Subtler Forms of Sexism

The #metoo movement has generated an overdue conversation about sexual harassment, hostile workplaces, and the difficulty many men and women seem to have in communicating with each other both in and out of the office.

That conversation is valuable, but we also need to recognize that some of the most pernicious ways women are getting screwed aren’t sexual.

A good friend of mine recently emailed me about an incredibly frustrating experience when she applied for a Lowe’s credit card. She and her husband are both retired. They have excellent credit–scores in the 800s. (For those of you unfamiliar with credit agency scoring, that is really good.)

When she applied for a Lowe’s credit card, however, she tells me she was denied “on the spot.”   When her husband then applied for the same credit card, he was approved on the spot.

She and her husband file joint tax returns, and own most of their assets–including a home and a vacation home– jointly. When she wrote a letter to the bank that issues Lowe’s credit card, asking for specific reasons for the denial, she was told that the reason was her lack of debt (she has none at all–unlike most Americans, she and her husband have paid everything off).

That explanation raises two obvious questions: why on earth should a lack of debt be disqualifying? and if for some bizarre reason it is, why didn’t it disqualify her husband, who is equally “debt-less”?

My friend and her husband have similar work and income histories; as retirees, they receive virtually identical social security and other retirement payments.(My friend has her own 401(k) and a pension, both of which she included on the application.) Why was he more creditworthy than she?

Unless there’s something weird she’s omitting, it certainly appears that the issuer of this credit card applies different standards to men and women. He is evidently more creditworthy because he’s a he.

My friend’s experience is infuriating, but not unusual. We sometimes forget that the idea of gender equity is relatively recent; when I went to law school, there were plenty of people–male and female–who found the idea of a woman with children working scandalous, and let me know it.  I was an adult before women could have credit ratings separate from those of our fathers or husbands.

“You’ve come a long way, baby” makes for a great cigarette ad, but it doesn’t reflect the reality that we also have a long way to go. Cultural assumptions–the man as breadwinner, the male as serious, superior and thus entitled–die hard. For generations, business and government and social institutions incorporated those cultural assumptions;  obsolete as they may be in today’s world, they persist.

Too bad we no longer have local investigative reporters. A systematic research project focusing on the degree to which women are still not treated equally by the businesses that invite our patronage would make a fascinating series.

If any of my friends from the Kelly School are reading this, I’d love to hear a business school perspective on this!


  1. Were women allowed to own property when this country was founded or vote?

    The #MeToo movement is about sexual harassment, not sexual equality. There are GOP lawmakers wanting women to leave the workforce and stay home.

    As you said, the white Anglo-Saxon patriarchy is built into all our institutions. Therefore, it is enculturated at a young age.

    Some of the talks at Davos discussed our outdated institutions as we move quickly toward globalization. In America, we are moving backward while the rest of the world moves forward.

    As for credit ratings, generally, no debt on credit cards lowers your score. I’m surprised they were in the 800’s. The rating agencies want to see you have a balance on your credit cards – a percentage. It lowers as you start borrowing too much, but it also lowers if you use too little, or none at all. It hurts young people for the same reason. They want you to use it and then pay it off or at least pay on time.

  2. This is a carryover from years past. In 1972 I got my first job since my teens; needing a wardrobe but being separated from my husband didn’t want to use the “family” credit cards. I applied for and received a Lerner’s charge card; being so honest I am boring and we were not legally divorced so I listed him as my husband. He was in and out of the family home and going through my mail; discovered the card and cancelled it, also cancelled the 2 “family” credit cards which I had NOT used because I got those bills in the divorce to pay all remaining balances. I was also given the camper and that balance due account, plus the storage fee after stating I did not want it when listing our assets. My attorney was working for my husband behind my back; an old family friend of MY family since before I was born; he also called during the separation to tell me to give my soon-to-be-ex-husband use of my car for dates Friday to Sunday. Seems he couldn’t take his dates out in his pickup truck. The only consolation I got throughout this ordeal was that my ex-husband had to pay his own attorney and mine and any court costs. My attorney was later appointed a judgeship in local court system. This is the same husband who was required to give written permission for me to have a tubal ligation (after 5 children and “female problems”) and again 18 months later his written permission was required for my hysterectomy.

    The Republican denomination of christianity is quickly moving us back to those “thrilling days of yesteryear”…except for accepting the sexual abuses of their party members as forgivable sins. “…but we also need to recognize that some of the most pernicious ways women are getting screwed aren’t sexual.”

  3. “The rating agencies want to see you have a balance on your credit cards – a percentage. It lowers as you start borrowing too much, but it also lowers if you use too little, or none at all. It hurts young people for the same reason. They want you to use it and then pay it off or at least pay on time.”

    Todd; I found this portion of your comments of particular interest – and concern. I have always used my credit card for emergencies and repairs, paid much higher payments than requested to pay it off. Mistakenly thinking that would give me a better credit rating. Last month my 31 year old furnace died (3 weeks after $708 in repairs on my 22 year old car); after paying a healthy down payment, the $2, 120 balance was quickly and easily financed – for 79 months with $17 monthly payments. I am 80 years old and the chances of me living 79 more months is not a given; your words explained the ease with which the loan was approved. And I thought it was my good credit rating for paying off my bills so quickly. I will continue making much higher than $17 monthly payments; there is no penalty for early payoff – I did check that part of the contract carefully.

  4. As a former corporate EEO Compliance Officer and a woman who had to “work her way” through many of the various forms of sexism that existed 50 years ago and (some of which) still exist today, I heartily support what is being done now to highlight problems created by the forms of sexism that still exist. One thing that I find disturbing, however, are comments that amount to “male bashing” and stereotyping. I don’t think that helps the cause and don’t find it effective. I’m appreciative that I didn’t see it in this communication. An honest, thoughtful discussion is great. Thank you, Sheila Kennedy! (Really astounding that the Lowe’s story happened in 2018.)

  5. Well it’s better than when, as a young professional, I had to get my father to co sign for a mortgage because, although I had 20% in hand, the banks had a policy of not lending to single women. But it’s not that much better.

  6. There is some ageism in your friend’s story as well. I haven’t had to deal w it yet, but I understand that if you’re retired, it’s difficult to get a mortgage or other significant loan even if you have an income stream from SS or investments that make you a low default risk.

  7. Having no debt is interpreted as having a lack of experience in managing credit (no credit history). That would be understandable as a negative indicator if it weren’t for the high credit score (the FICO algorithm figures credit history into the overall score- you don’t get 800 if you haven’t managed credit lines. That’s why her husband was approved).

    Yep. Purely sexism at the bottom of that decision.

  8. I have too many of those stories to recount in this small space. From credit, to employment, even to dry cleaning, women are still getting the shaft. I hate to say it, but in many instances women have little to no regard for women. I give you 2016 as an example.

  9. I don’t trust any of those credit reporting agencies after Equifax’s dastardly move a year ago. They discovered a breach of their network, exposing 45 million customers identity and credit history and the top three executives sold their shares of stocks before the public knew what hit them. Crooks, all of them, just like our POTUS.

  10. Sheila, your friend has a classic case of gender discrimination and a killer lawsuit against the bank who denied her card but approved her husband’s, both on the basis of virtually the same information. Pass the word to her that she needs to see a good lawyer.

  11. I think there’s more to the husband’s credit history than we have here. Perhaps he has a credit card in his own name. That’s the case when you have a card since 1980, for example.

  12. As I read these comments, you wonder what school children are taught. There is a story to tell, about discrimination that existed from the founding of country. If you had a class room of students today, after our Revolution more than half the people in the class could not vote.

    The social – class struggle for equality was resisted from day one here in America. It took a Civil War to free the slaves, massive demonstrations were needed for Woman’s Suffrage. The Right to Unionize was not a peaceful struggle of convincing the 1% of the right to organize. The Civil Rights Legislation to eliminate legal Jim Crow was preceded by marches and sit ins. There was also the discrimination by our financial institutions: red lining, etc. Second class citizenship was the rule of law rather than the exception throughout our American History. Every step of the way there was resistance to movements and laws on Equality. With few exceptions organized religion was never at the front battling for Equality.

    The young people of today unless they are taught the history will have no idea of the struggles that took place. The Right Wing has been very successful in vilifying social-class changes. Labels like Femi-Nazi, Eco-Terrorist, Welfare Queens, and other pejoratives attempt to stigmatize any movement that seeks Equality for all people.

    An education in our social-class history will allow the students to see through the continuing efforts by the Right Wing to roll back any progress made.

    I recently watched the movie Hidden Figures an excellent movie. The movie makes you wonder how many great minds were lost because of second class citizenship.

  13. AgingLGrl; when I was mugged and robbed on my own driveway at 11:00 in the morning, the attacker used my 2 credit cards 8 times that day. Reports were made to cancel VISA and Walmart cards and new cards requested that day, Monday. On Thursday I received a report from PNC Bank Fraud Division about the use of my VISA, the charges were deleted; two days later a 2nd notice from PNC Fraud Division about the 2nd use of my VISA, again charges were deleted. When I received the first bill from Walmart, their cards are through the bank who took over GE Capital Retail Bank, they had transferred the attackers charges to my new account. This was in May; I sent copies of court papers, police reports, my bloody pictures and the Star Facebook post of the arrest of the attacker and his driver. The next Walmart bill still had the amount they charged but payment due listed as $0.00; but the bank reported me to three different credit reporting bureaus for non-payment. It took till mid-September to clear my account; once that was done I canceled the card. I doubt this was one because I am a woman but…like you, I now do not trust any credit reporting bureaus. Especially with the hacking and theft of customer IDs.

    These fraudulent uses of all credit cards could be stopped by simply requiring photo ID to use the cards. When I Googled for the legality of this I was informed they use the signature as identification – writing with a stick or your finger distorts your signature so it doesn’t match your card. A picture ID on the drivers license of Lindsay Jones, age 27, would have immediately shown she was not 77 year old JoAnn Green. I have, however, been required to show photo ID to cash checks and to receive medical treatment. The new credit cards which have an extra ID slot at checkouts still uses signature ID. The fact that I was not forced to pay the hundreds of dollars the thieves charged was covered by our higher interest rates paid for credit cards and loans and lower interest rates received on savings accounts and CDs. We do pay…however indirectly they accomplish it…WE do pay.

