Just because we think we’ve achieved gender equality on a legislative level does not mean that sexism has been dismantled.
These days, I hear a lot of comments about how feminists just complain for the sake of complaining since “we technically have equal rights as men”. As much as it’s a frustrating and hilariously privileged thing to say, I can understand where it comes from. We’re fortunate enough to be at a point in society where legally, in most liberal democracies, women have equal rights as men in society.
As far as the law is concerned, women are considered equals to men. There are no longer any laws that specifically restrict women’s access to workplaces, opportunities, or even voting rights. Of course, this doesn’t mean that such access is equitable in the least.
Unfortunately, because we’re at a point in society where this sexism is less institutionalized, we’re forgetting that at its core, sexism is a systematic phenomenon that goes beyond a simple change in our laws.
Just because we think we have achieved gender equality on a legislative level, it does not mean that sexism has been entirely eradicated.
New Wave Sexism
There’s a lot of discussion and literature on a new wave of feminism, characterized by social media movements like #MeToo and global women’s marches. Feminist theorists argue that third-wave feminism, as the modern movement is characterized, can be differentiated on the basis of a new approach to activism, one that focuses more on intersectionality and crossing lines that have previously defined traditional feminist movements. For instance, there is greater attention paid to the privileges of white feminists, and how important race and culture are in the fight for gender equality. Similarly, trans rights have taken a previously unfounded place in the feminist movement. However, despite the fairly significant amount of focus on this new wave feminism, there is very little discussion of the new wave sexism that has bred the need for new wave feminism.
The Fallacies of the “Woke” Feminist
An underrated and underreported new form of sexism comes from men (and occasionally privileged women) who consider themselves “woke” or socially liberal. Such men claim to be allies of women, are generally quite supportive, but when it comes to partaking in passive sexism are still quite impervious to their own prejudices. For instance, men frequently dismiss women’s complaints of being discriminated against or in more extreme cases, of assault, and can be skeptical of their female friends who have leadership or political ambitions.
It’s much harder to fight this new form of sexism because it is more unassuming. It happens at work discussions where the women at the table are constantly interrupted. It happens every time a slight tone change is labeled as being too “emotional” or a hot-head. It happens every time a woman is told to be less “bossy” if she wants to get the respect and attention of the boys in the room. It happens far too frequently and to far too many women, and rarely do we speak out against it.
When women do call it out or try to bring attention to it, they’re labeled as ‘overreacting’, a historically oppressive trope used to demean women’s character. A burden of proof is almost always expected, and we’re quick to criticize women who fail or struggle to explain their experiences – which feeds into the very root of the problem. We can only truly defeat patriarchal systems when we realize that sexism is not always outright. It is not explicit and it is often not supported by direct evidence. We’ve been so socialized to expect certain expressions of gender inequality that we can no longer speak out against them unless we are prompted to by overwhelming evidence.
This superficial manifestation of being socially liberal stems from a refusal to accept the very fact that sexism is systematic and has not yet been overcome. Feminist scholars have spent decades theorizing feminist theory and formulating expansive, and often cross-cultural arguments, as to why we live in an inherently patriarchal system.
A relevant supporting example is that of the gender wage gap – where women are systematically paid less for doing the same work as their male counterparts. In Canada, this gap amounts to 23 cents for every dollar a man makes. However, there are many people in the Western liberal world today that think women have equal access to opportunity as men. They think the patriarchy has been toppled because women have the right to vote, to work, etc.
The truth is that the patriarchy is far from toppled. It is still very much intact. Not just here but across the world, patriarchal society and way of thinking dominate and prevents women from reaching their full potential. It is only when we begin to recognize that subtle, passive sexism contributes to this overall system that we can truly begin to dismantle it.