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Avoiding Sexism in Canada and the United States

Advice for international travellers + students + others

Two university-age men and a university -ge woman studying together in a cafe. Avoiding sexism in Canada and the United States is essential to retaining good relationships.

When you are new to Canada and especially the United States, you may find it easy to offend and appear sexist in the eyes of North Americans without meaning to do harm. Cultures differ so much on what is proper behaviour.

Sexism: "Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex."

— Oxford Dictionary

Sexism—not treating women as equals—remains an extraordinarily sensitive issue in North America.

Sexism in Canada and the United States

Sexism applies to exploiting women in many ways. For example, men are paid significantly more for the same work in the U.S. and they are more likely to be promoted to high positions.

"Gender pay gap in Canada more than twice global average." - The Globe and Mail citing a Catalyst Canada study during May 2018. That study found that Canadian working women earn approximately an astonishing Canadian $8,000 less per year than men doing an equivalent job.

As of 2017, merely an appalling 54 of the Fortune 1000 companies--the largest U.S. companies—were headed by a woman CEO. Even with a person of colour in office, White House female staff still earned some 13 percent less than men in 2016 for the same work.

It gets worse.

Unlike Bangladesh, Bolivia, Haiti, Liberia, Malawi, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (I could go on)—countries some Americans consider not as "advanced" as theirs—the United States has never elected a woman head of government. By head of government I mean a person elected to office, not a royal by birth.

During 2018 far more attention has turned to the most sinister exploitation of all—males in positions of power overtly or indirectly demanding sexual favours in exchange for business favours such as parts in films, promotions, etc.

All this cannot stand.

Avoid sexist language

More than ever you have to be very careful to use language that implies equality of the sexes.

To avoid offence, many people are now using the grammatically incorrect plural "they" to refer to a single person of unknown sex.

For example, "When a traveller visits New York, they should see Rockefeller Centre," is said instead of using the traditional "he" when either a man or a woman could be involved.

Also, many people such as I say and write "he or she" instead of using solely "he" or "they." I also do "her or his."

Avoid stereotyping

In conversations, do not presume certain vocational roles are the province of one sex and not the other.

Traditionally, occupations often have been, but that has been changing, with especially significant growth in U.S. university enrolment of women in math and most sciences >


The percentage of women graduating with a U.S. business degree has grown spectacularly from some 10 percent in 1970 to just over or under 50 percent in the last few years. With 40 percent in the advanced MBA degree they still lag, but even that is a vast improvement.

At one time many people in North America believed being a medical doctor was an unsuitable role for a woman. In my mind, however, bless the woman doctor who tended my very difficult birth. Being born with a backpack attached to my back posed a challenge for us both!

Ignore extremes

Some say the women's movement in North America has gone too far in trying to protect the interests of women.

Even if you agree, try to be tolerant if you notice what you consider to be extremes.

After all, women in North America, as mentioned, still face huge prejudice in the workplace, in family structures, and in school.

Proper behaviour always not certain

Attitudes regarding many social habits are in flux.

A male may be uncertain whether or not to open a door for a woman, to offer to pay for a meal on a first date, etc. If you do not open that door you may be considered ill-mannered or even rude, and if you do, you may be classed as sexist and insensitive depending on the observer.

Males will just have to live with these situations. There's no way to know in advance what to do in every social interaction.

Avoid touching and intimate language unless sure

Do not touch anyone with more than a handshake unless you are certain your action will be welcomed.

This can be a strain for people from many cultures (including some found in North America), where friendly, informal touching between men and women on let's say an arm or a quick hug is not considered offensive.

Nevertheless, "When in doubt, leave it out."

At the now closed Antioch College in Ohio, men had to ask permission before kissing their dates. Moreover, they had to receive verbal permission at each step prior to proceeding to greater intimacy, or risk expulsion from the university. One might wonder if the university closed because men were too frightened to enrol there.

The University of Iowa may expel a student or terminate an employee who says, "Maria, that is a sexy dress you are wearing."

Immediate termination may seem too extreme to you in this situation, but that's the way it is.

Again, please remember the economic and social abuse women have long suffered and frankly continue to suffer in both American and Canadian society.

For more discussion about interacting with Americans and Canadians >

Go to >> Making friends

Go to >> Interacting with Americans and Canadians

Go to >> Handling complaints

Go to >> Dealing with prejudice

Go to >> Adjusting to North American life

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