From Nijole V. Benokraitis and Joe R. Feagin. Modern Sexism:Blatant, Subtle, and Covert Discrimination. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Prentice-Hall, 1986, pp. 28-45.

Overt/Subtle/Covert Sex Discrimination: AnOverview

Consider the following examples of a management meeting where bothmale and female managers are present:


Situation 1: Women are routinely addressed as"honey," "babe," or "gorgeous," and hear sexist stories, jokes, andvulgar language. They are expected to take notes and listen. Activeparticipation is discouraged.

Situation 2: Off-color stories are typically not told. Or,if they are, they are interrupted with the warning "there are ladiespresent." Men speak differently to women than they do to men-they aremore formal, polite, deliberate, and long-winded.

Situation 3: Only a few women are present. Women's inputis minimal or guarded. While their comments are often overlooked, thewomen are also encouraged to participate because they represent "theother women."

Although the content of interaction varies, all three casesillustrate sex inequality. In all three examples, women are treatedlike women, not managers. In situation 1, language is openly sexistand derogatory (overt discrimination). In situation 2, the women aretreated like "ladies" rather than co-workers (subtlediscrimination). In situation 3, women are overlooked or set apart assymbols (covert discrimination).

Such terms as "covert discrimination," "subtle discrimination,"and "unintentional discrimination" are beginning to appear withgreater frequency in common parlance, newspapers, textbooks, andfeminist articles. There has been an increased awareness of theimportance of addressing non-overt sex discrimination. Forexample, the 1980 Report of the President's Advisory Committee forWomen stated that "covert biases are equally as detrimental toaccomplishing educational equity as overt discriminatorypractices."1 In a study of sex roles in organizations,Forisha and Goldman stressed that "probably the gravest problem thatwomen face is sexism . . . not . . . sexist practices which are overtbut . . . the pervasive and relatively inaccessible,non-conscious value, that women are not men and men are betterthan women."2 Most recently, the U.S. Commission on CivilRights stated that productive approaches toward eliminatingdiscrimination must emphasize "an informed awareness of the form,dynamics, and subtleties of the process of discrimination."3

Despite the agreed-upon importance of understanding covertand subtle sex discrimination, theoretical and research efforts inthis area have been embryonic. The analytical focus on sexdiscrimination has not changed significantly since the 1950s. For themost part, almost all of the research on sex discrimination stillexamines only overt sex discrimination.




For the purposes of this book, sex discrimination refers to theunequal and harmful treatment of individuals or groups because oftheir gender. Although both men and women can be targets and victimsof sex discrimination, a vast literature indicates that being a womanis frequently a better predictor of inequality than such variables asage, race, religion, intelligence, achievements, or socioeconomicstatus.4 That is, although some men may be discriminatedagainst because of their education, religion, race, or politicalaffiliations, for example, they are not treated unequally simplybecause they are men. Quite to the contrary, being a man mayneutralize or override racial, age, or religious discrimination.Women, on the other hand, will be treated unequally simply becausethey are women and regardless of other variables. *

Current examinations of sex discrimination, however valid, areinadequate and incomplete because they emphasize overt discriminationand pay minimal, if any, attention to subtle and covertdiscrimination. This results in understanding only a portion of thedynamics and characteristics of sex inequality.

After providing some working definitions and examples, we willsummarize the state of the literature in the areas of overt, subtle,and covert sex discrimination; suggest some dimensions across whichsex discrimination varies; and discuss women's complicity indiscriminatory practices.

Overt sex discrimination. Overt sexdiscrimination refers to an unequal and harmful treatment of womenthat is readily apparent, visibile, and observable and can be easilydocumented. Examples of overt sex discrimination include sexualharassment, sexist language and jokes, physical violence andviolation (rape, incest, wife abuse), and other forms of unequaltreatment in the family, employment, politics, religion, and otherinstitutional sectors. For instance, inequality in the ecoriomicsector includes unequal salaries in comparable jobs, lack ofpromotion opportunities, and sex-segregated labor markets.

Overt discrimination can be (and has been) documented by examiningthe disparate distribution of rewards by sex. Nationally, forexample, women's salaries are still 59 percent of those of their malecounterparts (lower than the 1969 figure of 61 percent). In 1980women with a college degree earned about the same as men who hadcompleted only elementary school ($16,417 and $15,709, respectively),and women in managerial/administrative positions had a median incomeof $12,936 compared to $23,558 for men at these occupational levels.5

All of the anti-discrimination legislation passed since the1963 Equal Pay Act has been aimed at dismantling overt sexdiscrimination. Thus, we have laws prohibiting sex discrimination inemployment (Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), education (TitleIX of the Education Amendments Acts), housing, credit, and law.Clearly, the passage of anti-discrimination laws has notresulted in sex equality. Such legislation has been functional,however, both in recognizing that sex discrimination exists andproviding men and women with some of the tools to fight blatant sexdiscrimination.

