AAUW’s #StandUptoSexism Discussion Guide
“You play like a girl.” “You should smile more.” “Women aren’t natural leaders.”
Women hear countless sexist comments over our lifetimes, and most of the time we shrug them off. But what about the words that can’t or won’t be so easily dismissed? A lifetime of absorbing sexism (starting at birth, when studies show people assign gender traits) leads to frustration and kills our self-confidence. At a young age we learn to follow certain behaviors based on traditional gender roles. Too often those who do not align with acceptable gendered boundaries are treated as outcasts or outsiders.
Gender-based microaggressions are subtle phrases or acts directed at us by others that make us doubt ourselves. These seemingly small acts of sexism contribute to the gender leadership gap, which creates a cyclical problem: Women are underrepresented, so our work is devalued, and so we devalue ourselves, and on and on. Hearing these comments day in and day out affects our personal, intellectual, and professional choices.
AAUW’s #StandUptoSexism video depicts young women who have internalized the sexism they face on a daily basis. With your help we can tackle this problem and empower women and girls to be the future leaders of tomorrow. This resource will help you plan a discussion around “everyday sexism” in your community.
This activity helps you facilitate a meaningful conversation around gender bias and the many ways women and allies can #StandUptoSexism. Follow the steps to spark change on your campus and beyond!
The goal of this activity is to help people define and give examples of gender-based microaggressions. Facilitators should encourage participants to think critically about societal gender norms and the ways that they can combat everyday sexism when they see or hear it.
Time: ~1 Hour
Introduction to event: 5–10 minutes
Video: 2 minutes
Discussion: 45 minutes
Before the Discussion: Be Informed
Make sure that everyone at your event is using the same language, understands the societal and historical context around the issue, and can see the different video vignettes in order to make the discussion as in depth as possible.
Sexism — Prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially discrimination against women
Microaggressions – Brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership (based on author Derald Wing Sue’s definition). Gender-based microaggressions are subtle words, phrases, or actions that reinforce gender stereotypes and sexism.
Bias – A semipermanent belief based on repeated exposure to stereotypes
Implicit bias – Occurs when a person consciously rejects stereotypes but still unconsciously makes evaluations based on stereotypes
Context: Where are the women leaders?
Everyday sexism is harmful and pervasive. Receiving sexist comments can damage women’s confidence and ultimately exacerbate the gender leadership gap.
- Even though women make up 57 percent of college students, only 40 percent of colleges have female student body presidents.
- Women make up 75 percent of all nonprofit employees but only 43 percent of all executives.
- Only 32 percent of college presidents in the United States are women.
- Women hold less than 5 percent of CEO positions in America’s 500 biggest companies.
- The U.S. Congress is only 19 percent
- Because of the stereotypes surrounding women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, women may find difficulty finding mentors, advisers, and support while studying these subjects, or even worse, they may not even pursue STEM futures at all because of negative perceptions of women’s abilities.
- Title IX has done wonders in leveling the playing field for women, but barriers still remain for women athletes, especially for women of color.
Women in Leadership (0:01–0:19) – “Your voice doesn’t matter.”
Student stands before a classroom.
Body Positivity (0:20–0:34) – “You’re not the right body type.”
Woman stares at herself in the mirror.
Women in the Workplace (0:35–0:47) – “You can’t speak up.”
Woman sits at a conference table with men.
Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (0:48–0:57) – “You’re not smart enough.”
Woman writes out a math problem.
Women in Athletics (0:58–1:05) – “You’ll never be as good as the guys.”
Woman plays basketball against a man.
Let the Discussion Begin!
1. Introduce AAUW and the activity.
Introduce yourself and explain AAUW’s mission. Let participants know that AAUW is an organization that can help them fight back against tired gender stereotypes and sexist comments. Explain that the event will begin with a short video, to be followed by discussion about how “everyday sexism” affects both women and men, and how everyone can fight back against this insidious practice.
