Rage-Inducing “Soft Sexism” – Feminist Friday

A few months ago I read a Jezebel article about user-contributed experiences of what they termed “soft sexism.” I will admit this is not a concept I had really heard before and looking around I could not find a specific definition, so I came up with the below from the experiences that I read.

Soft Sexism

engrained societal and cultural gender norms that influence behavior

The reason that soft sexism is so problematic is that it can be difficult to tell whether it is just part of the engrained gender paradigm of our current culture and society or whether someone really believes that something is “women’s work” or “men’s work.” At the same time when it does happen it can feel incredibly insulting and yet frustrating because we do not know how insulting it really is. When someone is obviously sexist than we can understandably be pissed and personally I am generally able to just roll my eyes and walk away. I know this does not solve anything, but most of the time I do not feel like smacking my head repeatedly against the wall.

On the other hand when I experience soft sexism I am not quite sure what to think and just end up vaguely frustrated and annoyed.

The Fire

A picture from the beach recreation area we went to.

A picture from the beach recreation area we went to.

This experience had me ranting to David for days and even thinking about it now it still makes me angry. At David’s last job there was a work event that was in an outdoor pavilion. They did potluck style where everyone brought food or drink to share and it was just a come hang out type of event. So we go and are having fun, but it was not the nicest of days and some of us were getting kind of chilly. (I would like to point out that David worked with mostly women and some had invited their boyfriends to the gathering.) Two of the guys had decided instead of building a fire inside the fireplace in the covered pavilion they instead wanted to build it partially out on the beach. Most of the people were under the pavilion cover because it was windy and rainy. So one girl asked if her boyfriend could build a fire inside the pavilion and he said he did not want to.

No one else was stepping up to the plate so I decided that I would just go ahead and get a fire started in the fireplace in the covered pavilion. I did not have the best materials to work with, especially lacking some good kindling, but eventually I got a small fire going. I am tending to it and slowly adding logs to make sure I do not add too much too quickly and snuff out the fire. With the fire going a lot of people start gathering around to be closer to the warmth. A little time later and the two guys who had decided to build their fire out closer to the beach come in and start commenting about what a bad fire it was. Then they proceeded to take over tending the fire.

I was so pissed because while they did not specifically say it, I definitely felt like there was an element of the fire not being good enough because it was built by a girl. At the same time it was not explicitly said so it could have just been that they just might have thought a small fire was not a good fire. Just for clarification a large fire is not necessarily a warm fire. You get better warmth from really hot coals, which do not necessarily require a large fire. If you cannot tell this is still a bit of a sore spot for me because it just felt so insulting – because I know how to build a fire!

This is not the fire I built that day! This is just a tribute! [Tenacious D playing]

This is not the fire I built that day! This is just a tribute! [Tenacious D playing]

Strong Man

The other place that I have definitely experienced this type of soft sexism is when people are surprised when I am able to lift or move something by myself. Now yes, there are plenty of people who are stronger than me, but just because I am a woman does not making me incapable of doing things. Most of the time there is never an actual comment about the fact that I am a woman. More of either a shock that I lifted something myself, or an “are you sure you’ve got that?” I mean I am currently holding it up off the ground and moving it to where it needs to go, so I am pretty sure that I got it… On one level it could just be trying to be polite, but at the same time it just feels off and slightly annoying.

The other problem is that I sometimes wonder whether I am blowing it out of proportion. I know that sometimes I overreact to things, I had a really bad temper as a kid and I learned how to deal with my emotions productively. One of the things that I know I have to do is take a step back and look at a situation a second time. It can be difficult when something is not an obvious sleight, but still feels like a sleight – you wonder, is it just you?


Because not every guy is the Hulk.

Geek Baby

Now another area where I feel like we experience some of the most sort of soft sexism is with things surrounding our wonderful Geek Baby. Some situations were people simply wondering why we did not have as much pink stuff on our registry when we knew we were having a girl.