Subtle sex discrimination. Subtle sexdiscrimination refers to the unequal and harmful treatment of womenthat is visible but often not noticed because we have internalizedsexist behavior as "normal," "natural," acceptable, or customary.However liberated we might like to be, most of us--men and womenalike--feel that women are really not as good, capable,competent, and intelligent as men, especially in prestigious,competitive, and traditionally male-dominated jobs. Forexample, when a male faculty member becomes chairperson of adepartment, he is congratulated, encouraged, and reinforced in his"mobility." A female faculty member, on the other hand, is quitelikely to get such spontaneous (and sincere) comments as, "Didn'tanybody else [i.e., men] in the department want the job?" "Are you anActing Chair?" or "Won't this interfere with your kids' schedules?"Sometimes, of course, men also get such comments. However, the toneand message are quite different. For men, there is a playful ribbingabout taking an administrative position (for example, he has joinedthe ranks of "the enemy" or has abdicated from the important role ofteaching to "push paper"). Despite the teasing, the man is supportedand reinforced. For women, however, the comments are negative becausethey raise questions about her administrative competence, ability, orpriorities. Thus, whereas men are kidded because "Aren't you toogood to be doing administration?" the message to women is "Areyou good enough to be doing administration?" Similarexperiences have been reported by women administrators and managersin the profit sector.

In terms of characteristics, subtle sex discrimination can beinnocent or manipulative, intentional or unintentional, wellintentioned or malicious. As Chapter Five will show, subtle sexdiscrimination, although it can be documented, is not as easyto prove as overt sex discrimination because most of do not perceivesubtle sex discrimination as "real" discrimination. Consequently,subtle discrimination processes are often not seen as discriminatorybecause they have become acceptable-through tradition, custom,religious interpretations (or misinterpretations), mythologies, folkbeliefs,."scientific" theories (as biological determinism), and laws.

Both because subtle sex discrimination is not part of ourconsciousness and because it may be unintentional, subtle sexdiscrimination can provide a semblance of sex equality because thereis an absence of overt sex discrimination. For example, having awoman chair an academic department, especially if it is maledominated, may be seen as an "objective" measure of sex equality. If,however, her appointment/election is not taken seriously because ofher gender (i.e., subtle sex discrimination) by students,secretaries, faculty, and administration and if she accepts suchreactions, her effectiveness will be neutralized or undermined.Objectively, the department would be applauded for its progressivetreatment of women and would be seen by such groups as the EEOC asfulfilling goals of promoting women in higher education. In reality,however, she would be little more than a figurehead, a puppet, or atoken.

Covert sex discrimination. Covert sexdiscrimination refers to the unequal and harmful treatment of womenthat is hidden, clandestine, maliciously motivated and very difficultto document. As will be discussed later there are several forms ofcovert sex discrimination. Regardless of the form it takes, covertsex discrimination refers to behavior that consciously, purposely,and skillfully attempts to ensure women's failure, whether this isreflected in promotions, retention, and hiring or in such lesstangible reactions as not taking women seriously.

One of the most common and successful methods of keeping women intheir "place" internally in organizations is to imposeresponsibilities that are impossible to meet and then castigate womenfor not fulfilling the duties. For example; giving womenlast-minute jobs that are impossible to complete by theassigned deadline can, when nothing else (gossip, sexual harassment,and ridicule) succeeds, ensure a woman's lack of promotion or salaryincrease. A major problem, as will be discussed in Chapter Six, isthat covert sex discrimination is very difficult to prove ordocument.

Summary. The three types of sex discrimination can be seenas lying along a continuum and varying on such dimensions asvisibility, intent, degree of harm, documentation, and remedies. (SeeTable 3.1.)


TABLE 3.1. Sex Discrimination Typology









Intentional and

Intentional and


Degree of harm

Very severe-mild


Severe-very severe

Can be documented




Can be remedied
(legislation, norms,
bureaucratic rules)





Table 3.1 suggests several generalizations. First, although thethree types of discrimination (overt, subtle, covert) can be seen ona continuum, there is some overlap of characteristics across thecategories. For example, overt and subtle discrimination can be bothintentional and unintentional.

Second, a single discriminatory act may represent several types ofinequality. Since its passage in 1976, several large financialinstitutions, such as Household Finance Corporation, have been suedfor violating the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Some of theviolations--requiring the spouse's approval for a loan, forexample--have been blatantly discriminatory. Other loan and creditviolations have been much more subtle.6 Some financialinstitutions do not inform their applicants that if the applicantvolunteers information on income received through alimony, childsupport, or public assistance, the applicant will probably be definedas being financially unstable and rejected as a "bad risk." Nottelling consumers that they are not required to give information onsex, marital status, and some sources of income is a covert form ofsex discrimination. Using the information to screen out women who arenot supported by men's "stable" income represents subtle sexdiscrimination.

Because subtle and covert discrimination are more difficult tosee, document, and remedy, they may well last longer. Thus, it isespecially important to understand both of these types of inequality.As will be discussed, however, there are still some serious gaps evenin our understanding of how overt sex discrimination works.

Despite the documentation of the existence and persistence ofovert sex discrimination and despite nationalanti-discrimination legislation (for example, affirmativeaction, the Equal Pay Act, and Title IX), why is sex inequalityalive, well, and flourishing? There are several possible answers.

As we discussed in Chapter One, the Reagan administration'sdismantling and diluting of sex equity legislation, organizations,and research agencies have fueled a widespread backlash againstwomen's liberation activities. Also, such best-sellers asThe Total Woman, The Cinderella Complex, and Having It All either glorify women's subservience or blame women for theirsubordinate position. Finally, our discriminatory processes havebecome more sophisticated. Like the chameleon, sex discrimination isevolutionary, adaptable to change and new environments. In otherwords, as overt and visible barriers began to be challenged duringthe late 1960s and early 1970s, they were replaced by subtle andcovert sex discrimination in the 1980s.

This is not to say that subtle or covert sex discrimination didnot exist prior to the 1970s. They did--especially in thoseupper-level occupations where women tried to compete with menfor power, wealth, or status. However, because overt sexdiscrimination was accepted, unquestioned, or normative, alternativediscriminatory strategies were less necessary.

