Can philosophers help clarify social and political debate by applying their analytic methods to areas of dispute? Dr Les Burwood certainly thinks they can and has written this piece as an attempt to distinguish the different uses of the term “sexism” and their legitimacy. His arguments are thought-provoking and controversial, which is why they have generated strong objections and why we’ve made them the basis for our first Open Debate.
Most educated people believe that sexism is wrong, but a little probing shows that there is disagreement about precisely what they are opposed to. One common view of sexism is that women, because they are women, should not be treated in a discriminatory manner. But to be against discrimination per se is insufficiently precise and might result in injustice. Conventional conceptions of distributive justice state that like cases should be treated alike and unlike cases treated differently in respect of burdens and benefits. So discrimination should occur when there are relevant differences between the cases up for consideration. We give medicine to the sick, but not to the healthy. It follows from this that if we define sexism as (simply) discrimination on the basis of sex, then it would be reasonable to ask, on each occasion, whether the discrimination was justified. From this we can see that sexism is better defined as unjustified discrimination on the basis of sex with respect to benefits and burdens. Sexism, in this proper sense, is essentially intentional and disagreeable. It is a matter of advantaging or disadvantaging somebody for no other or better reason that they happen to be either a man or a woman.
In the 1980s it became fashionable to speak of institutional sexism. The suggestion seems to be that routine practices and processes in a state or in an institution result, unintentionally, in unequal outcomes with respect to sex and that this is institutional sexism. It differs from the proper sense above in that the proper sense is, by definition, intentional as well as disagreeable. I want to argue that one sense of institutional sexism is legitimate, another not so. If a state or institution has laws or regulations treating men and women differently which result in intentional unjustified discrimination on the basis of sex, then we can speak of institutional sexism. Where, for example, there are rules saying that the age for state-pensions being received is sixty for women and sixty-five for men, then officials administering the system will, by virtue of the rules, carry out actions which are intentionally discriminatory in an unjustified manner and, therefore, sexist. This sense of institutional sexism is legitimate.
Another use of the term ‘institutional sexism’ is, however, illegitimate. It is well known that men and women are found in varying proportions in different spheres of life, including types of employment and educational institutions. For example, there are few women train drivers, but there are many training to be nurses or primary school teachers. Now is it legitimate to speak here of institutional sexism? I want to argue that it is illegitimate to do so merely where, and because, the facts of the situation show simply and only that either men or women are not “represented” in roughly the same proportion as the population as a whole.
As used in this illegitimate sense, it is not necessary to show that any intentional sexual discrimination took place, not necessary to show that anyone actually has exercised any sexual preference, nor that anyone has benefited or disbenefited by virtue of their sex. On the contrary, in this illegitimate sense it is sufficient to show that, for whatever reason, men or women are either under-represented in some enviable or over-represented in some unenviable occupation or sphere of life. In this illegitimate sense, institutional sexism is defined not in terms of unjustified, discriminatory intentions but in terms of differential outcomes. For those who use the word in this sense it is easy and tempting to make invalid inferences directly from such consequences to such intentions. Flew has made such points in connection with racism.
It must be recognised that people make choices and that people who are similar in most characteristics may and might choose things that are dissimilar. None of us is the totally helpless creations of our genes and environments and that different people may respond in different ways to similar environments. To infer sexual discrimination directly and merely from observed and recorded inequalities of outcome, as so many commonly do, is to assume (mistakenly) that inclinations and abilities are found in broadly the same distributions in both men and women. Sexual discrimination cannot be inferred simply because in some areas of life men and women are not distributed in the same way as in the population as a whole.
Of course, there are many social and historical reasons for unequal distribution of men and women in society. Part of the explanation is that men and women differ, sometimes, in their motivations, temperaments, characters and abilities. It might be possible and desirable to equalise these, but it will take time. The point here is that one should not infer institutional sexism merely from sexual inequality of outcome.
So far, we have identified the proper sense of sexism as unjustified, intentional discrimination on the basis of sex in respect of benefits and burdens and the legitimate (but parasitical) sense of institutional sexism whereby an institution or state has rules requiring its officials to exercise unjustified discrimination on the basis of sex. Let us call this “sense 1”.
Sometimes the term sexism is used to refer to the activity of stereotyping individuals, men or women, in traditional, segregated sex-roles. Let us call this “sense 2”. The showing of television advertisements portraying women as homemakers and child carers and men as sole breadwinners would constitute sexism in this sense of stereotyping individuals in traditional segregated sex-roles.
A further sense of sexism which can be identified might be summarised by saying that it refers to the oppression of women by men (or vice versa). Let us refer to this as “sense 3”. Male pimps exercising control over female prostitutes would be a paradigmatic example of the use of this sense of sexism.
It can be seen now that sexism in one sense of the term might not be sexism in another sense. For example, the practice of portraying women in domestic roles in much advertising is sexist in sense 2, but not obviously sexist in the other two senses. Rejecting a women for a job just because she is a woman would be a case of sexism in sense 1, but may be quite unconnected with sex-role stereotyping (often, of course, it is both). A man forcing his wife to stay at home and look after children and do housework while he is out enjoying himself would constitute sexism in sense 3, and may also be sexist in the other senses, although not necessarily. A woman may force (although this is unlikely) a man to stay at home and do the chores while she always goes out and enjoys herself: this would be sexism in sense 3 (oppression) but not in sense 2 because traditional sex-role stereotyping is not taking place.
It can be seen that there are different senses of the notion of sexism. The same word refers to different concepts. While the different senses are related, it is important to be clear as to which sense is being used on a particular occasion. If sexism is to be opposed, then it is important to be clear precisely what is being opposed and, indeed, what is not. It seems to me that the women’s movement should object to things other than those which are sexist in the above senses. Films which portray violence against women and rape should be boycotted and others should be encouraged to boycott such films. But the objection to such films seems to be that it is wrong to portray and glorify violence, not that the films are sexist. It seems just as important to condemn films which portray and glorify violence to men. Of course, some films are sexist (in various senses), e.g. they stereotype men and women in traditional sex-roles. Whether these films should be avoided is an open question – few films are non-sexist in this sense and feminists would hardly ever go to the cinema! I have tried to show that there are different sense of the word ‘sexism’ and that it is important to be clear about which we are using.
Dr Les Burwood, King Alfred’s College, Winchester, Hants. S022 4NR. UK
Dr Burwood sets out with the laudable goal of elucidating the various ways in which the term “sexism” is employed. However, at times his essay is written with a frustrating lack of clarity. Notwithstanding this point, it is clear that many of his claims about the nature of sexism are wholly unrepresentative of the treatment of sexism found in, certainly, feminist literature. Thus, Dr Burwood seems to be attacking his own “straw man” version of feminism. It is to this issue that I shall address my criticisms.
Dr Burwood claims that a common view about sexism is that “women, because they are women, should not be treated in a discriminatory manner”. In other words, any differential treatment based on gender is construed as sexist. However, whilst such a view of sexism may make the occasional appearance in the popular press, it is certainly not a common view. On the contrary, many of those who claim to be fighting sexism advocate the practice of “positive discrimination” in education and the labour market. That is, they claim that in order to tackle male dominance in certain sectors, a woman applying for a job as a university lecturer, for example, should be given preference over a male applicant precisely because she is a woman.
Dr Burwood goes on to assert that “In the 1980s it became fashionable to speak of institutional sexism.” He does not inform us whether he is referring to the popular press, academic writing, or some other medium. Certainly, the concept of institutional sexism entered social scientific discourse long before the 1980s. For example, as early as 1884, Friedrich Engels claimed that the institution of private property resulted in inequality between men and women. Private property was owned by men and Engels claimed that the monogamous family developed in order to ensure that only “legitimate” heirs would inherit such property. Thus, Engels asserted: the monogamous family “is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity [Engels, F. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1972].”
Dr Burwood claims that the notion of “institutional sexism” has an illegitimate sense, whereby sexism is inferred directly where it can be shown that “men or women are either under-represented in some enviable or over-represented in some unenviable occupation or sphere of life.” Furthermore, he argues that, “for those who use the word in this sense it is easy and tempting to make invalid inferences directly from such consequences to such intentions.” In reality, however, most feminists are well aware that intentions can not be directly inferred from consequences. Moreover, surely the defining characteristic of institutional sexism is precisely that such sexism is not intentional. Institutions are abstract constructs and, as such, they cannot have intentions.
