Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone's beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.


Help me understand the difference between a sexist and a run-of-the-mill asshole that happens to be male.

I've never met a man who believes that every man is better than every woman at any given task. And if he did hold that view, it would be an example of colossal stupidity, not opinion. Daily life is bristling with examples of women succeeding in every field. How does one not notice?

And if we're talking about prejudging the likelihood of a member of one gender or another having a particular preference or trait, that's how all humans process information. The only people who don't automatically prejudge are in comas. A normal, healthy brain prejudges everything in its environment based on limited clues and patterns. But as more information becomes available, one is able to judge more accurately. Perhaps the man you first assumed was a hobo, based on his scruffy appearance, is actually a great network engineer. The normal brain notices a pattern, makes a preliminary assumption about what it means, and looks for more information to confirm or disprove the initial snap judgment.

Have you ever met a sane person who thinks differently?

When the FBI profiler says the bomber is probably a male loner in his thirties, that isn't sexism so much as statistics. And when the DNA on the detonator indicates the bomber was female, the FBI profiler says, "Oops" and changes her opinion. Every normal, human brain processes information this same way, give or take some cognitive dissonance.

So who are the sexists?

I hear plenty of stories of workplace discrimination against women based on gender. So let's stipulate that gender discrimination is widespread. There are too many first-hand accounts to imagine it isn't real.

So who is doing the discriminating during the hiring and promotion process, and what does that look like in the year 2013?

If a man overlooks a female job candidate because of gender alone, isn't that more a case of stupidity than sexism? Clearly women are excelling at ever profession on earth, so what kind of hiring manager would fail to notice a worldwide trend so immensely obvious? Answer: a dumb one.

Dismissing a job candidate based on gender alone is ordinary incompetence. Fifty years ago I can easily imagine a smart man who happened to be a sexist because he witnessed scant few examples in which women were excelling at their careers. But in 2013 there is no such thing as a smart man who hasn't noticed that women are excelling in every field. I think it's time to label the hiring manager who bases a decision on gender incompetent, not sexist.

Then you have the category of men who are dismissive of women in general, or talk to women in a demeaning way, or objectify women, or are generally disrespectful to women. Those guys get labelled sexists too for being hostile to women. But is that the label that fits best?

In my experience, assholes are assholes all the time, not just to women. And their impact is plenty toxic to men as well. I suppose somewhere on earth there is a guy who trash-talks and objectifies women during the workday then goes to his volunteer job feeding the elderly at night, but I kind of doubt it. I've never met a man who was an asshole to women but treated everyone else with respect. Being an asshole is a fulltime job.

So I think it's time to acknowledge the impressive gains women have made over the last century against genuine sexism and recognize that the mop up operation in 2013 (at least in the United States) is more about managing the assholes and idiots in the world than it is about old-timey sexism.

For the three women who read this blog, I'll tell you a secret about how men think. If I am your boss's boss, and you tell me your direct boss is being a sexist, my skepticism alarm goes off because the label so often gets misused. But if you tell me your boss is being an asshole, complete with examples, or you say he's incompetent at his job because he ignores qualified job candidates, I start considering his replacement. Your choice of labels can make a big difference.

Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +173
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 6, 2013
[For the record, let's not confuse sex with gender; they are two different constructs: one relates to sexual characteristics at the genetic level and the other with psychological structures.]

Wikipedia disagrees with you: "Gender is the range of physical, biological, mental and behavioral characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. Depending on the context, the term may refer to biological sex (i.e. the state of being male, female or intersex), sex-based social structures (including gender roles and other social roles), or gender identity."

"In many other contexts, however, even in some areas of social sciences, the meaning of gender has undergone a usage shift to include sex or even to replace the latter word. Although this gradual change in the meaning of gender can be traced to the 1980s, a small acceleration of the process in the scientific literature was observed when, in 1993, the Food and Drug Administration started to use gender instead of sex. Gender is now commonly used even to refer to the physiology of non-human animals, without any implication of social gender roles."
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Dec 6, 2013
For the record, let's not confuse sex with gender; they are two different constructs: one relates to sexual characteristics at the genetic level and the other with psychological structures. I hate when people want to be PC and use them interchangeably, because they really aren't.
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 30, 2013
If only it were as simple as getting past the hiring manager...

