“As long as ‘being presidential’ and ‘looking presidential’ are about being and looking masculine, we will be unable to address what is ripping us apart as a country.”
— Sally Haslanger, Ford Professor of Philosophy
For the first time in history, a woman is a serious contender for the U.S. presidency. Based on your research, to what degree do you think gender bias and sexism have been factors in the 2016 election process? What is the single most important finding/perspective about gender attitudes that would be useful for an American voter to know?
It is hard to deny that some media outlets and news stories about the presidential election are sexist. That is to say, they unfairly devalue Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments, spread misinformation that is prejudicial, and hold her to different and higher standards than they hold Donald Trump, and do so because she is a woman. How might we support this claim? Must we show that particular journalists have sexist attitudes and these attitudes motivate their distortions? The quick answer is: No. Here’s some background to help identify the phenomenon of sexism and gender bias.
What is sexism?
“Sexism” is a term that applies to a set of practices, structures, institutions, or policies that unfairly or unjustly disadvantage women because they are women. They might exploit women’s labor, deprive women of power and autonomy, devalue women’s talents and abilities, or expose women to systematic violence, among other things. The practices need not be ones that target all women, but may target a subgroup, e.g., a sexist policy might specifically target poor women.
Sexism also takes different forms in different contexts and when aimed at different groups. Sexism toward women of color may involve policies designed to limit pregnancies, whereas sexism toward white women may involve policies encouraging them. “Sexist” applies to such practices, policies, and the like, and also to statements, ideas, and individuals who create, promote, or sustain sexism, whether intentionally or not. (See also Frye “Sexism,” 1983.)
So paying women less for comparable work is sexist because it exploits women’s labor. Advertising campaigns that represent women as interested primarily in what detergent brightens their whites are sexist because they misrepresent women’s interests and trivialize women’s abilities; they also assume, and so reinforce, what is often an unfair division of labor in the household according to which women are responsible for childcare, eldercare, and housework, and men are responsible for yard work and car repair. Comments or images that sexually objectify women are sexist because they sustain a culture in which sexual violence is normalized.