The views of the vast majority of feminist writers are much more sophisticated than Dr Burwood seems to give them credit for, and few feminists of any repute would claim that sexism may automatically be inferred from the mere under- or over-representation of men or women in any particular sphere. On the contrary, feminists are interested in exploring the social processes that result in the under- or over-representation of either sex in any particular sphere of life. Thus, to use Dr Burwood’s example, the fact that there are few women train drivers does not automatically lead feminists to conclude that institutional sexism is at work. Rather, they examine complex social phenomena such as the ways in which train driving is stereotyped as “man’s work”, and the way in which this stereotype acts to dissuade women from applying for such jobs and employers from employing them.
All in all then, the criticisms that Dr Burwood makes about the use of the term “sexism” are spurious, in that he attacks a notion of sexism that few people would recognise as such. Having attacked his own “straw man” version of sexism, Dr Burwood advises that “the women’s movement should object to things other than those which are sexist ….”. He suggests that feminists should boycott films that portray rape and other forms of violence against women not because they are sexist but because they are violent. The women’s movement should, he says, object equally strongly to films that portray violence against men. Whilst one can, of course, debate the desirability of boycotting all violent films, such a debate can only be peripheral to the agenda of an authentic women’s movement. If opposing violence became more central to the women’s movement than opposing sexism, the movement could no longer legitimately be called a woman’s movement. It would, rather, have become an anti-violence movement.
Cheryl O’Donoghue, London
Cheryl O’Donoghue in her criticism of my paper on sexism seems pretty sure about what feminists would or would not think. I would not wish to be so presumptuous. My paper merely elucidates various possible meanings of the term “sexism”; it makes no claims as to whom might typically use a particular conception of sexism; it merely tries to distinguish uses which are sometimes mixed up or, indeed, made without clear stipulative definition. Whether feminists are more inclined towards such muddles than other people, I do not know.
She refers to “reverse discrimination”, that is, giving preferential treatment to, say, applicants for jobs or college places, if they happen to come from disadvantaged or under-represented groups. However, she mistakenly calls this “positive discrimination”, which is, of course, very different. It would follow that anyone who believed, as I do, that reverse discrimination involved unjustified discrimination, would be sexist in carrying out the policy of preferential treatment on what are the irrelevant grounds of sex.
She addresses the issue of “institutional sexism”, but (see her fourth paragraph) she does nothing to show that any of my points are wrong. At best she merely stipulates that, in her view, the defining characteristic of institutional sexism is that it is not intentional. By contrast, I presented several arguments in my fourth, fifth and sixth paragraphs as to why I thought that such a usage ought to be regarded as illegitimate. I do not wish to merely repeat them here.
I have no disagreement with what O’Donoghue claims feminists are interested in: exploring social processes that result in the under or over-representation of men and women in a particular sphere of life. I happen to believe it to be an important area of social theory, but it is way beyond a philosophical discussion of conceptions of sexism.
Finally, in my aside about films, by way of exemplifying types of sexism and contrasting them, O’Donoghue misses the point. I claimed, merely, that there might be different grounds on which one might object to a film: such as the portraying of violence, or, such as the stereotyping of sex-roles. Especially in the light of Cheryl O’Donoghue’s remarks, I am inclined to repeat part of my last sentence: that it is important to see that there are different senses of the word ‘sexism’ – different conceptions – and that it is important to be clear about which we are using.
Dr Burwood makes the observation that we cannot infer sexism simply from the fact of unequal outcomes. No doubt this is true. However, his further comment that unequal outcomes between men and woman are (at least in part) explained by differences in ability also seems to be a case of unjustified inference. What evidence does he have that unequal outcomes in say, philosophy, are the result of differences in ability? Indeed, what evidence does he have that abilities are not more or less evenly spread between the sexes? Surely if we cannot infer sexism simply from the fact of unequal outcomes, neither can we infer differences in ability from the fact of unequal outcomes. Unequal outcomes may be the result of any number of things, including sexism.