Another issue is around the fact that even months later everyone still asks about how the baby is doing or how I am doing, but they seem to forget about David. Even though currently David is the one who is home with her full time on paternity leave. I know that I am the one who went through the pregnancy and labor and all of those shenanigans and that there are things that I could still be dealing with. At the same time as the temporary stay-at-home dad he is still dealing with a lot taking care of our child and it can be incredibly stressful. Yet, the engrained paradigm is that the mom is the one who cares for the child and so is the most consumed by it, but not the father. This is not meant as an insult or necessarily thinking that it is wrong for the dad to stay home. It is just so culturally or socially engrained into us we do not even notice that we are doing it.

Another way you can see this with interactions with children, especially babies and toddlers, is how we sometimes talk to or about them. It was a long time ago, but there was an article that discussed how we talk to girls in particularly. We need to say my smart girl, my beautiful boy, my strong girl, or even just attribute my wild child to any child. (Side note: Geek Baby is definitely going to be a bit of a wild child, I personally call her my little dare devil). If we always call girls pretty princesses and boys strong men what does that do to how they perceive their places in the world around them?

Supergirl and Batgirl onesies

And what was wrong with the characters’ colors for these?


Discussing and confronting soft sexism is important because it is so hard to prove that it is actually sexist. It is not just about confronting what others do to you, but also confronting things that we might do. Part of the problem with soft sexism is that it stems from the paradigm of the culture and society that we live in, which becomes engrained into the way we think and work in the world. Like in an off-hand joke or comment that just gets thrown around a thousand times without anyone questioning whether it might be better to not tell the joke.

I think the other important issue is that if the person is truly sexist then their true colors will show through eventually. In that I mean that I don’t think most people really mean anything by the comments etc. At the same time it does point to a larger social and cultural issue that we need to keep chipping away at.

What do you think? What stories or examples of soft sexism do you have? And how do you deal with it, in yourself or the world around you? Let us know in the comments below!


33 responses to “Rage-Inducing “Soft Sexism” – Feminist Friday

  1. I love those onesies! One day, when I’m ready for it (not when I am told I should be ready for it), I’ll buy those for my little girl 🙂 LOVE all of your points here…Soft sexism is terrible beCAUSE it is so sly…but I suppose we can also make our own comments the same!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The sly aspect is part of why it is so infuriating!! As well as the fact that I think we need to check ourselves sometimes. It is so easy to fall into the engrained gender norms because we have grown up with them and only recently have I think they really been breaking down.


  2. I remember when I needed my first tricot for ballet lessons (for the record, nobody pushed me into it, I had seen dancers somewhere and really wanted to learn). My favourite colour was red, but nope, no red tricot in the shop, my option was basically either pink or white. I settled on white (it’s not like I disliked pink, in fact, my favourite dress as a child was pink). Save for the one boy I was the only one in my group who didn’t wear pink.

    Then I reached my next age group and suddenly my only option other than pink was baby blue. So I settled on baby blue, since I still liked the colour better than pink. Though I really, really would have loved to wear red.

    I was even forced to buy a second tricot for performances in pink because everyone else had pink. And then shocked my ballet teacher because I had the bad taste of cutting my hair short before one of them, thoroughly ruining her perfect picture of a group of cute little girls in pink tricot with a white bow in their pony tails.

    Honestly, I can’t express enough how glad I was when I was finally old enough that black became an option. Because at this point I had developed a hatred for pink!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The fact that it is the expected girl color is part of the problem and something that not everyone understands. Pink in and of itself is not bad, it is just when we apply some gender stereotype to it that it becomes problematic. People who can do ballet are amazing because of the physical toll it takes on your body. It is the engrained expectation that women do ballet that is the issue.

      I actually did tap dance for a short while when I was really young. The issue that I had was for the year end performance the tap dance group did the three little pigs. My sister was doing ballet and they were blue birds. I was very upset about having to be a stupid pig when my sister got to be a blue bird. After that performance I took off the pink leotard and apparently just threw it on the ground. It also made me not want to wear pink for a while after that. I think some of it stems that I want to be something small and graceful and in reality that was just never me.


  3. Oh, and I HATE Lego for girls. When I was a child there was exactly one kind of lego, first nifty space ships and later you could built whole towns with it. It never even occurred to me that the stuff was not for girls until someone slapped the label “for girls” on a specific series of set, thus implying that everything else was supposed to be for boys.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t mind pink and purple Legos, but I really wish they wouldn’t label them at all and would just let them be pink and purple Lego sets. That’s the trouble with a lot of pointlessly gendered products that I see—there was no problem with making them in lots of colors, including pink (because pink is awesome), but they don’t have to all of a sudden be a “for girls” or a “women’s” version. They can just be fuckin’ pink. lol

      Liked by 4 people

      • Exactly…I don’t mind them having, let’s say, a Ponyhof set. By why does it have to be labelled for girls? Why not simply label it with themes like “Ponyhof”, “fashion show” or whatever? Sure, everyone would most likely still automatically think “oh, that’s the stuff for girls”, but why label it from the get go as “not for boys”? Perhaps some boys like horses, too?

        Liked by 2 people

    • Lately it has not just been legos that has done this and it weirds me out so much. What is interesting is that some stores are trying to move away from having a boys and girls section of the store and yet toy companies are almost moving to more gendered marketing.


  4. I love that you wrote about this. I think that “soft sexism” is a huge thing that needs to be discussed and understood. It is usually not with bad intentions, it’s just a part of our ingrained mentality due to growing up in our gender norm society.

    Personally, it’s this kind of sexism that gets to me the most. Your example of the fire? That would get under my skin big time. I wonder, if David had built the fire if those guys would have criticized it? It’s hard to know. But that is often the way I measure it. When a contractor is dismissive to me or speaks condescendingly to me I get enraged. Sometimes my husband tells me they are just jerks, it’s not personal. But then I point out that they would NEVER talk to him like that.

    I try not to take offense to some things. Especially when I think the person is a genuinely nice person who isn’t trying to be sexist. But there are many, many occasions were I’ve experienced your fire situation. It. Is. Infuriating. Especially when it sounds like you knew what you were doing and probably knew more about starting a fire than those guys. Grrrr…..

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have actually stopped and asked someone “would you say that same thing in that same tone to man,” and the conversation was a productive one. You definitely have to pick your battles, but sometimes interrupting the cycle is a good idea.

      Liked by 3 people

      • The battle-picking is the tricky bit. Usually if I think someone’s just clueless about sounding sexist, I answer super-cheerfully. “I’m surprised you like pink!” is something I get on occasion, and generally answer something like “I’m making up for all the time I lost thinking pink was a ‘weak’ ‘girly’ color when it turns out colors and their made-up gender associations have nothing to do with my capabilities!” They usually laugh, but they also usually get the picture, and that kind of thing can lead to productive (but upbeat and comfortable) conversations. The slightly-more-hostile or dismissive occasions are more difficult to handle.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yeah, those are mostly the ones that I avoid…And unfortunately, that’s sometimes with people who I’m close to, like my dad. But there’s only so much I can do, and I control my reactions to him even though I can’t control his actions. It means he misses out on knowing a lot, but that’s his price to pay.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, man, gendering babies makes me want to flip a table and I don’t even have any kids.

    I also get the “let me help you carry that smol woman-appearing person” a ton. Like, bro, I even lift. And not when I’m struggling but just like “don’t bother since you look like a woman.”

    Your point about soft sexism being hard to prove is right on point. It’s social gaslighting at its worst. I have that feeling constantly, even though I do usually say something.

    Thanks for a great Feminist Friday!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know that I agree about it being gaslighting because gaslighting feels intentional and I don’t know that it is. I think it does have to do with engrained cultural paradigm that we live in that is shifting, but it takes a while.

      The lifting stuff is difficult. I think that and sort of general fix it type work is where I see things the most. It happens both ways. One of the more subtle times is when someone asks for some strapping young lads to help them out with something. I know it is a joke, but the thought is that guys are strong and lift things women don’t. I really think it is changing and this is a remnant of a past mindset that is on its way out the door (although kicking and screaming the whole way). We do need to keep addressing it to make sure it keeps going out the door.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps “social conditioning” would be a better term. How else can we be good little capitalists if we don’t exploit gender insecurities and make two of everything? 😉


  6. Soft sexism is the bane of my existence….

    My dad and one of my brothers (obv not Gene’O!) are *awful* about this kind of behavior. There’s also some ageism in there that makes things even more difficult. It makes me want to punch them in the nose, and it’s been a huge point of contention because it goes mostly unacknowledged.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I feel very lucky where that is not the case in my family. It can be so hard when it is family because it is something that you are surrounded with.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It definitely makes everything more stressful, especially now that I’m worried about Little Jedi learning from that part of my family. It’s nice that there are some swell exceptions to the way most of the family is, though.


  7. Reblogged this on Part Time Monster and commented:

    Holly is talking about soft sexism in this week’s Feminist Friday Discussion post at Comparative Geeks—give the post a read and join the conversation!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I think that most soft sexism is unintentional. It is hard to prove, especially when someone doesn’t realize they are being sexist. Women are also bad about perpetuating outdated ideals. This morning, I had to listen to a conversation about how tools and camping gear are “man” things. Apparently, I’m an anomaly because I’d prefer to do the handy work in fixing up our house.
    One coworker in particular makes comments generalizing about women. “Men should always do the heavy lifting. Women should always wear makeup because men like it. All women love to shop and spend their husbands’ money.” I just smile, and tell her that those are things that she likes to do, and I don’t. I get that she doesn’t understand that she is just perpetuating negative stereotypes of women, but it’s even more frustrating when she thinks I’m too sensitive about it.
    Gendering babies is an especially infuriating topic for me (and I don’t have kids yet either). Any time I bring up the topic or try to contribute to a conversation about it, I’m viewed as being too sensitive about it, or I’m told I don’t have kids, so I wouldn’t understand. That makes it even more frustrating. Of course I understand. I grew up in a society that expected me to play with dolls and wear pink dresses.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I do agree that I think it is unintentional for the most part. I think there are times that it comes from a place truly believing that women are one way, but for the most part it is not meant as a sleight. Also there are times that I wonder if it is over thought. When someone holds the door open for us, do they hold the door for everyone or are they just holding the door because I am a woman? Offer of help can sometimes just because they are trying to be a decent human being, but because there is an expectation of women as weak I question whether it comes from a place of thinking that I cannot do something. I also get really frustrated when I can’t do something, which is my own issues, but is still frustrating.

      I think as the culture shifts we will get away from these ideas, but it takes time because we grow up with our parents thinking one way and it takes generations for it to full leave the larger cultural paradigm and just become part of the fringes.

      The gendered baby thing drives me so nuts. It is hard though because I am not going to get upset at people wanting to give us stuff. At the same time we have definitely tried with the stuff we actually bought to be more gender neutral because of the sea of pink that can sometimes be more easily found. In terms of gender neutral I have to say a lot of it has been going with a more animal theme, she has so many stuffed toys (mostly elephants) it is ridiculous.

      Liked by 1 person

      • When anyone tells me that pink is strictly a girls’ color, I like to remind them that 50 years ago, it was strictly a boy’s color. You’re are very right; it takes time to shift away from these ideas. Hopefully the next generations will forget that colors are supposed to somehow represent gender when everyone seems to have forgotten that pink was for boys.


  9. I’m glad that you wrote this article. I don’t think that many people take soft sexism seriously, even many feminists. People think that we are being too sensitive, critical, and ball-busters. I would bring things like this up to my last boyfriend all of the time and he would just ask me why everything has to be about gender. People don’t realize, it’s not me who is making everything about gender. The majority of the institutions and practices in our society are sexist and problematic and I’m not one to ignore things like that. If you have a problem with hearing about sexism, you should probably work to end sexism instead of criticizing feminists for understanding it and speaking out about it. Clearly, we’re not together anymore.
    The only thing that sometimes bothers me about feminists is surrounding issues of strength and independence. I, of course, think that it is sexist for men to automatically assume that women need help based on our gender. But, as a disabled feminist (autoimmune disease) I really appreciate it when anyone asks me if I need help moving or carrying something and always accept, because I am physically weak due to my illness. I once couldn’t carry something up the stairs at my job. Another feminist there kept trying to encourage me to carry it by saying that we should all be strong, independent women. She could have just offered to help. I felt like she deliberately didn’t offer help, because she was trying to promote the idea that feminists never need help. That can be marginalizing for women with disabilities. So, I think that men should stop assuming that women need help and maybe more women of different strength levels should offer help to each other. We need to be interdependent with other women in our community, in order to really dismantle the sexist idea that women need help from men. When I need help with something physical or technical that I know nothing about, like building a fire, I try to search for women around me who I know are strong or knowledgeable to help me, instead of automatically deferring to men.
    Thanks again for your article.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Some of the problem is that personally we should just be willing to help each other out. We should be able to ask others if they need help with a variety of tasks and not wonder if there is some snub going on there. Or we should not have to worry that someone will be insulted. Every one at times needs help. It is a bigger issue when someone asks and you say no, but still insist that it can feel a bit more condescending.

