Abused for being Female

The Cause of Domestic Violence is Sexism

By Barry Goldstein

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist recently wrote a really useful column about sexism that makes it easier to understand and supports many of the points I have made in my next book, The Quincy Solution: Stop Domestic Violence and Save $500 Billion.  His column is particularly helpful because sexism is routinely misunderstood.  Sexism is critical to understanding domestic violence because it is the cause of men’s abuse of wives and girl-friends.

Sexism is Often Difficult to Recognize

Many people think of sexism as involving improper touching, crude sexual propositions or the kind of offensive statements and attitudes that people like Rush Limbaugh specialize in.  More often sexism is far more subtle and is often invisible to the male offenders.  In many cases it is based on common stereotypes.

Mr. Kristof provided a few examples of research studies in which the exact same resumes were sent to prospective employers with the only difference being the use of male and female names.   The result was that men were more likely to receive interviews, jobs, and higher salaries.  Those who would wish to deny sexism cannot point to any other explanation for the disparity in outcomes because aside from gender the qualifications were exactly the same.

At the same time, there is no reason to believe the employers were deliberately trying to hurt women or give men an unfair advantage.  I believe that the bias of most of the employers was unconscious and they would be shocked at the results of the research.  They would probably vehemently and sincerely deny that they were being unfair to the female applicants.  How could they be unaware that they were giving unfair preferences to men?

Lynn Hecht Schafran wrote a brilliant article, Evaluating the Evaluators [PDF] that illustrates how gender bias works.  A new psychologist was asked to evaluate a young family involved in a custody dispute.  The father’s apartment was a complete mess with no food in the refrigerator.  The evaluator wrote that the father lives in a typical bachelor apartment.  The mother’s apartment was a little messy but not as bad as the father’s.  She had food in the refrigerator but not as much as preferable.  The psychologist wrote that the mother lives in a messy apartment with inadequate food.  The evaluator was assigned a supervisor because of her inexperience who pointed out the unfair response.  She could not believe the gender biased approach she had used and quickly corrected her mistake.

I like this story because it clearly demonstrates how easy it is for someone acting in complete good faith, and even a woman to engage in gender bias.  It was based on common stereotypes that expect mothers to have better skills for taking care of their home and children.  Accordingly they are routinely judged by a much higher standard.  This is one of the reasons abusive fathers have been so successful in winning custody.  Although sinister explanations are often advanced for this fundamental violation of equal protection, the real reasons are often more subtle and many court professionals are oblivious to their unfair practices.  Unfortunately if anyone complains about bias or sexism, the courts respond defensively.  They often assume that allegations of sexism refer to the extreme forms discussed earlier.

Sexism Hurts Women and Men

The first example in the Kristoff article concerns research findings that similar hurricanes with female names cause significantly more damage than those with male names.  Presumably “male” hurricanes are treated more seriously and so there are better preparation and safety measures.  Just like the earlier examples the difference in our response is unconscious.  There is no benefit to men for treating “male” hurricanes more seriously than “female” ones.  The harm from reduced preparation impacts men and women.  Clearly the different response is unconscious.  This information illustrates why it is so valuable to look at patterns instead of considering each event separately.

In the examples of discrimination against women job applicants, the men who are given the jobs or higher pay certainly benefit from this sexism.  In other cases men with somewhat lower qualifications may also gain jobs to the detriment of women applicants.  This often unconscious discrimination means that society is not making full use of the abilities of its residents.  The economy is weaker and the country’s wealth is substantially reduced by practices that interfere with people reaching their full potential.  This is true of sexism, racism and every other oppression.  In other words, in order to divide the pie in an unfair manner we have to accept a much smaller pie.

The Quincy Solution seeks to implement effective practices from communities like Quincy, Nashville and San Diego to dramatically reduce domestic violence crime.  I have estimated that adopting these best practices would save the United States $500 billion per year.  Most of the savings comes from reduced health care expenses and prevention of crime.  Another important factor is that saving women and children from domestic violence will help them reach their economic potential and thus improve our economy.