As greater numbers of women enter the labor force and compete withmen-- especially in such lucrative positions as management, theprofessions, "high tech," and the crafts--subtle and overt sexdiscrimination techniques will become more common and sophisticated.A handful of researchers have noticed this change and have begun toaddress issues related to subtle and covert sex discrimination. Theanalyses, however pioneering, have been modest and incomplete.



If one searches the literature diligently, it is possible to finda few indirect references to or examples of subtle and covert sexdiscrimination. For example, Korda cautions corporate women not to be"taken in" by flirtation, flattery, and seductive innuendos and to besuspicious of chivalry because "deference to a woman becomes a meansof excluding her from the group."7 Schrank, although hedoes not describe the processes, emphasizes that when their power isthreatened, vested groups of men will pull any woman down for"tinkering with their interest."8 In a study of employmentagency referrals, Pifer shows that minorities are given job referralsbut are told about fewer job openings, less desirable jobs, and onlythe lowest-paying jobs.9 Examining criminal justicesystems, Feinman found that policewomen and women correctionsofficers faced barriers that are not immediately visible--forexample, tougher job requirements and different training andpromotion procedures.10 And, in a case study of upwardlymobile elementary school principals, Ortiz found that one of the keybarriers to moving into upper-echelon high schooladministration was exclusion from male-dominated informalgroups that wield influence with superintendents, board members, andcommunity leaders.11

Although these and other studies provide insights intounderstanding subtle and covert sex discrimination, there are anumber of limitations: the inference of process from consequences, anabsence or ambiguity of definitions, an inconsistent usage ofconcepts, and a focus on very specific populations.

Inferring process from consequences. A numberof authors infer the presence of subtle/covert processes fromstatistics showing discriminatory consequences. For example, Astin,in her study of women doctorates, suggests that subtle discriminationmust be present because a prospective employer was disinterested inpursuing an apparently qualified woman's job inquiries and becauseprofessional women felt isolated from collegial relationships.12 Thus, Astin documents the low percentage of femalePh.D.s in academia but infers rather than shows the presence ofsubtle discrimination. It is probably true that academic departmentsdo not hire women (despite competitive credentials) because women arebelieved to have a "dampening" effect on male camaraderie; forexample, women are expected not to be interested in discussingfootball, wars, or male sexual adventures. However, not being hired{consequence) does not explain the mechanisms {process) used to disqualify women. Similarly, Frieze attributes a seriesof sex inequalities--in training, job failure, male and femaleexpectations--to covert discrimination without defining the term orshowing how covert discrimination produces such inequalities in thecriminal justice system. 13

Absence/ambiguity of definitions. Definitions of subtle/covert sex discrimination are rarely given. Forexample, a recent study of "chilly classroom climates" states onlythat "subtle biases in the way teachers behave toward students mayseem so 'normal' that the particular behaviors which express themoften go unnoticed." 14 Although some processes aredescribed (for example, praising the responses of men but not ofwomen), definitions of subtle sex discrimination are not provided.

Where definitions are given, they are unclear. The most elaboratedefinition available characterizes covert discrimination as havingthree sets of attributes: hidden, malicious, surreptitious, andintentional; unconscious, subconscious, and unintentional; and asresulting from marital status because the married woman is "undercover, authority, or protection of the husband." 15 Theexamples of covert sex discrimination include women faculty membersbeing excluded from informal departmental decisions, being routinelygiven the responsibility of performing clerical chores, and having tochoose between raising a family or pursuing a successful career.16 There is no explanation, however, of how covert sexdiscrimination "results" from marital status.

Inconsistent usage of concepts. Prejudiceand discrimination are sometimes used interchangeably to describeboth covert and subtle discrimination. Analytically, prejudice refersto attitudes, whereas discrimination refers to acts. Yet, severalwriters use these terms synonymously. For example, Smith refers todiscrimination as both "adverse actions and attitudes." 17Frieze's article on covert discrimination focuses almost exclusivelyon attitudes rather than acts,18 and Kendall and Feagin,despite their emphasis on acts and behavior, sometimes infer subtlesex discrimination from prejudicial attitudes andstereotypes.19

Similarly, the terms "subtle" and "covert" are sometimes usedinterchangeably and ambiguously. For example, in defining covertdiscrimmation as the "hidden set of assumptions about how men andwomen should behave and the goals that they set themselves," Ramaleyalso describes covert discrimination as being subtle and rarelyconscious.20 This suggests that the two concepts-subtlediscrimination and covert discrimination--are overlapping orinterchangeable. Even when only the covert discrimination concept isused, its usage is imprecise, vague, and often inconsistent. That is,can covert discrimination be both surreptitious and unconscious sincesurreptitiousness implies conscious planning? 21 Also, cancovert discrimination be surreptitious, intentional, and unintentional? 22

Although Pottker implies that covert discrimination is differentfrom overt discrimination (without defining either term), herexamples of covert discrimination are not dissimilar from examples ofovert discrimination.23 For instance, Pottker describesnepotism as "one of the most visible and structured ways a universitycan discriminate against women" employees.24 If nepotismis visible, however, why is it an example of covert discrimination?

