Internalized Misogyny and Your Inner Glass Ceiling

“Can a woman be a misogynist”?  This question came up in the one of the comments in my recent article “Why Aren’t Women Supporting Other Women at Work”.  The answer is “yes”, we all can.   There are so many ways that misogyny has worked its way into the lives of women or what we’re referring to as Your Inner Glass Ceiling.

Internalized misogyny is defined as the involuntary belief by girls and women that the lies, stereotypes and myths about girls and women, that are delivered to everyone in a sexist society, are true (as defined by the Cultural Bridge to Justice).

This is an unfortunate by-product of centuries of oppression and the many ways we, as women, have learned to adapt to in a culture that has “power over” women.

When we compete with other women at work, collapse after being shamed for our choices by another woman, or abuse our own power over another woman, we are colluding with a sexist culture.

This isn’t something we plan to do.  We may not even realize what’s behind our words when we say things like “I prefer to work with men than women”.

So how does internalized misogyny show up in our lives?

1.  It starts when we’re children through our family of origin and the adult figures of our culture. As children, we’re little sponges taking in everything around us.  We don’t yet have the critical thinking abilities needed to assess the values of what we’re being taught.  We might have experienced a family where there were double standards being set for the boys and the girls in the same family.  We might be guided into particular roles in the family and coached for particular roles as adults.  One woman told me that she was always the hostess.  She felt she had so much more to offer the world but she felt trapped into a set of expectations that began when she was a child.  Growing up in a prominent family with a dad who was a politician, the family frequently entertained.  Her mother was the perfect hostess and the perfect wife on her husband’s arm.  She felt pressured to follow in her mother’s footsteps when she also married a political figure.  When she tried to break out of this role, she received serious flak from her mother and the other women in her life for “not being happy with all you have”.

2.  If you experienced violence or abuse as a child or adolescent, there’s a good chance you have internalized misogyny. Here’s an update on the statistics from

  • Every 107 seconds a sexual assault occurs.
  • There is an average of 293,000 instances of sexual assault each year of victims age 12 or older.
  • 44% of victims are under age 18
  • 80% are under age 30
  • 68% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, and
  • 98% of rapists never spend a day in jail

Violence and rape are crimes of hate. When women do not have an advocate, keep their attack a secret, or are unable to get justice for the violence they experience, they internalize the messages of hate against themselves.

3.  Victim blaming means exactly that. Victim blaming is often an extension of “slut shaming” and bullying, which is grounded in the belief that men get to assert themselves and women do not.  There is research that shows that blaming the victim makes, the observer, feel better.  It hurts to hear someone’s painful story.  We want to believe we live in a just world where “bad things only happen to bad people”.  When bad things happen to good people, it hurts us and frightens us.  We realize our own vulnerability.  Blaming the victim helps the non-victim feel more in control.

4.  Resenting Being Female. I attended a workshop in the Fall of 2016 where a group of women were sharing how they relate to being female.  As you would imagine, this provocative question brought up a wide range of responses.  One woman shared that she hated being a woman.  It was not that she identified male.  Growing up, her father didn’t like women.  He would insult her when she was “acting like a girl”.  Acting like a girl included showing her feelings, getting excited, dancing around the house, laughing and being silly, challenging him, crying, showing tenderness towards animals.  The list went on.  It was heart-wrenching to hear how this woman’s natural childlike qualities were shunned as being “female”.  I’m not so sure that I would think all these qualities are “female” as much as they are childlike.  However, this woman internalized these messages of misogyny.  She now says these words against herself and all the things she doesn’t like about herself.  She projects these feelings outwardly and these become the reasons she doesn’t like women in general. 

5.  Criticizing the choices of other women. I find this to be one that just keeps eroding and undermining our own gender.  Living in a patriarchy, and while we are working to continuously make changes, we are still constrained in many arenas of work and home.  Women are still the primary caregivers.  If a woman chooses to stay home with her children, she is criticized, and perhaps even pressured to provide additional income for the family.  If she works outside the home, within herself she often feels like she’s failing as she juggles the priorities of work and family.  Add onto this, women who are caring for aging parents and you have yet another dynamic.  Our societies and organizations do not yet have the support structure for women to balance all of these needs and decision points. You may have read that Christie Shaw, the US head and country president of Novartis, recently stepped down to take care of her older sister who is suffering from a rare form of cancer.  This example is both inspiring and sad that our choices as women are still so polarized.  We need programs that allow women to keep their place in the talent cue when they’re faced these kinds of choices. I once had a boss whose mantra was “We need another option” and we still do.

These are just a few of the ways that internalized misogyny sneaks its way into our minds and lives.  We are not to blame for having internalized misogyny and it’s not an intentional plan of patriarchy.  But what it does is allow women to outwardly perpetuate the oppression that has been imposed upon them.  Inwardly we often see women suffering from low self-esteem, self-doubt, depression, isolation, and eating disorders.

Internalized misogyny becomes part of a woman’s Inner Glass Ceiling.  The rules and expectations for your Inner Glass Ceiling are so far ingrained into your subconscious that you don’t even know they’re there. We often believe we are doing what we need to do, when in reality we are often following a template that includes self-imposed limitations, hesitation, and second-guessing in pursuing our interests, and sacrificing for others to our own detriment.


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