C. McDonald misses the crucial point. In my sixth paragraph I state that part of the explanation for the historical unequal distribution of men and women in society is that men and women differ in their motivations, temperaments, characters and abilities. McDonald asks what evidence do I have that unequal outcomes are the result of differences in ability? While I did not cite evidence, there is of course a wealth of it to hand, which I could not hope to summarise here. One example would be the work of the Californian feminist Chodorow, who argues in The Reproduction of Mothering that men lack the capacity to mother and not merely the will to do so. Recent work on the human brain indicates many differences in ability, such as those which shape men’s ability to use emotions effectively in many areas of life.
But the crucial point, contrary to what McDonald suggests, is that I do not infer differences in ability from the fact of unequal outcomes; I merely draw attention to the fact of differences in ability and merely accept the evidence which attempts to isolate the differences as one key variable in the production of unequal outcomes.
Dr. Burwood makes some valid points in his essay “On What Sexism Is and What It Is Not” but a number his arguments are rather muddy. They include an imprecise definition of sexual discrimination and an erroneous separation between three “senses” of the word “sexism.” I will attempt to redefine sexual discrimination more acceptably and will argue that the word “sexism” rather unambiguously describes sexist thought (in the “sense 2” definition, stereotyping based on gender) and actions which are rooted in sexist thought.
On the subject of sexual discrimination Dr. Burwood has this to say:
A second more grievous error is the assertion that “Sexism, in this proper sense, is essentially intentional and disagreeable.” In the U.S.A., the papers have been running a story about sexual discrimination within the ranks of orchestras. Tests showed that when the sex of the auditioners for these orchestras was unknown, women were given significantly more placements than they had been previously. All indications are that the discrimination was unintentional, but it was definitely “sexist” in the sense that it was based on sex stereotypes. Barring a bizarre coincidence, the most logical explanation for the change in recruitment patters after the change to blind hiring is that the hirers harboured certain sentiments about women that unfairly affected their hiring practices. The fact that this change in audition method was made would seem to indicate that the hirers were trying to correct for inadvertent sexual discrimination, meaning it was not initially intentional, yet it is a clear example of unjust sexual discrimination based upon sex stereotypes. It therefore follows that sexual discrimination can in fact be unintentional.
Dr. Burwood then tries to separate “legitimate” and “illegitimate” claims of “institutional sexism” but again falls into trouble:
What about unintentionally discriminatory laws and regulations then? If a regulation makes no mention of sex or sex characteristics can it be sexually discriminatory? It may very well unintentionally favour one sex but only when there are actual sex differences, not just stereotypes. For example imagine a regulation that allowed employees only 5 minutes in the bathroom. The woman who has her period may be much more inconvenienced than a male counterpart. Is this a discriminatory policy? What about the common problem of men and women’s bathrooms containing the same number of stalls even though women on average take longer to go about their business? In this case building similar bathrooms and ignoring sex differences may be seen as unfair towards women. This is a rather sticky question of equality of results. These types of situations must be examined on an individual basis, as they do not necessarily point to discrimination. Dr. Burwood provides a fine explanation of how inequality of results alone is inconclusive in pointing to “institutional sexism.”
Following this explanation, Dr. Burwood delineates what he sees as the three “senses” of “sexism,” something I would also contest. His “sense 1,” unjustified discrimination on the basis of sex, is more clearly termed “sexual discrimination.” It is rooted in what he calls “sense 2,” the stereotyping of individuals. In fact “sense 1” and “sense 2” are related in that “sense 1” is an action which stems from “sense 2.” Sexual discrimination is rooted in sexist thought, and as such we could term this behaviour “sexist” or “sexism,” being the practical extension of sexist feelings.
To summarise, “sexism” is used to refer to the stereotyping of people based on sex, and is also used to refer to actions that stem from these stereotypes. All of these actions, be they job discrimination or TV portrayals, can fairly unambiguously be termed “sexist” because they share the common thread of sexist thought as their impetus. While more precise terms (such as “sexual discrimination”) may be available there is little confusion in using the umbrella term “sexism” if the understanding is that it refers to stereotyping and actions predicated upon those stereotypes. Furthermore, while unintentional inequality of results does not always indicate sexism, it is not safe to say that sexism need be intentional, as the orchestra example clearly illustrates.
I’m grateful to James Margaris for his comments on my paper. He uses an interesting example and goes into some useful detail. In the end, I’m unconvinced he redefines sexism in an acceptable way, as he claims.
I certainly wish to stick by my original claim that sexism is essentially intentional and disagreeable. My paper picks out at least three possible meanings of the word ‘sexism’ as well as a legitimate use of the term ‘institutional sexism’. The first is unjustified discrimination by individuals on the basis of sex with respect to benefits and burdens. In this sense it clearly involves intentional action. The second is the activity of stereotyping individuals with respect to sex roles. Here, too, it involves intentional action done by somebody. The third is the activity of a member of one sex oppressing a member of the opposite sex. Again, intentional action is typically involved. These three senses seem to be most common and significant. There might be others, but none have been cited so far by James Margaris or other critics. Further, there are clear cases of institutional sexism in which individuals within institutions apply rules which are discriminatory with respect to sex and which result in unequal outcomes. But note that these actions are still intentional on the part of individuals.
It seems that the main difference between Margaris’s and my own position is that he wishes to speak of sexist action which is unintentional. Obviously, I accept that there are many areas of social life where men or women are unequally represented. The hiring of people for playing in orchestras provides an interesting example. If I interpret it correctly, in Margaris’s example more women were hired when the sex of those auditioning was kept from those doing the hiring.
What conclusions can be drawn? Even if one simply takes the unequal outcome of appointments as given and one knew nothing else, it still does not follow that any intentional discrimination took place or that anyone exercised any sexual preference, let alone that anything wrong has taken place. Further investigation would be called for. Margaris claims “the most logical explanation for the change in recruitment patterns after the change to blind hiring is that the hirers harboured certain sentiments about women that unfairly affected their hiring practices . But the really crucial question to ask here is what were the nature of these “sentiments” and what sort of intentional action was involved? There are several possible scenarios, of which the following are only some of the most significant:
- The hirers could have simply believed that women in general were inferior musicians and appointed fewer individual women because of holding that belief. In which case it was unjustified, intentional discrimination and, therefore, sexist.
- The hirers could have held stereotypes which were such that women were not typically viewed as musicians and acted on those stereotypes. In which case the actions were, again, unjustified and intentionally discriminatory, and therefore sexist.
- The hirers could have sincerely thought they were appointing the best person for the job and yet still appointed more men overall. In which case further investigation would be called for. Precisely what beliefs did the hirers have and how did they influence their actions? Either the hirers acted intentionally and unjustifiably with respect to some consciously held belief about men and women, in which case their actions were sexist, or, they acted intentionally with respect to some other irrelevant standard, in which case their actions were in error, or were stupid, but were not sexist. For example, perhaps they thought taller people make better musicians. This latter case might result in unequal appointments with respect to sex, but is not in my view best described as sexist action, just stupid action.
I accept James Margaris’s point that even where institutions’ regulations are justifiably non-discriminatory, it is always possible that institutions’ members can and do act intentionally in ways which are unjustifiably discriminatory. But this does not warrant a new term as Margaris suggests. It is simply a case of people being sexist in one or more of the standard senses which I have picked out. Above all, it does not help, I feel, to call it institutional sexism.
I accept, too, that sometimes an institution’s rules are not directly discriminatory with respect to sex, but that the outcome of their application results in indirect discrimination, for example, requiring musicians to be at least six feet tall. Indeed, British equal opportunities legislation recognises this sort of case. I accept what Margaris would presumable agree with, that we have a case of unjustified sexual discrimination. But in my view, it is a case of unjustified sexual discrimination which is not, or is not a result of, a variety of sexism.
In sum, my preference is for reserving the term sexism for a range of intentional actions all of which are unjustified with respect to sex, irrespective of whether the action was done one-to-one, so to speak, or within the context of institutional rules. If one is faced with a situation of “unequal outcomes” where men or women are unequally represented in some sphere of social life, then it does not follow that sexism has taken place or that it is the best explanation of the unequal outcome. What is called for is further investigation into the explanation of under or over-representation, but at some point that outcome will be traced back to some conscious and intentional human action. Sometimes people make free choices and act in ways which result in unequal outcomes. Bear in mind that men and women differ, sometimes, in their motivations, temperaments, characters and abilities. There might be a range of explanations for these differences. But the fact of these differences results in people making choices in such a way that people who are similar in most characteristics sometimes choose things that are not similar. None of us is the totally helpless creation of our genes and environment and different people might respond in different ways to similar environments.