2. Set a community agreement.
This may be a sensitive topic for many people, so remind your group that this is an open space for discussion. Some participants may have a more advanced understanding of sexism, while many may be talking about it for the first time. Additionally, emotions may run high as this topic can be deeply personal. Here are AAUW’s favorite ways to set the ground rules for civil and inclusive dialogue.
What’s shared here stays here, but what’s learned here leaves here.
The group agrees to confidentiality of names, but the knowledge and insight garnered will stay with them once they leave the room.
One speaker, one mic.
When someone is speaking, they should not be interrupted. Everyone who would like to speak will be given the opportunity.
Move forward, move back.
If you normally are the first to contribute to the conversation, considering allowing others the chance to speak. If you normally are shy, challenge yourself to share your opinions.
Challenge by choice.
While everyone is encouraged to leave their comfort zones and share their thoughts, no one will be forced to share.
Listen to understand, not to respond.
When others are talking, make sure you’re digesting everything they’re saying, rather than simply waiting for your turn to speak again.
3. Show the video.
Check out AAUW’s #StandUptoSexism resource to access the video and the printable flyer!
Do your part to dismantle sexism by engaging your community in this important conversation. Use the discussion questions below to prompt a critical discussion about the harmful effects of sexism:
Which phrase in the video resonated the most with you? Why?
What are some other examples of sexist comments you’ve heard throughout your life? Are there certain spaces where you’re more likely to hear them? Here are some examples to start the conservation:
- “You’re too pretty to be taken seriously.”
- “Won’t your kids distract you from work?”
- “What does your husband think about that?”
- “Girls just aren’t good at science.”
- “Honey; Sweetie; Sugar”
- “Your outfit is too distracting.”
- “You should smile more.”
- “Women are too emotional.”
- “Women aren’t natural leaders.”
Can you remember the first time you heard an “everyday” sexist comment? In what ways have these comments shaped your paths — for good and bad?
How do you think everyday sexism affects women’s college experiences? What about their career paths?
Women in Leadership
- Though more women than ever are attending college, why would women still feel like their voices are being silenced in the classroom?
- What are some common misconceptions about women leaders? Why do you think these still exist in 2017?
- What ways have you seen or experienced sexism regarding the way you look?
- How is the physical appearance of women leaders analyzed in ways that men’s appearance is not?
Women in the Workplace
- Aside from blatant sexual harassment, how are women held back from climbing the ladder of success in their workplaces?
- What societal norms tend to hold women back from getting promoted?
Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
- What are some examples of sexist comments made about women in STEM?
- Have you ever chosen not to take a class or do an activity because you were afraid that, as a woman in that setting, you’d underperform? (This is referred to as stereotype threat.)
Women in Athletics
- Have things gotten better or worse for women athletes over the years? Can you provide specific examples?
- What do you think holds women in sports back?
Because everyone internalizes sexism on some level, certain phrases and behaviors can become innate. Men and women absorb sexist behavior at an early age, so we may say or do certain actions without even realizing that we’re being sexist.
- Why do you think sexism is so pervasive in our society?
- How has this discussion inspired you to #StandUptoSexism in your everyday life?
Print these customized AAUW signs to take photos at the end of your event. Share them on social media to encourage others to join the movement.
Don’t let the conversation end once you part ways! Here are other ways to keep the movement going:
Recognize your own bias.
Think about what everyday actions you take that may unintentionally prompt sexism. What stereotypes do you hold that can be undone?
When you see or hear a microaggression, don’t be a silent bystander; say something. Refuse to let sexist comments or actions be a normal part of your everyday conversations and behavior.
Use social media.
Share the ways you observe or combat sexism on social media by using the hashtag #StandUptoSexism and tagging AAUW.
This discussion guide was written by AAUW Vice President of Leadership Programs and Campus Initiatives Abigail Lewis, AAUW College/University Relations Manager Paige Robnett, and AAUW Campus Initiatives Intern Jennifer Osolinski.
Share your story and check out the other AAUW members and supporters who are speaking out against sexism.
AAUW’s research on sexism in many facets of leadership suggests ways individuals and organizations can overcome bias and discrimination.
AAUW’s top lobbyist provides suggestions on how to combat sexism and bias in your life.