Sexism as a winning strategy in a sexist society

In a sexist society where there is a very long tradition of women being excluded from a wide range of desirable public roles, we should expect many of the following things to be said of men and these roles:

People expect a man to be doing X.
People associate manliness with important features of this role. (E.g., a male voice has more authority.)
Men have much more of a proven track record at X.
(Some) men will have much more of an audience than any woman does.

So what do we think of appealing to such beliefs as a reason to favor picking only men for such roles? One response is to label it as the ‘Sexism Wins’ strategy, with the implication that the actions are sexist. What would you suggest? Notice that the strategy is different from the frequently false response to the effect that there just aren’t any women who have enough of the needed skills or interests.

I have noticed this strategy being invoked in two recent cases. One is in a shocking response fron the NYTimes ethicist in response to Lori Gruen. See the comments on this post. Another was earlier in March in a BBC News Magazine articled linked to from a post of ours.

I’d love to hear of more examples of the use of this strategy. And it would be good to know if you think it is worth labelling it.

19 thoughts on “Sexism as a winning strategy in a sexist society

  1. Just about everything is based on using sexism to be successful: movie roles, advertising, whether you get waitors or waitresses in a certain type of restaurant,
    who is a political candidate, who sings what type of music……..

    I doubt that Hollywood is going to risk losing money by placing a woman in a role, say, that of an action hero, when most people expect a male in that role.

    I doubt that any bank or megacorporation would be willing to sacrifice a dollar of profits by placing a woman in a position if they consider that placing a male in that position will increase earnings.

  2. Sam makes a good point; a lot of people who act in a sexist or racist way don’t consider themselves to be sexist or racist in their personal attitudes, but since they perceive that sexism or racism is a winning strategy, act in a sexist or racist way, since “common sense” tells them that one always plays to win.

    After all, only fools don’t try to win or to maximize profits, right?

  3. This generally happens when people count prejudiced views in their calculation of results and then give those views weight. So another example, “I have nothing against gay people but I wouldn’t want my child to be gay because gay people are so unhappy. It’s such a struggle being gay in our world.” And another, “I don’t care if the assistant we hire is disabled but I know it would make lots of our clients uncomfortable.” Right, and attitudes like these don’t help.

  4. It’s terrible reasoning and astonishing that the NY Times’ ethicist would resort to it. I’m assuming (I hope correctly) that this woman isn’t a philosopher, which is kind of sad. You’d think a paper like the NY Times would be able to find a real ethicist to be their ethicist.

  5. I love this label. I propose every time we hear the phrase, “Sex sells” used to excuse objectification in advertising and media we respond with “No, sexism sells.”

  6. Thank you all. I ended up clearer on this than I had been before. During the last US Presidential campaign, some people insist that to reject Obama as the forerunner on the basis of the idea that there was too much prejudice to elect him was itself a racist thought. I understand better why that’s so.

    I stll wish we had gone for Clinton, but for very different reasons.

    I agree with TI that is is astounding to find this in the NY TIMES ETHICIST.

  7. Kathryn, great idea.

    An aside: i haven’t checked recently on the background “dashboard” that tells us about email addresses, but the last time I looked yours was honestly a source of great optimism. Way to good, girl! I hope you will let us share in some of your successes, and rally around if there are problems.

  8. One more point.

    Let’s take the case of some family members of mine who sold their home when the first black family arrived in the neighborhood.

    They are not racist, they affirm: they are simply selling their house before property values go down.

    Now, since they subjectively do not have racist values (they do not hate blacks or consider them to be inferior), they believe that their objectively racist action, selling their home when a black family arrives in the neighborhood, is not racist.

    From their point of view, the subjectively non-racist attitude permits them to carry out racist actions, since their intention is not racist, simply prudential in economic terms.

  9. swallerstein,

    I don’t agree with the way your family is reasoning. What makes property values go down? Increasing the proportion of supply to demand. What does putting one’s house on the market do? Increasing the proportion of supply to demand! So even though your family didn’t sell their house because they didn’t want to live with black people, selling their house contributes to the problem and perpetuates racism. Because of that, what they did was wrong.

    And I think this is precisely the point that some people are making above about “winning strategy” arguments. Sometimes doing the “winning” think is morally wrong. Period. And that can be regardless of one’s intentions.

  10. L.J.

    I agree with you.

    I was describing how my family rationalizes their racist actions, not defending their rationalizations.

  11. Thanks for this question, Anne. I’ve been pondering a related issue for over a year now: Is there any warranted androcentric reasoning? If so, what warrants it? I think you’ve usefully focussed on ambiguous cases, Anne, that help me sort out my own view.

