Recognizing Sexism

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Learning Objectives

Learn to recognize overt sexism and gender discrimination as well as covert forms of sexism and discrimination commonly referred to as micro-inequities.


“The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.” — Lucretia Mott

What is Sexism?

Some displays of sexism and gender discrimination are easy to identify, but hopefully do not occur very often to female graduate students. For example, most people would agree that referring to a woman in a derogatory manner or denying her a work opportunity based on gender are examples of sexism and discrimination. Most universities have policies against these behaviors. See the Sexual Harassment module for more information.

There are also more common forms of sexism and discrimination that can be just as harmful, but are so central to the experience of women and minorities that they often go unnoticed. These are called micro-inequities:1 habitual, implicit, discriminatory behaviors. The most harmful aspect of micro-inequities is that both the perpetrator and victim usually do not consciously recognize when these behaviors occur. Micro-inequities are usually not intentional, but over time, the confidence-eroding and isolating effects of micro-inequities can be very damaging.

Can you think of incidents where …

  • Your contributions were devalued?
  • Your ideas were taken less seriously?
  • People expected you to do poorly?
  • Other people got credit for your ideas?
  • You felt like you were treated with condescension?
  • You felt excluded socially?

If you have answered yes to many of the questions above, you might be experiencing implicit sexism or another type of micro-inequity.


Which of the following may be evidence of a micro-inequity that is sexist in nature?

Best answer: C. While they reflect interplay between gender and work/school dynamics, answers A, B, and D, are more examples of personal preference. Answer C is a clear example of a micro-inequity, and how it can have a significant effect on someone’s performance and functioning within a particular environment.

Denial of Personal Disadvantage

Even when individuals of a disadvantaged or marginalized social group believe that their group faces discrimination, they often do not believe that they are personally disadvantaged. For example, many women will report that they live in a sexist society, but these same women are less likely to believe or recognize that they have personally experienced sexism.

Members of racial minority groups are also less likely to report that they have personally faced discrimination and more likely to report that their racial group is discriminated against as a whole. This finding is referred to as the denial of personal disadvantage2 or the personal/group discrimination discrepancy.3 Several different explanations have been posed for the denial of personal disadvantage, some psychological, but so far very little research has tested these theories empirically.

Even when women recognize that they have experienced sexism or discrimination, they often do not choose to confront or report the perpetrator.4,5,6,7

Women often choose not to confront gender discrimination for a number of reasons. They might be afraid of the social consequences, they might believe that confronting discrimination will not make a significant difference in their experience, or they might not believe that they have the appropriate personal resources necessary to successfully confront the perpetrator. See the module on Sexual Harassment for more information about how to confront and put an end to gender discrimination.

Why is it important to recognize and confront micro-inequities?8,9

  • Confrontation is one way to cope with the harm and injustice that results from the accumulation of micro-inequities.
  • Confrontation can let others know that you are not OK with being treated unfairly.
  • Confrontation encourages others with similar experiences to do the same.
  • Ultimately, confronting discrimination helps society recognize that it still exists, which can help lead to social change.

Some factors help predict whether or not a woman will choose to confront sexism, such as:[10]

  • An optimistic outlook on life
  • Confidence in personal abilities and resources
  • Positive appraisals of the consequences of confronting sexism

See Coping & Self-Efficacy, Build on Your Strengths, How You Think, Keep a Positive Perspective, and Resilience for more on how to improve your confidence in your personal abilities and resources.


  1. Rowe, M. P. (1990). Barriers to equality: The power of subtle discrimination to maintain unequal opportunity. Employee Responsibility and Rights Journal, 3, 153-163. doi:10.1007/BF01388340
  2. Crosby, F. J., Pufall, A., Snyder, R., O'Connell, M. & Whalen, P. (1989). The denial of personal disadvantage among you, me, and all the other ostriches. In M. Crawford & M. Gentry (Eds.), Gender and thought: Psychological perspectives (pp. 79-99). New York: Springer-Verlag.
  3. Taylor, D. M., Wright, S. C., Moghaddam, F. M., & Lalonde, R. N. (1990). The personal/group discrimination discrepancy: Perceiving my group, but not myself, to be a target for discrimination. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 16, 254-262. doi:10.1177/0146167290162006
  4. Kaiser, C. R., & Miller, C. T. (2001). Stop complaining!: The social costs of making attributions to discrimination. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 254–263. doi:10.1177/0146167201272010
  5. Swim, J. K., & Hyers, L. L. (1999). Excuse me—what did you say?!: Women's public and private responses to sexist remarks. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 68–88.
  6. Stangor, C., Swim, J. K., Van Allen, K. L., & Sechrist, G. B. (2002). Reporting discrimination in public and private contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 69–74.
  7. Woodzicka, J. A., & LaFrance, M. (2002). Real versus imagined gender harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 15–30. doi:10.1111/0022-4537.00199
  8. Crosby, F. J. (1993). Why complain? Journal of Social Issues, 49, 169–184.
  9. Swim, J. K., Cohen, L. L., & Hyers, L. L. (1998). Experiencing everyday prejudice and discrimination. In J. K. Swim, & C. Stangor (Eds.), Prejudice: The target's perspective (pp. 37–60). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  10. Kaiser, C. R., & Miller, C.T. (2004). A stress and coping perspective on confronting sexism. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, 168–178. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2004.00133.x

The Good, the Bad, the "Only"
The pros and cons of being the only woman in a department and the importance of setting boundaries and knowing your own limitations.

Standing Out as a Woman
An alternative way to approach being the only woman in a given situation.

Seeking Support Outside the Department
How to refute sexist comments and challenge gendered assumptions.

Keep Looking for Faculty Support
The importance of finding the right advisor to support your research goals.

Is the Effort Worth the Outcome?
Explains when to confront a problem and when it may be better to maneuver around it.

Dealing with Inappropriate Events
Suggestions for how to deal with sexist comments.

Gender Bias in the US
The first realization that being a woman in science was outside the norm.

Being Comfortable as a Woman Among Men
Emphasizes positive peer relationships within her cohort.

Observations on Women's Safety (Part 2)
Discusses necessary precautions to take as a female student working late nights on campus.

Oblivion is Bliss
How being unaware of being the only woman was advantageous to program success.


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