August 6, 2013 — Is sexism less harmful than other “isms”? Read Catalyst President & CEO Ilene H. Lang’s insightful editorial, which ran in today’s issue of the British newspaper The Guardian—and let us know what you think in the comments section!
Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A, which conducts the British Open, recently defended the men-only membership policy at Muirfield, the site of this year's championship tournament. "There's a massive difference between racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, where sectors of society are downtrodden and treated very, very badly, indeed," he said. "And to compare that with a men's golf club I think is frankly absurd."
Sexism is not absurd for Alex Salmond, the first minister of Scotland. He stayed away from the championship in protest of Muirfield's membership policy. "I just think it's indefensible in the 21st century not to have a golf club that's open to all," he said.
I applaud Salmond's stance and invite others to follow his lead—just as I called last year on Augusta members to dismantle their club's male-only policy. Augusta later changed its ways and Muirfield should follow suit. But to make lasting, society-wide progress, we need to tackle the belief that sexism is not as serious, damaging, or severe as the other "isms" out there.
Why does this myth persist? For American activist Gloria Steinem, "Sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was." So-called “natural” gender differences are used to justify unequal treatment of women and men and allow us to look the other way when women are treated like second-class citizens.
Two types of sexism prevail: overt and benevolent. Overt (aka hostile) sexism—like the exclusionary Muirfield policy—is easy to spot, especially in parts of the world where we have seen the most progress toward equality. Reasonable people call it for what it is—the belief that women are not equal to men, and due to their “second class” existence, should not mind being ignored, excluded, violated, you name it.
Benevolent sexism is different—it is seemingly innocuous but is just as damaging and far more enduring.
The belief that women are kinder, more moral, more fair, more nurturing, and generally, more virtuous than men seems positive on the surface.
In reality, these benevolent stereotypes hurt women because they maintain inequality. Whether she's the "little lady" or the "woman behind the man" or the soothing creature who exists simply to make men nicer, woman's "natural" goodness becomes a rationale for why she should be protected from activities and occupations that require stereotypically "macho" qualities.
In the workplace, all sexism, both overt and benevolent, thwarts women's opportunities to contribute and lead by perpetuating a narrow set of societal roles that can undervalue women’s potential, undermine their self-worth, and reinforce 19th century views about a woman's place.
Today, women are leaders in business, sports, and politics and are shattering stereotypes. But, women can't do it alone. Men have many opportunities to level the playing field, role-modeling inclusive behaviors to inspire other men to act too. Alex Salmond did just that.
It's everyone's job to tackle sexism, like racism, wherever it appears—on the golf course, in the boardroom, and beyond. As Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP commented, "Ultimately, only men can end sexism, and only white people can end racism." Men must step up—Peter Dawson and Muirfield, when will you?