Focus on specific populations. The handfulof available studies on subtle and covert sex discrimination focusalmost exclusively on women in higher education, on students (andoften only on minority women students), and on a few subtle barriers(such as hiring). For example, Kendall and Feagin found that minoritywomen medical students experienced such discriminatory barriers astokenism, the absence of sanctions against overt discrimination, theabsence of role models and mentors for minority women, and evaluationprocedures that reflected white male attitudes andvalues.25 However interesting the findings, the study doesnot define covert discrimination and focuses only on minority womenin higher education. In a study that also was limited to students inhigher education, Hall and Sandler recently described some of thesubtle ways in which women students experience inequality in theclassroom.26 For example, instructors call more often onmen than women, respond more extensively to men's comments, useclassroom examples that reflect sex-stereotypical ideas aboutsocial roles, and address the class as if no women were present (forexample, "When you were a boy ...."). Again, the study does notdefine subtle discrimination and describes only female students inhigher education.

Goodwin offers one of the most insightful descriptions of howcovert discrimination actually works in excluding women (and minoritymen) from employment in higher education: for example, offeringcandidates unacceptable salaries and increasing the salaries afterthe candidates have rejected the job offers; delaying signing thecontract until, faced with meeting deadlines from other institutions,the candidates are "forced" to remove themselves from consideration;and discouraging women (and minorities) from accepting job offers bytelling them that they received the offers because of affirmativeaction requirements rather than on their own merit.27Goodwin's observations are limited to discussions of hiring barriersand only to those in higher education.

To summarize, there have been a number of attempts to define andexamine non-overt sex discrimination. However, these studieshave not had clear conceptual frameworks and have been limited tovery specific populations.


Besides the three types of sex discrimination (overt, subtle,covert), sex inequality operates at four levels--individual,organizational, institutional, and cultural.

At level-one-- individual discrimination--the unequalbehavior occurs on a one-to-one basis. It may bedirect, interpersonal, and face-to-ace or indirect andimpersonal. It may be motivated by prejudice or operate independentlyof prejudice. In terms of the latter case, a supervisor may notpromote a woman not because he is prejudiced but because he knows shewill not be accepted by her peer group of male managers.

At level two--organizational discrimination--the unequal behavioroccurs because of practices, rules, and policies that are differentfor each sex. For example, a female physician employed at anationally known pharmaceutical company noted that ininterdepartmental memos and introductions to outsiders, womenphysicians are often called by their first name (or even "Miss" and"Mrs.") while the men are addressed as "Dr." Activities that aregeared toward women routinely receive smaller budgets and attentionthan those that serve men. In universities and colleges, women'sstudies programs have very low budgets and few resources, while men'sathletic programs garner generous budgets, facilities, and support.

Individuals inside and outside organizations can discriminate.Discrimination within organizations can be less visible because sexinequality has been built into the rules, procedures, policies,routine practices, and philosophies of an organization. According toKravetz, for example, women social workers and women clientsencounter sex discrimination because sexism is built into the socialwork curriculum. Kravetz maintains that "stereotypical views offemale development, antiwomen bias in personality theories, andtraditional sex-role standards provide the theoreticalframework for much social work knowledge. . . . Sex bias andsex-role stereotyping pervade clinical theories andliterature."28 Some discriminatory organization rules andpractices are more direct and formalized. For example, becausemilitary regulations and procedures prohibit women from combat roles,women face severe career mobility obstacles.29 Withoutcombat experience, promotions to the highest military levels areimpossible.

Also, organizational practices discriminate by not providing equalopportunities regardless of sex. In a study of retail sales clerks,for example, Talbert and Bose found that women's wages are lower thanthose of men because women are not given the opportunities toincrease their salaries.30 That is, women are generallysegregated into jobs that are highly routinized and outside oflocations that have high salaries (specialty stores, suburban stores,and departments servicing high-status customers). Also, the hiring ofmen into "big ticket" departments means that women are excluded frompositions that result in high commission rates. For example, womensell pots and pans, while men sell refrigerators, stoves, and kitchencabinets; women sell such accessories as lamps, throw pillows, andsheets, while men sell furniture.

At level three--institutional discrimination--the unequal behavioris established and deeply internalized by participants who shareexpectations across family, political, economic, educational,military, and religious institutions. There has been a great deal ofresearch showing that the American nuclear family structurevictimizes women and children (for example, high incidences of childabuse, wife abuse, mental health problems of wives) but providesbenefits for men. According to Doyle, husbands gain a maid and asocioemotional bridge (the wife deals with the husband's family, thechildren, and the community) and profit by having better physicalhealth care because "many wives express concern over their husband'sphysical health, often prompting him to take better care of himself."31 In contrast, wives suffer losses:


Housework is neither interesting nor creative; in theexpressive phrase of the women's movement, it is "shit work." Forthose with the talent and interest, decorating and gourmet cookingare creative and fun. But most housework consists of mopping floors,washing dishes, and cleaning toilet bowls. Not only is it boring, itis repetitive and never ending. 32


Political institutions, similarly, reflect an internalization ofmen as leaders and women as interlopers. After Geraldine Ferraro wasnamed as Walter Mondale's running mate in the 1984 presidentialelection, Ferraro underwent a series of harassing incidents that werenot true of her male counterparts regardless of political party. Forexample, her income tax returns were extensively scrutinized andpublicized, and her family background was rigorously investigatedwhile her opponent, Bush, got "kid glove treatment." Also, Ferrarowas the only vice-presidential candidate, historically, whoencountered repeated questions about her "qualifications."