  14. I think that gender discrimination began even before Abraham of Ur (see Isaac’s half-brother) and that is had to do with the stronger warrior thinking (and thus leadership role) males assumed. Our history of male dominance has been around for much longer than the tentative evening we see between the genders these days. Let’s not forget that women have only been able to vote since the twentieth century. Athenian democracy (upon which our democracy was modeled) did not permit the vote of women and slaves and some of our more modern revolutionary era politicians professed surprise that even men should have the right to vote if they owned no real property since, thus unendowed, they could not possibly have any interest in political outcomes.

    Democratic values of the Athenians (where rich and poor freed men intermingled at the local agora and made decisions by majority vote) as well as our colonial values in ratifying our Constitution and our subsequent Bill of Rights which ignored slavery and women’s rights left much to be desired, and I think their views of women as second class citizens was a matter of momentum from ages past. Perpetuation of that momentum is wrong and should be reversed in every area of gender comparison, from lending practices to and through equal pay for equal work and total economic, political and social equality. Democratic practices can and should be subject to change in the interests of equity and justice, especially these days when then nature of change is itself changing.

  15. Peggy: For many years I have said that women are their own worst enemies. It will stay that way as long as they buy into religion-based patriarchy.

    My far right relatives tell me that I am a snowflake just looking for a reason to call myself a victim because I find experiences like the following to smell sexist:

    I recently bought a car. My credit score is over 800, and the interest rate I received was 3/4 point over the best interest rate published generally for the amount financed and down payment. No one seems to be able to explain why. All I get is, “That was the best rate they quoted.”

    Also, when I divorced nine years ago, I called to get my car taken off the insurance policy and was told that I could not remove it because this was “his” policy. (Funny, it was “my” policy when I added him after we got married.) They said that I would have to get my ex to cancel it, and then they set me up with a new policy. In the meantime, he walked away from it without canceling or paying, but they turned *me* into collections to recoup the month’s premium that he didn’t pay. I couldn’t make changes to the policy but they sure could come after me for the money to pay for it.

    Don’t get me started…

  16. Here is another example of subtle sexism. When I was in grad school in the 1980s, I quickly discovered that there was a group of male student assistants who did the daily maintenance, etc. on the computer systems at the university where I was studying. They had created a lot of macros and short cuts that were not taught in regular classes that gave them a lot of advantages in using the system but also did not necessarily translate to other systems. Moreover, they did not tell you which were short cuts and which were not so this could cause problems when you went elsewhere – for example the software company where I worked when I graduated. I discovered how this worked by dating one of the student assistants in grad school and discovered that there was a similar group in the software company who had knowledge of the computer system. My relationship with the student assistant computer guy was short-lived and it did not give me any advantages but I did find out about the group of students with these advantages and I discovered how hard it was for a woman to break into that group. I would hope that after all these years and with the proliferation of personal computers, the male stranglehold on computer systems knowledge would have disappeared. Unfortunately, the lack of numbers of women in computer science make me wonder if it is still a subtle barrier.

  17. I doubt that there are any new “isms” in the world. We have always had an overabundance of people who soothed their egos by defining other groups down. It would certainly make for a stronger society if we could reduce their hold on us though.

    That’s why our strength in the past always came from being a liberal democracy, in fact many would say the defining liberal democracy. In unity there is strength.

    Let’s get our unified liberal strong back.

  18. My mother was similarly screwed when she got divorced in 1990s.
    She had a working history but everything had been jointly accounted for and the man got all of the “credit” I would have thought this was “fixed” by now. It should be illegal.

  19. When my husband and I went to buy our first home in 1970, the mortgage company would not consider my income (roughly half our joint income) and was not going to approve the loan. I worked for a U.S. Senator at the time, and the mortgage company proffered that I’d lose my income if he were not re-elected 4 years later. Our realtor countered – “you don’t think she’d be hired in a minute by any number of others after she’s worked for a U.S. Senator”? The mortgage company still wouldn’t budge. Thankfully our realtor threatened to remove all his real estate company’s business from that mortgage company unless the mortgage was approved. I became a good risk in an instant.
    Discrimination against women hurts men too as well as their families. I’m so thankful for the many women and men over many decades who pushed hard to open doors of opportunity for my family and so many others.

  20. I am woman hear me roar!
    I can’t wait until the women take over the world.
    It will be a kinder gentler world.

    Won’t happen this century so I’ll miss it. I refuse to give up hope.

  21. Have you contacted ProPublica? They might be interested, or know a reporter that would love to take on this story.

  22. The rating agencies are really supposed to be looking for a credit history, not just balances. We’ve paid cards off and not closed them so our available credit would be higher.

    I think this was a case of both gender and age discrimination and I’m almost certain it’s illegal. After spending over 20 years in the corporate world, I’d really be interested in reading about the more subtle forms of discrimination that exist there.

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