Palm trees stretched over dirt or xeriscaped lots, against the dusky blue of a twilight sky and the orange glow of streetlights. I was 24 or 25 at the time, driving around my hometown of Las Vegas with my dad. We were discussing my struggle with new motherhood, with gendered expectations, with my religious beliefs.
I felt immense pressure to bend and pretzel myself into a specific, mom-shaped mold of what I’d been told a woman should be. A mold that continually felt less and less compatible with the kind of woman I wanted to be.
The internal push and pull was starting to cause tears in my identity, my sense of self. I wasn’t sure I could bear it. Wasn’t sure I was willing to anymore.
My dad was perplexed about where these gendered expectations even came from. “Who’s saying anything to you about working?” he asked, in response to my intense conviction that I was being judged for my choice to continue working.
I was stumped. There was no overt instance of discrimination I could point to. No one had said, outright and to my face, that I was a bad mom for working outside the home. But still… I knew some people were judging that choice. And more than that, I knew that I had wondered if I could really be a good mom while working.
All I could do was say, “No one, Dad. No one needed to. Not when I’ve already heard it my whole life.”
Internalized sexism: when women police and put down themselves
In my post about why moms feel they have to justify their choices, I wrote a bit about this struggle. But even since publishing that post, I’ve thought about it.
I had the sense that there was some unspoken something at the core of this all. Some thread that was there, through my youth, college and career choices, leaving the Mormon church, starting a family, through to my current choices.
What is really going on in my head, in women’s and femme’s lives, that makes us feel such immense pressure to live, choose, and be a certain way?
And slowly I was able to name it: Internalized sexism.
What is internalized sexism?
Women are as susceptible to sexist beliefs as men, of course — maybe even moreso. When we hear sexist ideas, however, they aren’t projected onto a different, othered group. They’re about us.
That’s internalized sexism: taking in messages and beliefs about the inferiority or limited role of women.
(It’s a form of internalized oppression, which can be experienced by any marginalized or disenfranchised group.)
These beliefs become part of women’s thoughts and worldview, influencing behavior and choices as well as how they view and judge themselves and other women. Misogynistic ideas and beliefs seep into our psyches and haunt us, making us question ourselves, put ourselves down, and feel that we’re never enough.
How sexism and misogyny became part of my internal reality
These messages that women are less than were so common in my upbringing that I rarely thought to question them. It was part of the fabric of reality, the story I was told about what it means to be human — specifically, to be a woman.
I learned that I must always push myself to be better. That I should dress modestly, a message not delivered to my male peers. I took for granted that leadership would never be my calling (Mormons don’t allow women to be ordained to the priesthood). That I was meant for a life of service to others, primarily my eventual nuclear family.
All of these were ideas I believed to the extent that they were my default. And that’s how sexism is internalized: in trying to make sense of the world and my place in it, I buy into the idea that I am less than. Less capable, less knowledgeable, less important.
No one needed to tell me I was being the wrong kind of girl, woman, or lady. I was telling myself that every day.
No one needed to police my womanhood, to tell me to get in line. They’d already taught me to do it for them, to police myself.
The result? I was constantly caught between my authenticity, my genuine desires and beliefs — and the pressure to conform to sexist beliefs I held.
How internalized misogyny and sexism damages women’s finances
As I’ve become more aware of the sexist beliefs and ideas that were haunting me, I’ve noticed more and more how they push up against my financial choices and career decisions. There always seems to be a voice in my head, and internal sexist, pointing out that I’m doing things wrong or right.
So I set out to get a better feel for the shapes that internalized sexism can take, especially when it comes to money matters. Here are some of the most common ways I think it pops up, based on my research and personal experience.
Limited earning power
Several sexist beliefs about women can limit our earning power and career ambitions. That we’re less capable than men, have less inherent ambition and drive for work, and are naturally better-suited for and more concerned with family life. As one study puts it, the belief is that women’s “commitment to family is primary by nature, so their commitment to work has to be secondary.”