At level four--cultural discrimination--sex inequality is builtinto our literature, art, music, language, morals, customs, beliefs,and ideology. In art, we see women as seductresses (Bellini, Titian),as sex objects (Rubens, Renoir), as masses of distorted sex organs(Picasso), and as grotesque molls (Lindner).33 In anexamination of how popular culture has distorted the images of womenin fiction, television, motion pictures, fashion, magazines, andadvertising, Weibel found that women have been portrayed primarily indomestic, housewifely, and consumer roles over the past century and ahalf despite women's increasing participation in the labor market.34 Weibel's predictions of the future are not optimistic:


Since men have the controlling positions in mostpopular arts today, it seems safe to conclude that they will continueto portray women in the manner that's easiest, most profitable, andmaybe most interesting for them--as the opposite of, and refuge from,the power struggle in the world of work, that is, as domestic andcompliant to the point of self-sacrifice.35


There is no evidence that the ideologies of men and women arechanging to parallel changing work roles. In a recent nationalsurvey, nearly two-thirds of the 3,000 women interviewed saidthey thought that "the decline of traditional male and female rolesin society would result in more children having identity andadjustment problems."36 Women are so wedded to traditionalcultural sex stereotypes, they are already beginning to blamethemselves for possible future problems instead of changingexpectations about men's and their own roles in the family and theeconomy.

It should be noted, finally, that the three types ofdiscrimination (overt, subtle, covert) are present at each level ofdiscrimination (individual, organizational, institutional, cultural).As discussed earlier in this chapter, most of the research, writing,and thinking on sex discrimination has focused primarily on overtdiscrimination at all four levels. In this sense, a large portion ofdiscriminatory behavior still remains unexamined.


Overt, subtle, and covert discrimination can vary on fivedimensions: structural or situational, cumulative or episodic,deliberate or accidenal, public or private, and formal or informal.

Structural or situational. Sexdiscrimination is often built into organizational rules, procedures,and institutional structures. For example, because of women'shistorical exclusion from a number of professional areas (science,engineering, medicine, law, and business), their labor-forceparticipation in these areas has been low. Rules regarding seniority,rank, and tenure have effectively limited the competition to men.Because the family is often structured in ways that include thefull-time attention of one adult to children for many years,it is difficult for women--the family caretakers--to participate inother institutional areas (for example, political and economicsystems).

Sex discrimination can also be limited to specific situations.Thus, male nurses complain that they are sometimes treated as menrather than nurses; women patients will ask for a female nurse whenthey need help with a bedpan or bathing. In the same situation,although female nurses technically have the same institutional rightsand privileges as male nurses within the organization, they reportbeing excluded from certain professional experiences in which malenurses are encouraged to participate (for example, having lunch withphysicians or attending informal consultations about patients).


Cumulative or episodic. Some discriminatorybarriers grow and snowball, while others flare up and subside on ashort-lived basis. In terms of the former, for example,Frasher et al. found that school superintendents' sex-rolestereotypes have long-term and incrementalimplications.37 That is, because women are expected toperform family responsibilities, they will be excluded fromconsideration in jobs that are "financially rewarding, have prestige,or may be critical for professional advancement." Rejecting womenfrom such jobs will affect their future long-term salaries andpromotions.

Episodic discrimination may be situation-specific but doesnot have to be limited to only one type of situation. For example,management might institute dress codes for women (but not men) andonly in certain positions (for example, for receptions but not forwomen working in mail rooms). Although it may besituation-specific, episodic discrimination does not imply anabsence of widespread sex inequality. Quite to the contrary, episodicdiscrimination is a symptomatic reaction to pervasive anddeep-rooted sex inequality even though the behavior is notincremental. For example, a maintenance department (staffedpredominantly by men) may refuse a secretary's request to shampoo theoffice rugs because "the guys are too busy" (or may respond only ifthe secretary is attractive or seen as potentially sexuallyaccessible). If the issue is pursued by the secretary's supervisor,the secretary is told by the maintenance supervisor that "I'm tiredof you secretary-types always telling me what to do."


Deliberate or accidental. There are manyaccounts of consciously motivated, malicious, and deliberatediscrimination--especially against women in traditionallymale-dominated jobs--in both blue-collar andprofessional occupations. Women's participation has been discouragedthrough unionized sabotage, practical jokes, sexual harassment,social isolation, open hostility, hazing, vulgar teasing, wrongdirections/instructions, and exclusion from trainingprograms.38

Even more common (and sometimes more harmful) is accidentaldiscrimination that may be due to ignorance, insensitivity,provincialism, misinformed kindness, or misguided favors. In terms ofthe last two behaviors, for example, most women faculty members areoften automatically assigned women-related responsibilitiesthat impede their professional progress and development. Thus, theyare given extracurricular sex-stereotyped tasks (for example,counseling women students, providing community service on women'sissues, and being a "women's representative" on a myriad of facultycommittees) that infringe on the time needed for research,publications, and professional growth. Such assignments areespecially detrimental professionally for female faculty members whoare not feminists and are not doing research on women's issues. Forexample, a female physiologist who is doing research on the agingprocess will find "feminist assignments" distracting andprofessionally debilitating--especially if she is already working ininadequate facilities and has minimal, if any, research support fromcolleagues and administration.

As one of our male readers pointed out, an organization thatassigns these tasks to men and not women will also be criticized asbeing "sexist" by feminists. The point, however, is that suchassignments are rarely given to men despite men's abilities,talents, interests, and strengths. On the other hand, many women areautomatically expected to perform a variety of extra dutiesjust because they are women.


Public or private. A number of ourrespondents noted that public and private stances on discriminationare sometimes radically different:


Our office manager has told several of us, in privateconversations, that she gets very angry when the men refer tosecretaries as "girls." She also makes a big point of correcting someof us when we say "he" rather than "he or she." But she's never donethis with any of the bosses. She just smiles, nods, and says, "Yes,sir." (Secretary in manufacturing)


Similarly, men may be private feminists and public chauvinists:


One of my best friends at work is the chair of thecommunications department. He's the first, when a bunch of us aretalking informally, to correct men about comments like "Can we inviteour wives (rather than "spouses") to the dinner?", to criticize malefaculty for their leering and sexist asides about coeds, and to use"the student," "the faculty member," and "they" instead of "he,""him," or "his." When we're at public functions, though, andespecially if male administrators are present, he never corrects thedeans or the president, laughs heartily at dirty jokes (even whenwomen faculty are present), and talks about his wife and daughter invery derogatory, demeaning ways. (Female faculty in an Englishdepartment)


A public-private schism may reflect an individual'spolitical motivation. By castigating discriminatory behavior in aclosed group and participating in discrimination publicly,individuals may be trying to play both sides--especially if the groupmembership does not overlap. Although some men and women arepersonally "liberated," they are unwilling or unable to fight publicbattles because they want to avoid conflict, are afraid to beclassified as "bra burners" or "wimps," or to be excluded fromall-male (or all-female) discussions and recreationalactivities.


Formal or informal. Sex inequality can beformalized through laws, executive orders, judicial decisions,constitutional arnendments, and administrative or organizationalprocedures. Some current sex discrimination reflects past legislationthat has defined women as "things" and "property" rather than asindividuals. We still have sex-based inequalities in suchareas as pension payments, insurance rates, and prosecution of sexcrimes. Even in the one area that is considered almost exclusivelythe responsibility of women--childbearing and childrearing--women arelegally controlled through a variety of restrictive laws on abortion,childbirth, and custody of children.

Sex inequality can be formalized within organizational structuresand procedures. Higher education institutions establish formal and"legitimate" hiring criteria requiring credentials (such as having aPh.D.), publications, or relevant professional experience that willformally screen out many women applicants. For example, law schoolsearch committees often look at the prestige of the law degree,experience, a law review editorship, and clerkships (especially atappellate federal levels) in hiring prospective faculty. At facevalue, such criteria appear valid and reasonable. They areexclusionary, however, because many women feel that they must rejectacceptances from prestigious law schools because of familyresponsibilities, because they have been historically excluded fromlaw review experiences, or because they are hired as court clerks ona token basis.39

Even when formal discrimination is illegal and declining, informaldiscrimination can be rampant. That is, in colleges and universities,women (regardless of marital status) are typically excluded from malenetworks; are appointed jointly to a traditional and a women'sstudies department, creating competing time demands and marginalityin both departments; and during tenure, merit, and promotiondecisions, have publications (on women) deemed "irrelevant" incomparison to male faculty research (on men).40

In summary, measuring subtle and covert sex discrimination is notas simple as gauging the presence or absence of discrimination.Because sex discrimination varies on such dimensions as structure,cumulativeness, deliberateness, level, and degree of formality, thereis a great deal of variation in the character of discrimination.Despite these variations, however, sex inequality would beconsiderably less widespread if it were not accepted by both men andwomen.


Sex inequality is deeply embedded in our culture. Both men andwomen have deeply internalized a belief in the appropriateness ofwomen's deference and subordination. Groups outside the family(peers, friends, community organizations, work structures, and thegovernment) support and encourage gender inequality and reinforcemen's and women's beliefs about women's "innate" inferiority andresponsibility to serve others.

Internalization of sex inequality. A numberof studies have found that the socialization of children remainstraditionally sex typed. Even when mothers are employed outside thehome, there is an early and strong socialization in terms of worksegregation by sex. According to White and Brinkerhoff, for example,women's employment "sinks their daughters even deeper into thedomestic role," and the older children get, the more stereotypicalbecome their work assignments.41 This is consistent withHuber and Spitze's findings that "married couples are remarkablyresistant to changing household norms and behaviors."42

Women's acceptance of sex inequality and discrimination is evidentin their participating in sex-segregated activities,self-denigration, and reluctance to "toot their own horn." Ina speech given at the New York Academy of Sciences more than a decadeago, Beryce MacLennan stated that "women frequently collaborate intheir own subordination"; for example, they accept jobs below theirgrade rating, do not fight for salaries and promotions, gladly takeon new responsibilities without demanding additional pay, are shyabout publicizing their achievements, are more interested ininterpersonal relationships rather than upward mobility, and do notthink strategically and politically.43 More recently, in anational study of first-level managers in organizations, Deaux foundstriking differences of self-evaluations by sex. Malemanagers--in contrast to women managers--viewed themselves asperforming better than women in equivalent jobs and as having moreability and higher intelligence; they believed that their success wasdue to ability rather than luck or chance.44

Apparently, many women's frustration in not being rewarded andacknowledged for accomplishments is lower than their acquiescence inpropping up male egos.45 This acceptance of the status quomay be due, in part, to women's fear that sharing their domesticpower with men might diminish their importance/status in the home(many women's only source of authority). More importantly,many women experience guilt feelings because they are not living upto traditional sex role expectations,46 and they accept as"inevitable" the fact that "women bear the main brunt of child careand domestic organization" because this is "what a woman's supposedto do."47 They want to avoid conflict because "the wifeperceives that her husband's preference is for her to stay at homewhen an infant is present,"48 and they are anxious aboutcurrent and prospective criticism from friends, peers, and relativesthat disengagement from domestic duties reflects a neglect of husbandand children. Finally, women (and men) are discouraged from changingsex role expectations by outside sources.

Encouragement of sex inequality. One of themost informative and striking examples of employed women'ssubordination to traditional and repressive sex roles is theliterature documenting the lack of sex role changes indual-earner families.49 Generally, males who sharein homemaking activities are ridiculed or ostracized: "Men maydown-grade the efforts of other men to contribute tohomemaking and pressure them to spend more time and effort on the jobor in the peer group."50

Besides friends and peers, relatives may not be supportive ofworking wives because the husband's relationships with his family maybe curtailed. Working wives "have tended to experience difficulty inpersuading their mothers-in-law that social occasionsmust be rationed and carefully scheduled."51 Also, thereis little support from the community-at-large fornontraditional sex roles within the family. One recent articlesuggests that mothers are wholly responsible for parenting since "fewwould debate the almost mystical significance of themother-infant bond [emphasis added]." 52

Finally, both government and industry have discouraged fathersfrom parenting and mothers from working outside the home:


Mothers who are employed outside the home experiencediscrimination in many areas: difficulty in locating child care, lackof flexible work schedules, limited opportunity for part-timecareers and the expectation that they will assume, in addition toemployment, responsibility for child care and housework. Few publicpolicies offer support for maternal employment.53


The internal and external pressures to maintain rigid sexstratification within and outside the home are functional for men andthe business industry. For men, sex discrimination results in lesscompetition in the work place, a greater availability of leisuretime, and an avoidance of stressful domestic and workresponsibilities within families.

Business and industry profit from sex discrimination in severalways. Wives donate much free time, effort, and energy to the companyby doing supportive work that allows husbands to give most of theirtime to the company. Second, persuading women that their work is notimportant justifies paying them low wages and salaries. Finally,sex-segregated labor markets ensure male dominance in theeconomic sector, which, in turn, influences men's and women's unequalparticipation in religious, legal, military, and political sectors.

The next three chapters discuss how this dominance works throughovert, subtle, and covert sex-discriminatory mechanisms.


*We recognize, however, that in a broader analysis genderdiscrimination cannot be separated from issues of race and class(capitalism). We will focus on the race issue in Chapter Seven andwill touch on matters of class in a number of contexts. Since thisbook focuses on contemporary patterns of discrimination and is notintended as a comprehensive theoretical treatment of sex roles intheir complex economic, social, and political frameworks, we will notdiscuss the differing theoretical frameworks, such as liberalfeminism and socialist feminism, as they attempt to deal with therelationships between gender, race, and class stratification. Readerswishing to probe these important theoretical issues should consultthe work of Zillah Eisenstein (for example, Capitalist Patriarchyand the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1979)or Angela Davis (Women, Race and Class, Random House, 1981).

1 President's Advisory Committee for Women, Voicesfor Women (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1980),p. 31.

2 Barbara Forisha and Barbara Goldman, Outsiders onthe Inside: Women and Organizations (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, 1980), p. 113.

3 U S. Commission on Civil Rights, AffirmativeAction in the 1980s (Washing ton, D C.: Government PrintingOffice, 1981), p. 15.

4 See, for example, Jo Freeman, ed., Women: AFeminist Perspective (Palo Alto, Calif.: Mayfield PublishingCo., 1984); Laurel Richardson and Verta Taylor, eds., FeministFrontiers: Rethinking Sex, Gender, and Society (Reading, Mass.:Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1983); and Nona Glazer andHelen Y. Waehrer, eds., Women in a Man-Made World: ASocioeconomic Handbook (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1977).

5 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current PopulationReports, series p-60, no. 132, table 51.

6 See Leslie Maitland Werner, "Loan Company SettlesU.S. Bias Case," New York Times, November 1,1984, p. 23.

7 Michael Korda, Power! How to Get It, How to Use It (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975), pp. 261, 267.

8 Robert Schrank, "Two Women, Three Men on a Raft,"Harvard Business Review 55 (1977), pp. 100-108.

9 Alice Pifer, "Wanted: Employment Agencies that Don'tDiscriminate," Civil Rights Quarterly Perspectives 12(1980-81), pp. 16-23.

10 Clarise Feinman, Women in the Criminal JusticeSystem (New York: Praeger, 1980), pp. 52-58.

11 Flora Ida Ortiz, "Scaling the Hierarchical System inSchool Administration: A Case Analysis of a Female Administrator,"Urban Review 3 (1979), pp.111-126.

12 Helen S. Astin, The Woman Doctorate in America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1975), p. 100.

13 Irene H. Frieze, "Psychological Barriers for Womenin Sciences: Internal and External," in Covert Discrimination andWomen in the Sciences, ed. Judith A. Ramaley (Boulder, Colo.:Westview Press, 1978), pp. 65-95.

14 Roberta M. Hall and Bernice R. Sandler, TheClassroom Climate: A Chilly One for Women? (Washington, D.C.:Association of American Colleges, Project on the Status and Educationof Women, 1982), p. 2.

15 Elske Smith, "The Individual and the Institution,"in Covert Discrimination and Women in the Sciences, ed. JudithA. Ramaley (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1978), pp. 7-8.

16 Ibid., pp. 8-17, 22-24.

17 Ibid.,p.7.

18 Frieze, "Psychological Barriers," pp. 65-95.

19 Diana Kendall and Joe R. Feagin, "Blatant and SubtlePatterns of Discrimination: Minority Women in Medical Schools,"Journal of Intergroup Relations 9 (Summer 1983), pp.6-9.

20 Judith A. Ramaley, ed., Covert Discrimination andWomen in the Sciences (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1978), p.3.

