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:  +170
  • Print
  • Share
  • Share:


Sort By:
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
You have some good arguments, and I do believe that many are too quick to shout "sexism" (or "racism") whenever things don't go their way, but you must realize that actual sexist behavior certainly still exists, and is a subset of a-holery.

So I wonder why you've decided to stir this pot.
Will the controversial publicity help your book sales?
Are you testing your ability to argue a false point?
Or just feeling a little feisty and thought it would be fun to provoke?
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
Right regarding racist=a s s hole by another name.

Mostly correct regarding gender motivations.

Nov 22, 2013
Not sure I understand why you would choose to stir this pot... Surely it's clear to you that sexism exists. And surely you'd understand that relatively friendly and very intelligent people act on sexist prejudices.

But seriously, I've worked at three fortune-50 companies over the last decade, and another one the decade before that -- big companies with thousands of employees. Where are all these "women in tech" that people keep talking about? I kid you not. I know hundreds of programmers -- and probably met a thousand or more -- over this time, and not even 10 of them were female. Sure, plenty of business analysts, project managers, QA testers... But engineers? Not many. Programmers? Maybe one percent. And, in fact, I can think of one female programmer that I've ever met who was under 40 -- this isn't fresh blood. The ranks actually seem to be thinning out with time.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
[One is obviously a teamplayer, helps out the colleagues because he gets asked questions, is friends with nearly everyone, goes out for beers with the others.]

I hope you don't make promotion decisions based on after hours social activities. It's wrong to penalize someone for preferring to go home and -whatever- rather than go out drinking with coworkers.
Nov 22, 2013
Stupidity is unequally distributed, in individuals and in communities.

If the definition of smart person had to be, "never did or said anything that was stupid," the set would be empty. So it's useful to have subcategories of stupid, to clarify our thinking and discourse. It's useful to distinguish "sexist" !$%*!$% bosses from "innumerate," "self-obsessed," and other types of !$%*!$% bosses. And to distinguish the people who are sometimes stupid from those who are consistently stupid in some large areas of life.

Organizations can also be stupid in many ways. One of the ways is, they can let employees maximize their individual rewards in ways that harm the whole company. Some large stock brokerages have demonstrated this kind of organizational stupidity, especially in the last 5 years. Back to sexism - companies can let male employees sexually harass female employees because they just don't pay attention to what's going on. Or they can let !$%*!$% bosses require that their attractive female employees wear short skirts, heels, cleavage; and not complain when they guys hit on them. Again, "don't pay attention to what's going on," can apply selectively rather than everywhere. "Sexism" is an observable subcategory of organizational stupidity. Since you've studied organizational stupidity, I hope this doesn't come as a surprise.

Nov 22, 2013

You hit the nail on the head!
Nov 22, 2013
Like Schrodinger's cat, he's both: He's a sexist if the observer wants to be a victim, and an ass if the observer wants to take responsibility for his own action, inaction or feelings.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
Have you been feeling a bit neglected by the feminist blogs recently that you decided to stir up there ire a bit? I'm afraid I think they would be justified in being p15$ed about this one!

1) Stupidity, incompetence, a$$h0le and sexist are NOT mutually exclusive categories. Just because something is stupid, incompetent and d1ckish, doesn't mean it's not ALSO sexist.

2) Dismissing a female employee's report of sexism just because "the label so often gets misused" is both sexist and (I would propose) stupid, incompetent and a$$h0lish.

3) Your solution of reporting incompetence, stupidity rather than sexism would indeed probably be a more productive strategy, but the strategy is in itself is just dismissing sexism - which you ACKNOWLEDGE EXISTS... how is that not stupid?

[If my solution of reporting incompetence and stupidity is more productive, as you say, we are in agreement. Anyone can assign any word to anything. But if words influence behavior, why not be productive? -- Scott]

Nov 22, 2013
As one of the more than three women who read your blog I have to agree that so called sexists (or homophobes) are just a$ $ h0les in general. Only once in my Navy career did I ever encounter blatant sexist situation, and my commanding officer supported my response, entirely. I've encountered folks who were mentally ill (really had mental issues) that would make global sexist statements, but this person's parents really messed with his, his brother's and sister's minds when they were growing up. Mental illness aside, there are some folks who's whole attitude to anyone not exactly like them (gender, race, religion) trigger some boneheaded behaviors!
Nov 22, 2013
There is a viewpoint bias coming out strongly here.

"He is an !$%*!$% - I make rational decisions and am just forthright in how I express them".
"He/she is sexist - I have valid opinions based on experience".
Even people with the most extreme views would never admit to being an !$%*!$%.

Asshole is not a Yes/No switch. Everyone has some !$%*!$% in them.
It is part of self-esteem. "I'm better than you/them".
It comes out more in some areas than others, in some groups more than others (extreme opinions are often an attempt at gaining group validity) and at some times more than others (tiredness, alcohol etc. have an effect).

Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.
Nov 22, 2013
(wow, the comment sensor is sneaky. that last word should have been "a s s h o l e r y")
Nov 22, 2013
I've been saying the same thing for a while... We don't have a sexism problem, or a racism problem, or a homophobia problem. We have an as shole problem. The same a sshole who would make sexist comments is very likely to make racist and homophobic comments too. I see no reason to create different categories for !$%*!$%*!$
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
There is very deep fundamental human/mammal behaviour involved here.

We are wired to make two fundamental decisions when we encounter anyone.

The first is "fight or flight?" Is this person a danger to us? Can we prevail?

If the person is of a sexual orientation we are pre-disposed to,
the second is "snog, marry, avoid?"

When men meet a woman they make both decisions. Instantly.
Even if they are in the workplace.

If they make a positive decision, then their rational mind goes out the window. They automatically like what she likes etc. - this mirroring is a key part of sexual attraction.

If they make a negative decision, then why should they listen to her? This is a person they've rejected after all - or who has rejected them.

Both responses produce bad results. But it is a pretty special person who can ignore such deeply wired signals. And if they do, often cognitive dissonance drives behaviour.
Nov 22, 2013
I don't buy your notion that !$%*!$%*! and "sexist" are redundant categories. Sexists are a particular brand of !$%*!$%*! Your worldview, whether it comes from society, your parents, or whatever, determines how you express your !$%*!$%*!$%*!$%*!$%*! an !$%*!$% may be a full-time job, but there are only so many hours in the day, and I don't think the most egregious mysoginists I've come across have the time to pick on disabled people with the same intensity. The fact that they choose to express their !$%*!$%ness by demeaning women tells you something about their views.

Also, the fact that demeaning women is one of the "options" you have to express your !$%*!$%ness and get away with it, suggests that sexism still thrives in our culture.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 22, 2013
I don't think Sexism matters as much in situations where rational decisions are expected to be made (as in hiring decisions, especially for technical jobs, of otherwise unknown people) as everywhere else.

Consider the following situations:
- you have a team of techies, and it's time to promote one to teamleader. This is not for a job where quantifiable skills can be sought after with certifications etc. One is obviously a teamplayer, helps out the colleagues because he gets asked questions, is friends with nearly everyone, goes out for beers with the others. The other candidate's a woman, always seems just a bit apart from her colleagues, when she drops in at conversations at the coffee machine conversation seems to die down a bit. Who would you promote? Mind that especially classic male nerds/geeks are socially awkward around females.
- you're hiring to expand your all-male techie team, and you're down to 20 applications, all seem equally qualified. Two of those are from women. If you think dropping one woman into your all-male techie team might shake up the "team spirit" (or "cohesion"), you're a sexist. Plus, the numbers work against the women, because there's a 90% chance of you choosing a male applicant even when all things are equal.
- that only 10% of those applications are from women in the first place might be because of sexism elsewhere - maybe the parents always waved pink Barbies around the women, but Bob The Builder around the males, so the females got less interested in tech stuff in the first place? Maybe the women had it harder in tech ed (or though they might have it harder, so didn't even start), maybe they got bullied by their peers ("you're a girl, you can't know tech" vs. "here, let me explain this")? Sexism.
- promotions again. The higher-ups tell dirty jokes about women, but obviously only when no females are around. This creates some male bonding, and leads to more conversation. When having to choose for a promotion, will the higher-ups be more likely to choose one of the 20 males they had a gazillion conversations with, or the one candidate who "never seemed as easy to talk to"?
Nov 22, 2013
What was it... a women is less likely to be hired and more likely to be mistreated at work by other women? Of course you can't call it sexism if both the victim and the offender are the same gender.

Maybe in a draconian sense you use the label that gets you the most favorable results with the intended audience. Calling Limbaugh a sexist works better for the female crowd than calling him a jerk, so he's called a sexist. For a right-wing crowd, you call him a truth-speaker because they like him.

In psychology/sociology, people like to form like tribes, so at least to some small degree the innies want to band with other innies and the outies with other outies. So you could call some light ribbing harmless and maybe a good way to vent steam.

Of course if you have learned behaviors, a sexist is someone who's either acting out what he was taught (and unless you live in a muslim area, you generally aren't taught those things) or is retaliating against some past offenses, real or imagined. Early in the history of blacks in the US, blacks were looked down upon because europe and asia had all these great civilizations and africa was viewed as some tribal people in loinclothes. We didn't know better. As we found out that blacks and whites were practically the same (aside from minor physical traits), racism starting going away.

This leads to my stupid and dumb-sounding rule. Basically if a person/group is perceived as uneducated and sounds weird, he's going to get discriminated against. When irish catholics (white as white could be) came to the US they spoke funny and none of them were educated. So they were discriminated against. If you want people to like you, you at least need to sound like they do (or prove you are smart).

This is different from sexism, but it's in the same boat.

I'm thinking that traditional sexism was learned from not appreciating and properly valuing the tasks involved with rearing children, food preparation and all that. It was seen as less valuable so some people got the wrong attitude towards women. In that sense, we are still extremely sexist because no one, including women, are gladly jumping en mass into those traditional gender roles. So at least for gender-roles, sexism still rules the day and the male roles won (for good or bad, being objective here).

Finally you have the protected sexist: the gay male. Yes, in any other endeavor, if a man wants to deny or demean women, he's a sexist jerk. But when it comes to sex, marriage, sharing your obamacare expenses, etc. gays are allowed to deny access to and disparage women all they want. Why? Because being gay has connotations that gets you a free pass from being a sexist pig from a certain crowd. In fact their rampant sexism is encouraged by the left.

Think about it. If in a corporate business arrangement you said that women were prohibited from getting a job, you'd get sued and lose. But in a private business relationship, gays can ban women from the "mate" job all day long.

So I would agree with my earlier thoughts and offer than terminology is dependent on a perceived (whether true or not) favorable probability of results.
Nov 22, 2013
"Sexist" is a subclass of a**hole. Not all a**holes are sexists, but all sexists are a**holes.

[Reposting due to aggressive profanity filter. :-) ]
Nov 22, 2013
"Sexist" is a subclass of !$%*!$%*!$ Not all !$%*!$%* are sexists, but all sexists are !$%*!$%*.
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 21, 2013
Interesting question. I think it can also be applied to race. I think the race card gets thrown around when really the person is just being an a**hole. One (in)famous example is George Zimmerman.

Many thought he targeted Trayvon because he was black. That never felt quite right to me.

Everything about this guys screamed massive a**hole to me and the past few months are bearing that out. If his ex-wife or ex-gf had responded to his actions in the same manner as Trayvon Martin, I'm guessing Zimmerman would have shot them too (assuming he was losing the fight) and the "sexist" word would have been thrown around similarly to the "racist" word.

But really he's just an a**hole.

He is such a big a**hole that he can't NOT stop being an a**hole even though he has to know it's in his best interest to lay low.

Almost makes one wonder if there's an a**hole gene.

Nov 21, 2013
I'm surprised that you fail to mention economics as a root cause for sexism Scott. The fact is - if I hire a woman for a role, I know I face the risk of that woman heading off on maternity leave for a year and leaving me short handed but still covering the cost of her salary (in my country at my company we continue to pay full salary to women whilst on maternity leave). Then there is the hassle of hiring temporary support to cover her role.

Experience has taught me that after she returns from maternity leave I am inevitably faced with requests for 'flexible working hours' another major hassle to manage. Expecting longer working hours when a deadline approaches, is always problematic as kids need to be collected from daycare and fed.

Faced with recruiting a similarly qualified male or female I would choose the former. Not because I'm sexist, but because I'm economically rational and lazy.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog