type of man.

One of the young ladies disagreed with this plan and posited that she preferred to achieve more in terms of career goals and did not see having a husband or child as priority in her life anytime soon, if ever. Most of the other young people were flabbergasted and showed their outrage by promptly ignoring her and making comments like “something must be wrong with you”.

This caused me to reflect on how society has played a strong role in shaping women’s behaviour in spite of the level of education that they have accomplished.

A similar discussion with a young female doctor revealed that she too is experiencing similar pressures and that although she had achieved all of her dreams in terms of performing well in school, some people made it a habit of asking about husband and children every time they meet her.

In addition, she stated that it appears as if one minute they were saying “focus on doing well at school” and the next minute these same people were saying “go get children and husband”. She also added that she needed time to get to know an individual first and that Barbadians do not seem to date and when they do, they seem to be similar to mini marriages.

She just thought that females needed to get to know their partner before jumping into bed with one or the other, then to find out “he is not all that”.

Having heard all of these comments, it made me wonder about the impact the double standards are having on the youth in our society. Therefore, the article this week is about sexism and the effect it has on the behaviour of young people.

Firstly, the word sexism has had both negative and positive connotations and as a result one researcher has suggested that the definition emphasises two components: hostile and ambivalent. Hostile sexism is the attitude that women are sexist objects that have been created to be exploited by men, while being excluded from certain positions or from achieving certain prominence in society.

It often perpetuates the stereotype that women are not as competent as males and hence are not capable of achieving goals unless assisted by men. Although most males do not want to banish women off the face of the earth, and want her nearby since they recognise that they need women in their lives.

It is still generally accepted by men and some women that females must be exploited to fulfil sexual and other needs (cooking, housekeeping, child rearing) (Glick &Fiske, 1997).

This perception is often revealed in popular culture for example, if one examines the lyrics of local calypso songs one would notice that most of the song writers include such derogatory words towards women as “I gine jam she”, “I gine brek up she waist”, “I gine mash-up she waist”. All of these portray negative connotations.

Only recently on a calypso stage, a female Trinidadian calypsonian called up a well-known Bajan DJ on the stage and asked him to just hold her waist and follow instructions, but he started to ‘wuk-up’ on her instead, so she ordered him off the stage. You see hostile sexism is so entrenched in our subconscious minds that males are unaware of their behaviour.

I am sure that if one should ask him why he did not simply follow instructions and dance, he would find some lame excuse and would say something negative about the performer, but she was right. One cannot help but conclude that males believe that in order to demonstrate their maleness they must show hostile sexism towards females at every opportunity (Glick &Fiske, 1997).

In contrast, benevolent sexism appears to fall on the opposite end of the continuum, where there is a symbiotic relationship with men acting as it they are wholly dependent on women but yet dominant. This time the dominance is of a gentler nature and is deeply rooted in romanticism.

Let me explain. Globally, men have enjoyed structural control over political, legal, economic and religious institutions. This has expanded to include control over relationships between the sexes and even over gender roles. For instance, it is common for society to accept that a woman should wait until a man proposes marriage and is taboo if a woman decides to do the same thing.

Some individuals (men and women) even believe that it is right for a man to restrict women to lower status roles. In some cases this is justified by sayings like “they could not get along without us telling them what to do and taking care of them”.

This is not all, it was also found that women oftentimes seem to enjoy this role since it places them in a position where they receive perks like affection and attention for “knowing their place” (Glick &Fiske, 1997).

So even though benevolent sexism may appear inappropriate to an observer, it is often viewed as genuinely “doing the right thing” by both males and females. You see some interdependence seems to exist where males feel justified in dominating in certain prescribed roles and females enjoy rewards for being subjugated to lower statutes roles.

So what has this to do with the opening vignette? Well although one may think that since both males and females have access to free education and indeed in many cases women are surpassing their male counterparts in all of the traditional male dominated roles, yet both hostile and benevolent sexism exist.

It appears as if it is stronger now than ever and very often highly educated females are allowing themselves to be viewed as half of a sexual object that is waiting for a male to complete.

Finally, there is also the fear that a man would only love a woman who supports the view of sexual domination and hence although females are more highly educated than their predecessors the beliefs remain the same.

So until women realise that they can be respected for their ability to analyse issues and make informed decisions like, if and when to have children as well as if to be a sensual partner both benevolent and hostile sexism will continue. Until next time…

* Daren Greaves is a Management & Organisational Psychology Consultant at Dwensa Incorporated. e-mail:, Phone: (246) 436-4215

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