      It is such a difficult line to walk. I mean I am not in the same boat, but I have had trouble opening a jar before and it really bugs me. I will try everything else to open it before asking my husband because it feels like such a stupid sexist thing that men open jars, but there are times that I really cannot get it open. At the same time I should not be seen as weak or incapable generally when one time I cannot open a jar. I know my husband does not think that way, but it does enter my mind when I have to ask, which also sucks.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Once on a plane I struggled to get my suitcase into the overhead bin (but still managed to do so alone), and then the woman behind me had the audacity to make a comment about “that’s what you need a boyfriend for,” etc. I said, “I’m self-sufficient, thank you,” and took my seat. #softsexism.

    Liked by 3 people

    • At work I heard about someone making a comment that they needed a woman receptionist because people were less likely to yell at them. My co-worker and I were pretty sure that was not the case, but that was the perception. I felt like it was more likely for someone to yell at them and ask for the manager because they would not take their response seriously.


  11. I am glad you brought this up. It is frustrating and a lot of people don’t realize they are doing it. I experienced it a lot when I was doing karate. In a round robin sparring match I’d get paired with some of the older guys and they would not spar with me. They’d stand there with their fists up and tell me to punch. They were so macho, they wouldn’t even try to block my attack. I never got to practice defending and found it to be a bit of a waste. It was probably a waste for them too. I’m sure they did it thinking that they didn’t want to hurt me, but I found it a bit insulting. I was a good fighter, other men in the class could attest to that. Plus, I was wearing all the proper armor for fighting. I wouldn’t have signed up for a full contact martial art if I couldn’t handle it.
    Awesome onesies! Mu husband would love them!

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Lifting things…ah yes..a sore point with me. At my job, we sometimes have to lift heavy things. Normally, my coworkers trust me to handle it, and if it’s a two-person job, I ask for help. No biggie.

    But we have had customers come and deliver/install heavy things themselves. One particular customer, an otherwise nice person, stopped me from helping unload because he had a bad back and couldn’t do it. The unspoken understanding was that he (a man) would feel bad if I (a woman) lifted things when he couldn’t. So I had to just stand there watching the men from my company unload and install when it could have taken less time if I were helping. This customer never said his reasons were related to my lack of a Y chromosome, but it was heavily implied. And what am I to do? I didn’t want to risk ruining the work relationship. So less productivity it is. :-\

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lifting and general handy man things are some of the most difficult in this area. There is just an expectation that men are supposed to do the lifting and building while the women doing the cleaning, etc. When really there is no reason this needs to be true. It should be based on your ability not on your chromosome or genitalia.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Interesting post, and you gave some great examples. I was trying to think of examples from my own life, but I’m not coming up with any (and I’ve worked in both science research and manual labor jobs). Now I wonder if I’m just overlooking these things, seeing them as normal? Or maybe I’ve just been lucky. Probably a combination of the two!


  14. One of my biggest pet peeves is when the word of someone else is taken over mine when I know more about a “guy” subject like video games strictly because they are male even though what I said was more in depth and explanatory. It enrages me and makes me doubt myself even though I know I have this knowledge. With me I receive more contention and a repeat of what I just refuted as though I said nothing, but if another male says something, his answer is accepted and the argument is dropped.


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