5 seemingly harmless things that are actually sexist

When we think of sexism, it can be tempting to call it a thing of the past - a nasty, embarrassing cultural oversight found in 1950s’ advertising, or even in our favourite Disney cartoons. But like some political careers, sexism hasn’t actually disappeared; it’s just found new expressions.

1. Expecting women to always smile

Expecting women to be happy

The expectation that a woman should always have a smile on her face is problematic. It perpetuates the idea that all that matters is how a woman looks. It also ignores the fact that women are human beings with a wide range of emotions.

This expectation that women should only show positive emotions is backed up by research, which indicates that women are often punished for expressing anger, while men are rewarded for the same behaviour.

If you ever find yourself tempted to remind a woman to smile, just remember that she might have a lot to be upset about. Start recognising that women have negative emotions, just like men do, and stop expecting them to hide these behind a smile.

2. Only backing off when she says she's 'taken'

Backing off when shes taken

We all know what they say about persistence and success. This might be true for things like learning a new song on the ukulele. But when it comes to dating, continuing to trying to attract a woman’s attention after she’s indicated she’s not interested can be downright sexist. 

Not taking a woman’s disinterest in you seriously is problematic in itself, especially if she’s made it very clear. But things can take a massively sexist turn if you think that the only reason her ‘no’ means ‘no’ is because she’s already in a relationship.

A woman’s choice is valid all on its own. If she’s saying ‘no’, she means it. Show respect and back off.   

3. Declaring you’re in the ‘friend zone’

Declaring you're in the friend zone

Type the words ‘friend zone’ into Google images and you’ll be met with meme after meme describing men’s horror at being ‘friend zoned’ (that is, when a woman indicates she’s not interested in a man sexually). What makes this term sexist is the way in which many men use it. 

Men’s stories about the friend zone often paint the man as a caring guy who isn’t getting what he deserves in return: sex

They also promote the idea that women are unfair for not returning a man’s interest. Her non-sexual feelings are seen as somehow cruel, or even as invalid. This attitude also encourages the belief that a woman’s worth is seen only through a romantic or sexual lens. It ignores the role that women can play as good friends, which can be valuable on its own. 

Men aren’t owed sex for simply being nice guys. If you’re interested in a woman, let her know. But if she doesn’t return those feelings, she’s not being mean and you’re not being punished for being a nice guy. She’s just not into you, and that’s okay. 

4. Using sexist language

Using sexist language

The descriptions ‘feminine’ and ‘girly’ are pretty commonused as insults. But ‘masculine’ traits are seen as a good thing. We say things like ‘take it like a man’, or ‘man up’, when we’re describing courage and toughness. But phrases like ‘don’t be such a girl’ are used to insult, and draw comparisons between being feminine and weak. 

Sexist language can be hard to spot because of how casually it’s used. But it’s important to keep a check on what you say in case you’re encouraging sexism. 

5. Not calling out your mates

Not calling out your mates

When we’re silent about sexism, we’re actually allowing it to continue. But calling out sexism when you encounter it can be tricky. 

You don’t have to be aggressive. Just saying that something sounds sexist, or asking someone what they mean when they make a sexist comment, is a good place to start. If you’re uncomfortable doing this in front of a group of people, that’s okay. Just take the person aside and explain why what they said is a problem. Another good option is just not to engage with sexist behaviour. Make your position clear by not laughing, high-fiving or otherwise encouraging sexist comments. 

Not everyone will be open to what you have to say. But battling sexism is a group effort that takes time. Remember that doing nothing changes nothing; speaking up always helps.
Last reviewed: 16 February, 2017
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