I became a tech writer because it was the only way I could get credit for my contributions. If my work is in writing, it's tough for anyone else to take credit for it.

I recall being the only female in the room in many meetings and expressing an opinion or contributing an idea that was utterly ignored. You can probably finish the story on your own here. Ten minutes later a man would come up with same idea and everyone would applaud. I literally questioned whether or not the sound of my voice was somehow getting sucked away from mouth before it reached anyone else in the room.

Eventually I started my own business. Once I was the boss, the problem went away - but that's a lot of work just to get someone to acknowledge your existence.
Nov 25, 2013
"For the three women who read this blog..."

was that intentionally ironic?
Nov 25, 2013
My father died under similar !$%*!$%*!$%*! several years ago. Watching him die I searched in vain for a "legal" way to end his suffering. So, although not as angry about it now as you are, I am with you 100%, every word.
Nov 25, 2013
ditto for racism...
Nov 24, 2013

There is little in there that is evidence.
I am not arguing with the percentages. I am taking them as true.

The point is why do people behave the way they do. Do they behave as they do, for/against certain minorities, because of rational thought or solely because of rasism/sexism?

For eg, in the Swedish bus experiment, the drivers turn away more black passengers. But it may be a fact that the drivers are aware that more black riders try to trick the drivers into getting a free ride than people of other communities. In which case, I would not attribute their discrimination against blacks as racism. In fact, given that black drivers themselves favoured the whites, it is more likely that there is some other explanation, rather than simple racism.

Nov 23, 2013
Pretty convincing, taking into account that I'm familiar with the actual evidence, while this is based on what "everyone knows".

For the record, and anyone who was actually convinced by this despite the disclaimer: http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/04/20/social-justice-for-the-highly-demanding-of-rigor/
Nov 23, 2013

The problem with having all these specific categories of "a'holes" likes racists, sexists etc is that some people feel the need to tag other people with these labels, whether they are not really those type of people, based on one solitary instance. Other people then find it easier to simply repeat these readymade verdicts without really knowing whether a person really deserves that reputation.

Zimmerman is a good example. People immediately called him a racist. We now know that he could as easily have killed anybody else. Likewise, we might be hasty in identifying sexism as the cause of few female software programmers. There could be other forces at work.

There was a funny thing that happened at a place I used to work. A young just married girl, about 22 years old joined the organisation. Her boss was a thirty-six year old male. Within a month she complained saying her boss was not very civil/nice to her, did not really make her feel welcome, etc. She also identified the cause of his brusque behaviour as the fact that he was thirty-six and still unmarried. She had marraige on her brain (being just married and getting married early was probably important to her) and transferred the negative connotation to her boss. Luckily the guy had been around for some time in the organisation and was known to be a guy of few words but an otherwise fair and level-headed person.

Once a word is repeated often enough, it sticks in people's minds and they are apt to see instances of it everywhere. It is not for nothing that it is said that "A person never reveals as much of his own character as when he is reading somebody else's."

Looking at things another way, I had a boss who simply refused to employ a pretty girl in his small organisation. He said it created problems in the company - and I know that he spoke from experience. He did not feel women were inferior to men. In fact, he was quite a ladies' man himself - or at least he was not averse to be. He respected his wife, his mother and his sister. But he had realised that introducing a pretty young thing, who had probably just started experimenting with her sexuality, in the midst of mostly 25 year old men with raging hormones was asking for trouble. Was he sexist?

BTW Scott, I really liked the last paragraph of your blog.

+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
I have worked for great men and women, a'holes, and sexists. The sexists treat the men with respect, pay them more (all qualifications being equal), promote them, and give them more vacation. One such sexist boss paid a highly-qualified, highly-capable, independent-thinking woman with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering $17,000.00 less per year than a man with only a master's degree and one less year's experience--gave him an extra week of vacation, too. The woman had taken de facto lead of a project for which the assigned supervisor took leave of absence for several months cleaning up another fire ... she and another female co-worker delivered the project on time, on budget, and so well done that the sponsors were delighted. But the boss preferred to lowball her pay and vacation and promote two younger men with only bachelor's degrees and no independent thoughts in their heads (except to make stupid mistakes, which their senior colleagues would then have to clean up) instead of paying and promoting her fairly. The only difference we could see between her and the men who received preferential treatment was that she had a brain instead of a w e e n e r.