We internalize all of this and it definitely impacts our career choices. For me, it started early. I never expected to have much of a career beyond stay-at-home-motherhood, let alone a high-paying job that could support my whole family. When I attended college, I figured it didn’t much matter what I chose to study as I would probably only use my degree for a couple years.
And I know it’s not just me. Internalized sexism can have a big impact on holding women back. Women born or raised in areas with high rates of sexist attitudes are less likely to be employed, and earn less than other working women, according to research from the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago. This is true even when they live and work in a new area with lower rates of sexism, which suggests that these economically-disadvantaging outcomes are a mechanism of the norms we internalized when we’re young.
Belief you’re bad with money
Another common sexist belief: women are worse with money than men. That women are prone to frivolous or emotional spending, less capable of making rational financial decisions, and less knowledgeable about money topics.
Internalizing and buying into these ideas can lead to a lot of issues for women as they try to manage their money. If you have internalized these kinds of beliefs, they can show up as:
- Feeling like you don’t know anything about money and can’t learn.
- Believing you’re just bad with money — that you’re incompetent and unlikely to improve.
- Mistrusting your own judgment and ability to responsibly manage money.
- Fearing money management or financial decisions because you feel inherently unsuited to these tasks.
- Feeling disempowered with money; that you’re helpless to improve your situation or a hopelessly lost cause
- Focusing disproportionately on money mistakes or perceived failures, while ignoring success or improvements.
Feeling conflicted about spending on yourself
Beliefs that women are less responsible with money and spend more frivolously are prevalent. Taking on all of these critical messaging of women and how we’re supposed to be can make spending complicated.
I’ve noticed sexist beliefs popping up when I’m spending:
- I struggle to justify “feminine” purchases, from makeup to an astrology reading, even if the product is something I want and can afford to buy. And generally, expenses labeled as a “waste of money” in the personal finance space are often gendered. From lattes to cocktails, shoe or skincare products — these are money-wasting purchases often associated with female buyers.
- I sometimes feel pressure to spend on “feminine” things that I don’t care about or would prefer not to in order to adequately “perform” femininity. For me, that includes things like getting a salon wax or a manicure. Ironically, the same things that many women get shamed for buying — other women will feel like they can’t skip if it might make them conventionally-attractive appearance.
- I feel guilty when spending on myself. Especially when I’m buying something I know only I can or will use, like new winter boots or replacing my phone. And I know a lot of women who feel the same way, especially if they share finances with a partner or have kids. It can feel like money spent on ourselves is “taking away” from our family. Maybe a belief that money is better used sitting in a bank account than spent on ourselves. Or just a nagging sense that I, as a woman, am somehow less entitled to the benefits of a financially healthy household. Wherever it comes from, internalized sexism can make this spending guilt even harder to shake.
Not prioritizing wealth-building or investing
The most common form of sexism revealed in these women’s chats? Statements of ignorance — specifically, saying “I don’t know,” according to a study from the Journal of Integrated Social Sciences.
When I read this, it stung. Because I use “I dunno” constantly, almost as a filler phrase in conversation. But as the study points out:
Women say “I don’t know” when they do, in fact, know. I use it this way, too. And this expression of ignorance or uncertainty undermines trust in their own knowledge and judgment.
So often, I’ve let that unsettling feeling of not-knowing, of ignorance, stand in my way. It’s stopped me from opening a 401k, from setting up my investment allocations. It made me feel unfit to manage large amounts of money.
And it’s not just the effects of the sexist beliefs I and many women have that we don’t know what we’re doing with money, investing, and long-term planning. It’s also about how we’re taught to view and value ourselves. “Why invest in myself,” my inner voice says, “when I need to be supporting others? Wouldn’t that be selfish? Do I really even deserve it?”
Having that voice in our heads that being a “good” woman means acting selflessly and being of service to others leaves little room for prioritizing our own futures, our own financial security and independence.
Elevating others’ financial views above our own
Encoded in all of these sexist beliefs is the message that we, as women, must prioritize others above ourselves. Thus, internalized sexism can look like putting others’ financial views and interests ahead of our own.
Our partners know better than we do. Or even if we know they’re wrong, it’s not worth the fight — not worth making them uncomfortable. We sacrifice more and are harder on ourselves than on others when it comes to our money behaviors. We view our partners’ careers as more important than our own (or allow our partner to claim so). Or we listen to our parents’ financial advice without questioning it, living up to our familial or cultural expectations for our careers and our financial success.
This might have been the most damaging effect of my internalized sexism: I believed that other people always knew better than I did. I trusted their feedback more than I did my own judgment. I struggled to stick to my own convictions when they were challenged by others.
One clear example of this: my parents strongly warned me not to get a credit card in college, so I didn’t. As a result, I graduated at 21 with no credit card debt — but also no credit to my name. I couldn’t get an apartment application approved, and had to rely on my partner’s credit to get us housing.
I know many other women have these moments: arguing with a parent or spouse about career expectations, appropriate spending levels, whether to pay off debt, or whether to take on more debt. While women likely manage more of the day-to-day finances — the budget, finding deals, and so on — 56% leave the long-term financial planning and investing up to their spouses, according to a UBS survey.
Our internalized sexism is not our fault…
Here’s the insidious aspect of internalization: it makes everything personal. Every failing, every bad event or situation, any negative outcome feels like a personal failing.
In the process of researching this piece, I had so many “Wait, I do that” moments — followed by guilt. Feeling like I’m failing at being a feminist, a good female role model, the kind of woman I want to be.
Every woman struggling to shut up the sexist voices and beliefs in her head needs to ignore them for just a moment and hear this: THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
Sexism is not inherent — you were taught to view yourself as lesser based on your gender. That’s not your fault. It does not mean you are bad or have failed in any way if threads of sexist beliefs and ideas were woven into the fabric of who you are.
Think about it: the finance and investing world is still overwhelmingly male. The Equal Pay Act that banned wage discrimination based on gender is only 57 years old. Women couldn’t get credit cards on their own until 1974. State laws that gave husbands control of jointly owned property weren’t overturned until 1981. And today, the gender pay gap persists.
I’m not interested in perpetuating the myth that the financial inequalities that exist between men and women exist because of the preferences and choices of women. I don’t think that women care more or less about their families than men, that they’re inherently more risk-averse, that they’re simply less interested in investing. I think that is all more sexist bullshit.
But we can change our views and halt the financial damage of internalized sexism
It’s not our fault of responsibility as women to “solve” sexism by leaning in and doing things that we don’t want to. We don’t have the power, influence, or even ability to fix the system. It is, by design, outside of women’s control to fix it. That’s sort of the whole point.
But we, as women, can at least fix our learned sexism and cease its harm to ourselves and other women.
We can see our internalized sexism for what it is: learned beliefs that we held onto or followed because we felt, for whatever reason, we had to. Maybe it bought us acceptance or approval. Perhaps it gave us peace that we were making the best choices, at least for those around us. For some of us, adhering to sexist guidelines even kept us safe, protected us from aggression or backlash.
Whatever the reasons we believed our inner sexist and followed its advice, it’s important to look at the tradeoffs of doing so. The harm to our sense of self-worth, of our autonomy, or our financial security and future.
Women must also own the power and influence we do have. We have the power to build our own acceptance, belonging, and safety free of gendered oppression — or to at least work toward it. We have the power to learn, to grow, to trust our own knowledge, judgment, and intuition.
And most of all: We can challenge our sexist ideas and beliefs, again and again, until we believe more in our worth, abilities, and competence.
We have the power to evict our inner sexists.
They don’t get to live in our heads rent-free anymore. They don’t get to guilt us for our spending, caution us against negotiating for a raise, or keep us from the financial growth and security we deserve.