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Girls & Women

There's Finally an Internationally Agreed Upon Definition of Sexism. Here's Why That Matters.


Why Global Citizens Should Care 
The UN's Global Goal No.5 works to address gender inequalities that are rife in every aspect of societies around the world. Join the movement by taking action here to empower women and girls in achieving their true potential. 

Europe’s leading human rights organisation has just adopted the first-ever international legal instrument to stop sexism. 

The Council of Europe — which includes 47 member states, 28 of which are members of the European Union — has officially recognised that sexism is “widespread and prevalent in all sectors and all societies,” and is now calling on states to stop it. 

The council adopated a recommendation to prevent and combat sexism last week.

These recommendations are essentially a list of guidelines for member states to be exploring within their own societies. They are intended as a springboard to identify and define an issue, and lay out some ideas about how member states can now be tackling those issues.

A very significant part of the recent recommendation includes what is reportedly the first-ever internationally agreed upon definition of the term "sexism."

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And here it is! Sexism is defined as: “Any act, gesture, visual representation, spoken or written words, practice, or behaviour based upon the idea that a person or a group of persons is inferior because of their sex, which occurs in the public or private sphere, whether online or offline.” 

The recommendation also stressed that sexism is a manifestation of “historically unequal power relations” between men and women — which leads to discrimination and prevents the full advancement of women in society. 

It adds that sexism is “widespread and prevalent in all sectors and all societies and … sexism and sexist behaviours are rooted in and reinforce gender stereotypes.” 

A particularly interesting point — especially for anyone who’s been accused of being “too sensitive” when it comes to calling out everyday sexism — is that the recommendation makes the link between sexism and violence against women and girls. 

Acts of everyday sexism, it says, are “part of a continuum of violence that create a climate of intimidation, fear, discrimination, exclusion, and insecurity which limits opportunities and freedom.” 

It seems a bit unbelievable that we’ve managed to get to 2019 without an internationally recognised definition of sexism. So we asked Jacqui Hunt, the European director of Equality Now, an NGO that works to protect the rights of women and girls, why a definition is so important. 

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“What’s important is that this resolution recognises the issue [of sexism] is a problem in all walks of life, blocking women and girls from achieving their potential,” Hunt said. “The definition indicates some of the impact this has on women and girls, why this is a problem, and that this has to be addressed.” 

One significant advantage of having a clear definition of sexism is that it forces more general recognition that sexism is a problem, and helps explain exactly what that problem is, what causes it, and how it can be addressed. 

“I think it’s because we’re all victims of sexism and we’re all blinded by sexism,” said Hunt. “We’re all influenced by the environments in which we’re brought up and if you think about it and examine it closely there’s sexism all over, and you don’t even realise that you’re subjected.” 

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“We’re living through these stereotypes so you don’t examine how rife it is,” she added. “So I think there has to be general recognition that this is a problem, and how stereotypes and sexism fit into that.” 

“But the devil is in the detail, and until you know what it [sexism] looks like, where misogyny and sexism is all pervasive, it’s difficult to understand where you could have that real focus,” added Hunt. 

This is, of course, not the first time that international efforts have been made to tackle sexism and sexist behaviours. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are a great example of a global front in the fight. 

SDG No.5 exists to tackle gender inequalities, and other issues that stem from stereotypes, lack of empowerment, and lack of inclusion, added Hunt. 

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“There has been growing recognition that this is an issue, and to encapsulate it and remind people [through defining the problem] is a very good way of starting to take it seriously,” continued Hunt. “Once you recognise it and see it, it’s a good springboard to take it seriously and look at how you are going to address it.” 

The recommendations adopted by the Council of Europe come as a direct result of movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, which have really shone a light on the fact that sexism is persistent and all-encompassing. 

The council’s Committee of Ministers have been very careful to highlight that sexism is rife in all different walks of life — from education, to advertising and media, the justice sector, culture, and sport, to name a few.  

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Among some of the actions included in the recommendation are legislative reforms to condemn sexism; define and criminalise sexist hate speech; and provide appropriate remedies for people who have experienced sexist behaviour. 

It’s not just women and girls who are negatively impacted by sexism either, of course. For example, one of the many issues highlighted in the recommendations, according to Hunt, are the unequal roles child-raising and child caring roles we have in our society. 

“Sexism is very obvious in a lot of laws, for example, that child marriage is possible. That’s pretty obvious” she said. “But then you look at things like the fact only women can claim maternity pay when they have a child. Great that they can get that, but why only women?” 

“The resolution has pointed out the unequal child-raising roles and child caring roles, and so it’s looking also at the family and seeing how we can balance those roles to give all parents the equal right to spend time with their children,” she continued. 

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the fact that the Council of Europe represents dozens of governments, and those governments had to come together to discuss the resolution. The idea is that each of those governments will now be able to take their learnings home with them, and start addressing sexism in their own countries. 

The recommendation also calls on member states to monitor their progress in implementing the guidelines, and to tell the Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Commission about the measures they have taken and the progress they have achieved. 

Hunt added: “It’s a growing realisation that actually our societies are embedded in sexism, and it’s a very good beginning on how to address it, to then take action to move forward.”