Although women suffer the greatest economic harm from sexism, men are also impacted by the much weaker economy.  Men share in the health costs from domestic violence when they pay health insurance premiums and taxes.  Similarly they share in the costs not only of domestic violence crimes but other crimes committed by adults who witnessed domestic violence as children.  Bill Delahunt, the district attorney who helped create the original Quincy Model reviewed the personal records of inmates at a nearby high security prison.  He noticed that virtually every prisoner had a childhood history that included domestic violence and often sexual abuse.  He believed that by reducing domestic violence crime he could reduce all crime and this is exactly what happened.  In other words we all pay a steep price for tolerating men’s abuse of women.

False Sense of Equivalency

Just as it is unfair to treat people differently who are in the same position, treating people in very different situations the same is also fundamentally unfair.  This seems to be one of the important mistakes Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts made when they ruled against laws designed to remedy the long history of racism and sexism.  It seems likely that they were unwilling or unable to recognize and consider the more subtle forms of racism and sexism.  The psychologist in the Schafran article was open to hearing about her false assumptions and correcting her errors.  Unfortunately Roberts and Scalia are not alone in refusing to do so.

At least 40 states and many judicial districts have created court-sponsored gender bias committees.  Although they used widely varied approaches over a few decades, they all found widespread gender bias.  The more blatant forms of sexism such as unwanted touching and offensive sexual proposals have largely been addressed.  The more common problem is bias against women litigants especially protective mothers.  The committees have found that mothers face higher standards of proof, are given less credibility and are blamed for the actions of their abusers.  A study by Nicholas Bala found that fathers involved in contested custody are sixteen times more likely to make false allegations than mothers, but the courts, like most of society pay more attention to what men say.  Much of this bias is unintentional and unconscious, but too often judges respond defensively to complaints of gender bias and retaliate against the messenger.

The custody courts tend to focus on the belief that children need both parents equally.  In our still sexist society, mothers continue to provide most of the child care despite articles we may see around Fathers’ Day claiming that fathers are spending more time with their children.  The parent providing most of the child care during the first two years of children’s lives is the primary attachment figure.  Separating a child from their primary attachment figure results in increased risk of depression, low self-esteem and suicide when older.  Nevertheless, courts often see the mother’s closer relationship to the children as an advantage to her and try to compensate by favoring fathers.  The truth is that children need their primary attachment parent more than the other parent and the safe parent more than the abuser.  Treating the parents the same may sound like fundamental fairness, but it certainly is not fair to the children.  Even worse, when an abused mother objects to cooperating with a man she has experienced as dangerous, the courts often punish her.  In doing so they are really punishing the children.  Instead of pressuring mothers to cooperate with their abusers, a better practice would be to force the batterers to change their behavior in order to win time with their children.


I really appreciate the column by Nicholas Kristof because our society does not engage in serious discussions about sexism and racism as frequently as we should.  The widespread mistaken assumption that these oppressions are limited to the most offensive and obvious behavior discourage the needed dialogue.  Although many good people engage in sexist and racist actions, often without realizing they are doing so, the popular misconceptions usually result in an extremely defensive response when someone’s behavior is characterized as racist or sexist.

The common defensive responses discourage those most impacted by racism and sexism from sharing information about offensive behavior.  Society’s tendency to silence serious discussion about racism and sexism hurts everybody.  Many of us hoped the election of our first black President would lead to a national discussion about racism.  Instead the many racist and often vicious personal attacks against President Obama have further discouraged the needed conversation.  Many people seem to assume that if they disagree with his policies, no criticism can be racist.

Many of the critics of proposals designed to equalize the pay of men and women for equivalent work engaged in sexism to attack the remedies.  Opponents claimed that the discrepancy in wages is a myth.  The employment studies referenced by Mr. Kristof are incompatible with the denial that women are paid less for similar work.  The fact that women are less likely to be hired and paid less when hired than equally qualified men demonstrates how sexism, unintended or otherwise, limits the income of women.

The essence of sexism and domestic violence is that men are more valuable and superior to women.  While it usually is not expressed that directly, this is the message that our tolerance of domestic violence sends.  I hope the coming campaign for the Quincy Solution encourages a serious discussion about sexism.  We know the Quincy Solution can dramatically reduce domestic violence crime because similar practices have worked in places like Quincy, Nashville and San Diego.  The Quincy Solution will make this country healthier and wealthier.  The serious discussion about sexism and the end of our tolerance for domestic violence will make us better human beings.