    Argumentatively, I suggest the issue is one of relevance (probably the most difficult part of argumentation to assess.). If all the reasoner or arguer cares about is making money on the house, or if having a speaker who is perceived immediately as authoritative is the *only* concern then perhaps the reasoning might be justified. But I’m not sure those purposes are ever isolated.

    If those same people claim not to be racist, then they are hypocrites in denying the substantial racist or sexist significance of their reasoning. There are always multiple forms of significance for positions we take, and which reasons we hold ourselves responsible to are a question of priority.

    To say these decisions can be “simple” as in “simply a matter of getting good money on the house” or “just a matter of getting a recognizable name/person” is disingenuous or deeply ignorant. I think the epistemologies of ignorance can help address this.

    I’d like to say that argumentation theory can help address the specific form of the reasoning, and there are some resources. Let me have a quick go, using Doug Walton’s account of appeal to ignorance which he considers the basic form of presumptive reasoning, at work behind all schemes of argumentation that can be employed fallaciously. On this view e.g. appeal to expertise and arguing in a circle are sometimes warranted and other times not. Both forms of reasoning are specific ways of handling the (general epistemic) situation in which we have incomplete information, we operate in some sort of ignorance, and each brings with it particular risks and facilities.

    In this way, appeals to property values bring with them characteristic pitfalls, which include the tendency to reinforce racial bias in a community. If one is committed against racial bias then one does not argue well in ignoring it. Likewise appeals to the quality of a speaker will tend to privilege white, male, heterosexual able-bodied, etc. speakers. If we don’t accept status quo privilege then we need to actively scout for it and not doing so may be fallacious.

    This problem provides reason to recognize status quo thinking as a form of fallacy, and is bolstered by evidence from psychology about status quo bias. Deferral to status quo thinking, in spite of one’s anti-racist and anti-sexist commitments seems to be the problem. So, maybe Walton’s argumentation schemes account can be extended to address this.

    However, I’m not sure that status quo appeals can ever be a source for justification/warrant. Racist and sexist communities may accept such reasoning, but can that ever be justified? If not, then this may be quite different from defeasible argumentation schemes in being not just defeasible but more like the traditional conception of a fallacy as simply a bad form of reasoning that we tend to fall into.

  12. Reblogged this on RAIL and commented:
    At the feminist philosophers blog, Anne Jaap Jacobson has asked about whether there are good arguments to be made that are based on the following sorts of assumptions:
    “People expect a man to be doing X.
    People associate manliness with important features of this role. (E.g., a male voice has more authority.)
    Men have much more of a proven track record at X.
    (Some) men will have much more of an audience than any woman does.”
    Feel free to switch other axes of social bias for gender. It seems to me that these reasons are not sufficient reason to prefer men (or white, straight, wealthy, able-bodied, etc. people) over other people. It’s not sufficient because the sorts of impressions addressed here while quite ubiquitous are of minor relevance to what makes a good …. whatever the issue is. Speakers need more than an authoritative voice, and also a social significance that can be parsed in many different ways. Track records can also be assessed in different ways and being established by track record in any case may also indicate entrenchment in outdated approaches and even burnout or over-exposure. The person who attracts and audience is also not necessarily the person who makes the greatest impression on an audience.

    Yet it seems argumentation theory ought to be able to provide a clearer means (not just case-by-case as I have done) for dismissing these sorts of appeals.

  13. Drcateh, thanks so much for your thoughtful observations. I will need more time to think about it, but for now I should say that I was thinking more simply, I think. I do think these sorts of reasons are harmful and tend to reinforce sexism. So I was thinking that typically they are given with the intention of showing one is NOT just supposing men are better because they are men. That is, there’s an at least implicit denial of sexism. At the same time, they promote the sexism one purports to disavow.

    I remember somewhat “fondly” a great remark made recently. Namely, “We do not wish to increase your stress during this difficult time, but we are refusing to allow you to continue with X,” where X was very important to me. WTF? So I’d see these as very analogous, even though the disavowal is muted in the cases I used before.

    I don’t think that rules out your analysis, and would at this point opt for saying the original remarks have a number of flaws.

  14. Marilyn Frye has an extensive discussion of this problem in her essay “Sexism” in the Politics of Reality. (Indeed, the essay opens with a similar example.) Her solution is institutional analysis:

    The term ‘sexist’ characterizes cultural and economic structures which create an enforce the elaborate and rigid patterns of sex-marking and sex-announcing which divide the species, along lines of sex, into dominators and subordinates. Individual acts and practices are sexist which reinforce and support those structures either as culture or as shapes taken on by the enculturated animals.