Someone near and dear to me who has never worked in an office swears left right up down and sideways that there is no such thing as sexual discrimination and that women have everything handed to them on silver platters simply because they're women. You could hand him documentation in black and ink of the above situation, and he'd scream that you're lying--and he'd believe that you're lying with all his heart. Methinks he imbibes too much Faux News ...?

All of that said, I did have one astronomy professor in college who doted on female students and was a total a'hole to male students. He did indeed give the girls A's just because they were girls (he was the only professor in EE or physics who did; most of the EEs clearly did not want girls in their classes, and most of the physicists tolerated girls and treated them fairly. But I digress). Other than being a total jerk to male students, he seemed like a very reasonable, likeable guy. It was a very strange juxtaposition of behaviors to watch every day.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
I have worked with I think 4 female programmers in my career. However, I think every single software tester I've worked with has been a woman. Has anyone else experienced that? What's going on there?
Nov 22, 2013

No, I wouldn't make promotion decisions based on after-hour social activities. Actually, I'm one of those who feel awkward about socializing with cow-orkers in my spare time, so I don't do it. I don't like to have to keep my mental shields up when socializing, so I keep my private and work life as apart as possible.

But I have seen the higher-ups base their promotion decisions on such stuff - not in a male-vs.-female setting, though, I've never had any female colleagues in my (techie) groups. Which's a pity, but no wonder - when I did tech ed (age 14-19 here) there were 5 females out of about 1,500 students!
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
"sometime I misunderstand intelligent people because I expect them to be very precise and formal when talking about serious subject."

You are not alone in that...
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
Very accurate analysis in my opinion. The only thing you failed to address is that you have to learn and detect early recognition pattern so that you give them less importance when reasserting your opinion. You also need to be able to actively reassert your opinion, otherwise, a common person only fall through a bunch of cognitive bias like the backfire effect. I have yet yo encounter a proper rationalist that has any sort of misjudgement about "labeled" people. In short, they don't care and wait that you open your mouth to say anything about you.

I also agree very much with the idea that using proper label is important. I'm very fluent in my mother tongue, clue: it's not English, and sometime I misunderstand intelligent people because I expect them to be very precise and formal when talking about serious subject. Most feminist are probably shooting themselves in the foot by over abusing the term "sexist".

As for your question, you did answer yourself, a proper sexist is someone who use gender alone to judge the value of someone. It's their chief criterion and I think you underestimate the number of person that still do this. They are clearly incompetent or idiots. But they are idiots only in a single case: when they need to judge a women objectively in comparison to a men. You also confuse a misogynist, someone who really does hate women. Those exist and I think nowadays it would be considered a proper phobia and get in the bigger realm of mental disorders.

In short, I do agree with you that label should be more precise and more carefully used. But I do think that some proper sexist, people that yes, really do discriminate against women, but could go and help elderly people at night, exist. Some of them are just obfuscating their sexism under an !$%*!$% attitude. I'm pretty sure if you think you would find someone who is really mean agaisnt women, but only do some small and stupid joke against the others people. He is an !$%*!$%, but an order of magnitude more toward women.
Nov 22, 2013
In general, I agree that most instances of what's called sexism is general A-holism or stupidity. However, as one of your three female readers, I believe I've seen sexism and it's largely why I didn't become an engineer.

I am very strong at science and math. As a result, I decided to major in engineering in college. I was part of a study group in college that was all guys (about 10 of them) and me. These guys were friends of mine, respectful and definitely not stupid. But they could not believe that I might be better at engineering problems than they were. We reviewed problem sets together. If I got the right answer, it wasn't believed unless someone else (a guy) did as well. Once I was the only one to figure out a really tough answer. I had to spend 10-15 minutes proving it. They were stunned. I then got the highest score of the group on our final. This was very predictable based on our performance on the problem sets. But at the end of the day, half the group just wouldn't believe/accept that I had outperformed them. They thought I was lucky, or that it was just a bad day for them. But it became very clear to me that my performance would not be sufficient to prove to some of these guys that I was good.

This happened several times in college, but only in classes in which I was one of a handful of women. In my science classes, no one (man or woman) had a problem believing that I might have received the top score. In the end, I decided that it'd be tough maximizing my success if I was in a field in which my results were not enough to prove my competence and switched out of engineering. (This worked out for me in the end. I ended up in business school. And even though only 25% of the class was women, I did not have these experiences.)

Of course, I can't prove that my experience was due to sexism. There could be some reason I'm unaware of that one group of students had a hard time believing my results. But it seems the most likely reason.
Nov 22, 2013
Moderating your inside (of your head) voice and your outside voice is no joke. The FBI gets away with generalizations because we expect cold robotic baloney from them. From a person standing right in front of us, we expect, in general, some kind of couth.

Get an 80-something white man from the south, get him to speak frankly, and he may very well admit that he believes things were better before all of this modern change. Maybe he'll say that. Everyone else will get angry that his opinion still exists- but it won't for much longer.

Regardless of what you are talking about, it doesn't matter how important what you say is, or how right you are: if you hurt the feelings of the person you are talking with and don't care or make any gesture to show you are sorry, then you did it wrong, and so you receive the Lt. Commander Data conversational award, which so many nerdy white men already own.

Not unlike the 80-year old man, some people are holding on to the idea that they can just say things, be right, and not have people object as they defend their actions rather than apologise for the feelings that were hurt. Failing to recognize and respect the person right in front of us is a handy media tool for making crappy reality TV, but a terrible way to live- it's the three-year-old who was told 'no', who then continues anyway.

On your blog, though, you are an institution. With Dilbert as your flagship, you represent all the nerdy, socially awkward Commander Datas out there. You are an archetype. You might as well be the FBI, for all the understanding expected of you. I suspect you know better and like the media attention you get when you toy with these subjects... and that's pretty funny.
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
Scott, your tendency to argue from ignorance is unparalleled. :Op

First you say....

[And if we're talking about prejudging the likelihood of a member of one gender or another having a particular preference or trait, that's how all humans process information.]

but then you say...

[If a man overlooks a female job candidate because of gender alone, isn't that more a case of stupidity than sexism? Clearly women are excelling at ever profession on earth, so what kind of hiring manager would fail to notice a worldwide trend so immensely obvious?]

Yes, because the ONLY worldwide trend which can be observed of women in the workplace is that they are "excelling at every profession on earth" (which, btw, isn't true. If it weren't for programs like Title IX and its ilk, women would be nearly nonexistent in the hard sciences and technology fields - and no, I don't mean managing the people who are creating the science and technology). The reality is that women behave differently (in general) in the workplace and present challenges/costs which men don't, particularly when it comes to healthcare costs, maternity, and employment longevity. For example, there is a no-zero likelihood that the woman you just hired will cost you a bunch of money to train and offer benefits to, only for her to get pregnant a year (give or take) into her employment, take a lengthy maternity leave (all at your cost), and then quit shortly after returning. I've seen this happen in my own department. Women, as a whole, stay at their jobs shorter than men do (and only recently has this number begun to approach parity). And yet, if we take these simple, factual details into account, we are labelled with all kinds of feelbad words like !$%*!$%*! and "sexist" (not to mention, prosecuted for breaking the law).

It's funny how you can point out how OBVIOUS it is that people make decisions based on likelihoods and then made an emotionally-driven rhetoric-filled argument against doing that very thing when it comes to hiring women.

You really shouldn't fancy yourself a critical thinker.

+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013

When the business fails because the manager hired less qualified candidates because of stupidity, the problem has corrected itself without a single lawyer. Does the manager realize that his hiring choice lead to that outcome? Probably not. He is stupid after all.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
"That's oversimplifying it"

I think the word you're looking for is "misstating".
Nov 22, 2013
The difference between a sexist and a regular !$%*!$% is, he's a sexist if the victim was raised constantly being told how women have it so terrible because of men.

That's oversimplifying it, yes, but Scott's right, the feminist movement has largely succeeded but currently overplays its hand in a quest to remain relevant.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog