Do You Suffer from the Effects of Internalized Sexism?

On this International Day of Women, we ask ourselves and our readers; Do you think of yourself as a cheerleader or champion of other women? As an enlightened, 21st century woman, surely your answer is “Duh, of course I am!”

A quick quiz:  Have you ever witnessed a female friend saying or doing something bold, innovative or unconventional and asked yourself, “Who does she think she is? Do you tend to choose male doctors? Have you ever wished a deserving female co-worker be denied a promotion?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re not alone. “Internalized sexism” does not refer directly to a belief that women are inferior. But it does lead to women criticizing  and doubting others of their gender and often, themselves.

It happens. It’s a thing, insidiously suggested, unconsciously spread. Internalized sexism  potentially leads  to body issues, lack of self-confidence, unhealthy competition and a sense of powerlessness. It is a roadblock in combating sexism.  But  there is  hope.


Women, too, must realize that they have internalized sexism. By admitting our participation in the system, we can begin to change it.

Katey Zeh (Women’s Ministries)


Why does it happen? 

Not to pass the buck, but male domination is partly to blame. No question that some men, many men, have demeaned the value and skills of women purely for sexist reasons. Women eventually can internalize those beliefs and apply the misogyny to  themselves and other women.

Why, for example, would your mom prefer a male doctor, even her gynecologist? Perhaps she grew up only knowing only male doctors. OK, maybe that’s generational. But what about actress  Anne Hathaway owning up to her past biases, confessing on the record that she once preferred male director to females, strictly based on gender? 

It has long been a valid complaint that flight attendants (male and female) often pay more attention to  male passengers. One woman business traveler told me recently that while she did not feel neglected on her flight, seated in first-class, believed  she was being overlooked by the female flight attendants. Men, she said, were afforded the extra mini-bottle or a second pillow. Not her.

Another woman sheepishly admitted to being more critical of and less inspired by the new female pastor (replacing a man) at her church.  “I grew up with male clergy in leadership roles and would never have thought I would react the way I have to female clergy,” she said. “I have some work to do in this space.”

It is inherently illogical for women to exhibit bias toward women, and hard to admit. We must be honest with ourselves and our feelings.  



We know that women generally have less access to power. Internalized sexism is just as counterproductive. We need to work together, not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but to increase our stature and gain respect.   Healthy competition is fine; competing because of gender is not. Egoes must be checked at the door.  Promote collaboration and support.

Freeing ourselves of internalized oppression means first noticing our reactions and responses to events,” Chatham University psychology professor Britney Brinkman said. “Where and when do your insecurities appear?  How do you tend to react to conflict?  Do you withdraw or go into a defensive/attack mode? Be wary of becoming emotionally reactive since this rarely garners positive results. Instead, sit with your emotionally charged feelings, own the moment and engage in mindful based stress reduction (MBSR).”

MBSR is a complex subject. Simply, it is an educational approach to teaching people how to take better care of themselves by living healthier and more adaptive lives. Several websites provide more in-depth information, including the MBSR prototype program . For starters, though, assess your personal interactions. In your own work and in your own relationships, ask yourself, ‘How do I shift from competition to collaboration?’”

Dr. Brinkman advocates “conserving your energy by focusing on what you do really well. Rather than viewing other women as competition or barriers to your success, consider what you can learn from them and how you can support each other. You can choose to not engage in toxic relationships. Instead, shine where you can. You can celebrate your own strengths and successes without tearing down others. You will always get further with collaboration, even if it is more time-consuming and difficult to manage.”

More Resources if You’re Super Geeked After Reading this Article:

  • The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University of California studies “the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.
  • Lyn M Brown, Ph.D. explores the social factors that contribute to girls/women competing with each other in her book Girlfighting: Betrayal
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