21 Smith, "The Individual and the Institution," pp.7-8.

22 J. Brad Chapman, "Male and Female Leadership Styles:The Double Bind," in Covert Discrimination and Women in theSciences, p. 98.

23 Janice Pottker, "Overt and Covert Forms ofDiscrimination against Women," in Sex Bias in the Schools: TheResearch Evidence, ed. Janice Pottker and Andrew Fishel(Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Press, 1977), p. 23.

24 Ibid., p. 392.

25 Kendall and Feagin, "Blatant and Subtle Patterns ofDiscrimination," p. 16.

26 Hall and Sandler, "The Classroom Climate," pp.8-9.

27 James C. Goodwin, "Playing Games with AffirmativeAction," Chronicle of Higher Education 24 (1975).

28 Diane Kravetz, "Sexism in a Woman's Profession,"Social Work 21 (1976) p.424.

29 Juanita M. Firestone, "Sexist Ideology and theEvaluation Criteria Used to Assess Women's Integration into theArmy," Population Research and Policy Review 3 (1984), pp.77-95; Esther B. Fein, "The Choice: Women Officers Decide toStay In or Leave,"New York Times Magazine, May 5, 1985, pp.32-46.

30 Joan Talbert and Christine E. Bose,"Wage-Attainment Processes. The Retail Clerk Occupation,"American Journal of Sociology 83 (1983), pp. 403-424.

31 James A. Doyle, The Male Experience (Dubuque, lowa: Wm. C. Brown Com pany Publishers, 1983), pp.271-272.

32 Howard J. Sherman and James L. Wood, Sociology:Traditional and Radical Perspectives (New York: Harper &Row), p. 65.

33 Marie Richmond-Abbott, The American Woman (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), pp. 71-95.

34 Kathryn Weibel, Mirror Mirror (Garden City,N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1977). See also Angela G. Dorenkamp, John F.McClymer, Mary M. Moynihan, and Arlene C. Vadum, Images of Womenin American Popular Culture (New York: Harcourt BraceJovanovich, 1985).

35 Weibel, Mirror Mirror, pp. 225-226.

36 Roper Organization, The 1980 Virginia SlimsAmerican Women's Opinion Poll, p. 104.

37 J. Frasher, R. Frasher, and F. Wims,"Sex-Role Stereotyping in School Super intendents' PersonnelDecisions," Sex Roles 8 (1982), p. 267.

38 See, for example, Terry Metherby, ea.,Conversations: Working Women Talk about Doing a Man's Job(Milbrae, Calif.: Les Femmes Publishers); Gena Corea, TheHidden Malpractice: How American Medicine Treats Women as Patientsand Professionals (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1977); andBrigid O'Farrell and Sharon L. Harlan, "Craftworkers and Clerks: TheEffect of Male Co-Worker Hostility on Women's Satisfactionwith Non-Traditional Jobs," Social Problems 29 (1982).

39 D. Kelly Weisberg, "Women in Law School Teaching:Problems and Progress," Journal of Legal Education 30 (1979),pp. 226-248.

40 Robert J. Menges and William H. Exum, "Barriers tothe Progress of Women and Minority Faculty," Journal of HigherEducation 54 (1983), pp. 123-144.

41 Lynn K. White and David B. Brinkerhoff, "The SexualDivision of Labor: Evi dence from Childhood," Social Forces 60 (1981), pp. 170-181.

42 Joan Huber and Glenna Spitze, "Wives' Employment,Household Behaviors, and Sex-Role Attitudes," Social Forces 60 (1981), pp. 160-161.

43 Beryce W. MacLennan, "Women's Part in InstitutionalSexism" (speech given at the New York Academy of Sciences, January10,1973, mimeographed).

44 Kay Deaux, "Self-Evaluations of Male andFemale Managers," Sex Roles 5 (1979), pp. 571-580.

45 Cynthia F. Epstein, "Ideal Roles and Real Roles:Toward a Theory of Gender Inequality" (paper presented at the 1983American Sociological Association meetings, Detroit, Mich.).

46 L. A. Gilbert, C. K. Holahan, and L. Manning,"Coping with Conflict between Professional and Maternal Roles,"Family Relations 30 (1981), pp. 419-426.

47 N. A. Heckman, R. Bryson, and J. B. Bryson,"Problems of Professional Couples: A Content Analysis," Journal ofMarriage and the Family 39 (1977), pp. 329-330.

48 G. D. Spitze and L. J. Waite, "Wives' Employment:The Role of Husbands' Perceived Attitudes," Journal of Marriageand the Family 44 (1982), p. 120.

49 The discussion in this section is adapted fromNijole Benokraitis, "The Father in Two-Earner Families," inDimensions of Fathering, ed. Frederick W. Bozett and ShirleyHanson (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1985), pp. 243-268.

50 L. Lein, "Male Participation in Home Life: Impact ofSocial Supports and Breadwinner Responsibility on the Allocation ofTasks," Family Coordinator 28 (1979), p. 492.

51 D. St. John-Parsons, "ContinuousDual-Career Families: A Case Study," in Dual-CareerCouples, ed. J. B. Bryson and R. Bryson (New York: Human SciencesPress), pp. 30-42.

52 B. L. White, "Should You Stay Home with Your Baby?"Educational Horizons, 59-60 (1980-82), p. 59.

53 A. M. Farel and A. W. Dobelstein, "Supports andDeterrents for Mothers Work ing Outside the Home," FamilyRelations 31 (1982), p. 285.