Why are women judged more harshly than men?


This article came about soon after two young girls were arrested having allegedly been found in possession of €1.7 worth of cocaine. The internet was rife with speculation and Chrissie Russell’s question to me was about women in the spotlight: do we judge women as responding “inappropriately” more readily than we judge men ?

Q: This piece will look at how women in high profile cases are often judged by the public on their emotional response – eg the two girls up on drugs charges in Peru have faced criticism for laughing and eating cake, Kate McCann being too composed, Lindy Chamberlain not being emotional enough etc… I need an expert for a few insights on why we judge women this way and why women tend to be judged for an ‘inappropriate’ responses more than men.

I suppose a very general and quick answer would be to say that this is the result of a form of sexism that has led both genders in our society to judge women more quickly, more negatively and with more severity, than men. We value women differently, we judge what women say, how they behave, we rate how women look,what they wear, how they behave, what choices they make around career and family and so on, ad nauseam.

I’ve done it myself – I bet you have too. At a gig not too long ago I noticed myself wondering why a female singer was wearing “those boots” while I left her male bandmates get on with the business of being musicians. That was me: the super-enlightened-conscious-of-gender-issues-intelligent woman. I’m not proud of that, but I do have an understanding of how that happened in me. I too have been trained to judge women, as we all have. Now that I know it, it’s my responsibility to be aware of it, and then to make a choice to either continue, or to stop.

And if you try to practice this, prepare to be shocked at how often you do it. When the ads come on, when you pass someone in a shop, when the newsreader appears, when you open a magazine, when you meet a female professional…the list is as long as it is depressing.

There are many places where women are scrutinized when men in similar positions are simply left be. Emotional responding is just one of those areas.

Historically, as you most likely know, women have been associated with a myriad of physical and psychological disorders including ‘hysteria’ (originally thought to have been caused by the womb being displaced and travelling around the body causing pathological behaviour, from the Greek ‘hystera’ for womb). Over the centuries the word ‘hysterical’ became commonly used, in a flippant and derogatory way, to describe women who were considered to be overemotional. And today the word is bandied about as a way of dismissing women, not taking them seriously.

Throughout human history women who’ve been in powerful positions have been viewed as ‘unfeminine’ somehow, or at the very least as having characteristics or traits that are not considered the “norm” for women. We can see this and hear this even today in the negative language used to describe female politicians, business women, women in senior positions. And of course then there are women who are simply famous, for one reason or another.It has long been a popular pass-time to demonise women who are powerful, in both a perceived (celebrity) and literal (political leaders) sense.

(Although in truth it can be said the celebrity brings with it real power these days…)

With regard to emotional responding, women are frequently stereotyped into two main groups, the over emotional ones, and the cold callous ones. The over emotional are dismissed as hysterical, when in fact they are most likely displaying normal reactions to abnormal events. Those who react with apparent calmness, who choose not to show their emotions, or who are disconnected from their emotions due to trauma or simply the need for privacy, are dismissed as unfeminine, abnormal somehow.

When we are presented with women who don’t fit the stereotype of ’emotional’ in an ’emotional’ situation, we are thrown. Women who are calm in the face in great adversity are regarded with suspicion. The media vilification of Madelaine Mc Cann’s mother is a great example of how women are evaluated. Every facial expression she made in public was examined, replayed, while people speculated and accused. Newspapers carefully chose their photographs to facilitate this. It was indeed appalling.

But not unique. We tend to collectively experience abnormal as threatening, until we gain an understanding of the ‘abnormality’.  In the absence of this understanding and compassion,  judgements begin. Women who, for example, don’t cry at the funerals of loved ones may be judged as unloving, their behaviour questioned, their love doubted.

Even by themselves.

Women who react overtly, who publicly ‘fall apart’ and behave in a way that is not normal for them are vulnerable to being judged as too weak, over reacting, attention seeking, hysterical. So they end up being regarded with similar suspicion. Bizarrely, our empathy can actually decrease when we are presented with an obviously distraught woman. We make grandiose and often inaccurate assumptions about her intentions, her deviousness, her manipulative powers. (Am thinking witch craft – remember that?!)

As with the virgin/whore dichotomy, it is very difficult for women to win. On a daily basis women are bombarded with messages that say – be strong, be fragile, be caring, but not too much or you will look needy, cry, but not too often,  enjoy sex, but not too frequently, look good, but don’t be vain, lose weight but don’t look thin, be carefree about your weight, but don’t get photographed with cellulite. There are many pressures on women to behave in ways that are unrealistic and unfair.

I’m not sure that it is just famous women who are vulnerable to these judgements that we make. And of course it’s more comfortable for us to absolve ourselves and say “ah sure they’re only celebrities, I wouldn’t treat someone I know like that!”


I think we do. It’s just difficult to admit to it. We are collectively responsible for keeping these stereotypes alive and kicking. If we want “it” to change, then “we” must change. Imagine how lovely the world would then be?!

(Chrissie’s article is here.)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.