    I think this handles quite a few cases well. White flight comes out as racist (and we can situation between white folks who harbor strong psychological feelings of antipathy toward black folks and those who more less indifferently participate (instead of resisting) social phenomena which are racist).

  15. Bijan, how interesting. Thanks for the ref.

    I think the comments from Drcatech (sp?) suggested we should try to locate the flaw in the reasoning. I also used the category ‘fallacy’. Do you see an easy was to go from Frye’s remark to locating something like a logical flaw?

  16. Example of use: I work as a math tutor and have some involvement with the science education of pre-medical (non-MD) students. Some females I work with believe either 1) math ability is a male trait and/or 2) men are inherently better suited for an MD degree. Actually, I suspect a great many females have adopted these beliefs…it’s just that I’ve only heard them explicitly in a few cases (FWIW, my father’s been in math/science education for 30+ years and says he’s noticed the same…and my mother often mentions her regret for not pursuing an MD: she loves medicine, but was hostage to lots of sexist attitudes about women doctors as a child)

    The group of students who’ve expressed these beliefs to me includes some real stars: people who get 100+ on every exam and study 50+ hours/week. These women are a mortal lock for high MCATs, but I think they believe a woman’s science career “maxes out at nursing”, as it was put to me quite bluntly (nothing wrong, of course, with nursing, as I repeat below).

    Upon probing, I’ve often found the “sexism wins” strategy somewhere in their lives, usually from a parent (the strategy tries to make acceptable this type of claim: ‘it takes time to go to med school and men have or should have more time to devote to such a thing’ or ‘going out and pursuing something at a far away University is something a man does…men set out like that but not women’)

    And I think the problem is compounded with a different (but familiar) argument from the media: the rare times we do see eg a female doctor in eg a tv show, that female doctor is not *only* a doctor but also *sexy* and looks the way you’re *supposed to*. This really adds to the sexism wins strategy, I think, in these cases. The media says it’s ok to be a doctor…so long as you still play the indispensible role of sex kitten/male object. Probably many sexist arguments try to work together like this.

    I’m no saint, I’ve adopted sexist attitudes which I regret very much. And I don’t mean to troll on nursing-that in itself may be a manifestation of my sexism-nursing is an awesome career. But I will say it’s the duty (!) of science (and other) educators-and I’ve seen some success with this-to point out the obvious as explicitly as possible: there are awesome women doctors and mathematicians who succeed on the basis of the same traits society too often attributes only to men. And then to any objections respond with some or all of the excellent responses from this thread (and I’ve found mentioning sexism directly is helpful, maybe a little moreso than *just* giving the opposite view).


  17. Hi Anne,

    Frye locates the problem in “local” definitions of sexism (including her own) rather than institutional ones. Thus, the “sexism wins” reasoning isn’t incorrect in the sense of a logical fallacy. It would be incorrect to reason that since the local reasoning isn’t fallacious or empirically wrong that it’s not sexist. I take that this is the standard argument against imposing color blindness as a sufficient criterion of non-racist policy. You can’t escape looking beyond the local procedures and local facts, even.

    If I had to sketch a formal analysis, it’d be something like this (extracting from your post:

    Consider the following argument

    1) (Some) men will have much more of an audience than any woman does.

    2) Maximizing audience (or getting above some threshold) is a reasonable goal.

    3) Therefore, we should select only men to speak.

    What’s wrong with this argument? I would say that it treats maximizing audience as not just a legitimate goal, but one which does not need to be balanced by other considerations, including the need to deal with the effects of pervasive sexism.

    Note that while one can formally de-sexualize it:

    1) Maximizing audience is a reasonable goal.

    2) Therefore, we will select those speakers who are likely to maximize our audience.

    3) Therefore, for this panel, we’ll pick X, Y, and Z

    (here X, Y, and Z are male) it still falls afoul of decontextualization issues.

    It should be obvious that the conclusion that “therefore, our procedures are not sexist” just doesn’t follow. They are not locally, formally sexist, but they are contextually, in substance sexist. Similarly, a tax law which exempts a corporation from some tax by incorporating a description that just happens to be true only of that corporation is still a law targeting that corporation even though, formally, the corporation isn’t named. That’s true even if each part of the description can be given an individual, ‘sensible’ rationale.

    I don’t know if these doodles help, but that’s what I’d get from Frye.

  18. Bijan Parsia,

    That’s an awesome account. I really like the idea that Frye’s work applies even in the de-sexualized versions, which are actually very common.

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