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Sexism is a gender-based bias that may well be practiced in every country on the planet, although differences from one culture to another have led to great diversity in how it is expressed. Attitudes about proper sex-based roles are reflected in gender discrimination in workplaces, schools, places of worship and homes. Those biases put constraints on both men and women, which can be reflected either in laws or informal customs.

In many cultures, generations of sexual chauvinism helped concentrate positions of authority in the hands of men. Many governments and non-government organizations have set policies or goals aimed specifically at undoing that tendency. Constitutions for nations ranging from Iraq to Tanzania require minimum levels of women’s representation in national legislatures. However, even in those states, women may hold little influence in other branches of government where those levels are not guaranteed. A United Nations agency concluded in 2006 that “progress in bringing women into leadership and decision-making positions around the world remains far too slow.” A UN special advisor on women’s issues estimated increases in women’s representation that had been recorded in the previous ten years would need to continue at the same rate until 2040 to achieve parity between male and female national lawmakers. In the United States, women comprised less than one-fifth of the membership of the Senate and House of Representatives in recent years.

The Many Faces Of Gender Bias

Gender inequality extends far beyond elected politics. Elements of inequality have traditionally been reflected in major religions, for example. No woman is known to have been ordained as a rabbi before 1935, and the first female ordination in the United States didn’t happen until 1972. Priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church is exclusively a male role, and men are disproportionately leaders in a number of other Christian denominations. Islam does not allow women to act as imams if men are present in the congregation and requires that worshipers be separated by gender. Adherents answer that gender rules are not meant to demean or to promote sexual discrimination, but to maintain God’s instructions for moral, happy living. Old Testament writings held that the man was to be the head of the family and carry responsibilities distinct from his wife’s, which in turn provided a foundation in European legal traditions for men to hold greater authority. Islam requires a woman to have a close male relative accompany her when she leaves home or receives a male visitor, rules that significantly limit a woman’s freedom. Muslims say this is done to protect a woman’s safety and honor, rather than control her or perpetuate sexism.

Rising Against Sexism

Discontent with women’s lack of autonomy, and the economic dependency that it engenders, has inspired reformers for centuries. The French playwright and political activist Olympe de Gouges authored the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in frustration when a chauvinist national constitution written in 1791, in the throes of the French Revolution, failed to recognize women’s rights to vote, own property separate from a husband or divorce an abusive husband. The English writer Mary Wollstonecraft argued in 1792, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that sexist restrictions on access to education perpetuated a false appearance that women were inferior to men. Her writings eventually influenced some leading advocates of feminism in the 20th century.

In the 1880s, socialist theoretician Friedrich Engels argued that men’s control over property undermined chances for loving relationships in the middle class, as marriage choices became guided by calculations about inheritances and children’s well-being. Loveless marriages in turn bred immorality and prostitution that objectified and degraded women, Engels argued in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. During roughly the same period, the middle class that Engels described was providing foot soldiers for women’s rights movements that spread in the United States, Europe and Australia. Voting rights were often the first goal of activists trying to combat gender discrimination. Progressives who supported women’s suffrage in the United States also took up issues involving working conditions and wages for women, although some later critics have argued many efforts were actually aimed at removing women from the paid work force, sometimes mounting chauvinist arguments meant to protect working men from competition for jobs.

Measuring Gender Bias Today

In recent years, the “pay gap” between men and women has been frequently used as a yardstick for modern sexism in society. American women in 2010 were estimated overall to earn 82.8 percent of the median wage for men. That was a step up from the 76.1 percent of a decade earlier. But it may not reflect the kind of lasting equity feminism has sought, since economists quickly pointed out that a broad recession had simply eliminated many jobs in fields such as manufacturing and construction where men were heavily represented.

Despite wage gains, forms of sexual discrimination remain embedded in American society, with both men and women divided over how much change is appropriate. American military policies that prevent women from serving in some front-line combat roles, for example, have supporters and detractors of both genders.

Sexism discussed at YouDareToAsk.com and Dare To Ask

The unfinished business surrounding modern sexism fuels a steady stream of discussions on Phillip Milano’s YouDaretoAsk.com and in his Dare To Ask column. Those exchanges range from simple questions about the extent of sexist practices to discussions about handling different expectations of modern gender roles. The insights Milano brings to those talks can come from surprising places.

Dare To Ask: Are remarks harassment or flattery?

Tackling a reader’s question — “is Latino culture more sexist?” — Milano described how the Texas-based Latino Comedy Project struck a nerve with a skit that mocks tactless Lotharios who direct catcalls at passing women.

“Whenever we do that, the Latinas in the audience go crazy, particularly when the Mojado Pendejo [a male jerk who happens to be an undocumented border crosser] comes out,” founding member Adrian Villegas told Milano.

“These women know that [catcalling] is not acceptable,” Villegas said. “By mocking it, it’s a cathartic release.”

Dare To Ask: The practice of female circumcision

To explain the scope and reasons for female genital cutting, also called female circumcision, Milano sought staff at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York. Laura Katzive, deputy director of the center’s international legal program, debunked claims that it’s an Islamic custom, saying that “the major leaders in the Muslim community have even said it’s not called for by Islam.” It is simply a tradition rooted in dozens of African societies and a few in the Middle East, Milano added, one that some supporters say enhances male sexuality and curbs female sexual desire.

Dare To Ask: Are women in the South subservient?

Chauvinism in the American South was fair game for debate, too, as Yforum visitors posted thoughts about whether husbands expected wives to wait upon them around the house.

As Southerners posted on both sides of the exchange, Milano asked Ronda Rich, a Gainesville, Ga., columnist and regional author, who described some local wisdom in the book What Southern Women Know.

“If there’s equal give and take, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with mending his socks. My mother gave my daddy coffee in bed every day, but he made sure the bills got paid and repaired the house,” Rich told Milano.

And by treating a man well, she added, “We get whatever we want. It’s a subtle way of being head of the house.”

Dare To Ask: Does a man of modest means have a chance with a woman with dough?

Controlling income was once the common way men ruled the house. But Yforum visitors have also picked apart how women’s rising incomes affect their choice of men, and how that affects their happiness.

When a working class man complained about professional women giving him the brush-off, wives and ex-wives of working men argued differing sides of what makes a suitable husband.

When Milano asked sociologist Christine Whelan, author of Marry Smart: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to True Love, she discussed how the question is still being weighed one couple at a time. Whelan said a Harris survey she commissioned of high-achieving men and women found one third of the women married someone whose income was less than their own, and two thirds said they could be comfortable being the main breadwinner.

But like many subjects involving gender and social norms, the ultimate answer depended on the person.

“Potentially, more women earn a good income and see it as a freeing thing. They can marry for love,” Whelan said. “The flip-side is plenty of them say no, I’m educated and can make a good living, but I don’t always want to have to.”