Standing Up to Sexism—from the Gym to the Office
What would you think of someone who stood up to a sexist comment? What if you were at the gym? At the office? In this research, we found that people judge confronters differently depending on who the confronter is, and where the situation takes place.
Despite the frequency of sexist incidents, both at work and beyond, people rarely confront the perpetrator of a sexist comment. However, confronting prejudice has important benefits like reducing the likelihood of future prejudice. For this reason, it is important to find ways to encourage confrontation.
Work environments often have clear policies and guidelines for reporting bias that might encourage people to respond to or report a perpetrator of sexism. In more social contexts and everyday life, however, these sorts of rules are not explicit or formalized. So even though a comment might be considered sexist in both contexts, expectations about how to respond might be less clear in a casual, social context. This could be because social settings do not have these same formal rules and people may be more focused on maintaining their social relationships. In this research, we examined whether people expect confrontation to a sexist comment and how confronters are perceived. We also examined how a professional or social context might affect these perceptions.
To do this, we asked people to read different scenarios and to tell us whether confrontation was called for and how positively they viewed the characters in the scenario. In one scenario a male (perpetrator) made a sexist comment to a female (target), while another male (witness) was also present. The incident either took place at the gym or the office. In another version, the female target either confronted the perpetrator by saying “That’s not OK” or did not confront. And in yet another scenario, it was the male witness who either confronted or did not.
In the first scenario, where confrontation was not mentioned, most (84%) thought a female target of sexism should confront the perpetrator, whereas a smaller majority (64%) thought the male witness should confront. Despite these expectations and hypothetical support for a female target who stands up to sexism, the next version of the scenario revealed that when a target does confront, she is viewed more negatively than when she stays quiet. Furthermore, where the situation took place mattered: the female target was rated especially negatively when she confronted in the gym, compared to the office. In contrast, when the male witness confronted, he was rated more positively than when he did not.
Despite these consequences of confronting sexism as a female, we also found her confrontation drove down ratings of the perpetrator (within the office) and the witness. Also, when she was confronting, people supported confrontation more often (92%) than when she was passive (57%).
Thus, confrontation is a double-edged sword: women at the receiving end of a sexist comment are expected to confront but are judged negatively when they do. In contrast, a male bystander who stands up to sexism is actually liked more for it. The message is clear: we must shift perceptions of women who stand up to sexism. It’s not enough to think women should confront a person making a sexist comment, we need to appreciate and respect them when they do.
There is also an important role for male allies because they may be able to provide support in instances of sexism without suffering the same social consequences. However, the female target’s behavior is important too, because even though she is perceived less positively, a woman who confronts sexism can set the norms of the situation, emphasize the inappropriateness of the perpetrator, and increase support for confrontation down the line.
Consistent with the idea of ‘locker room talk,’ we also found that a sexist comment may be less reprehensible in the gym, compared to an office. Depending on where it takes place, an identical sexist comment can garner different reactions: in a gym it is seen as less worthy of confrontation than at the office.
Sadly, it seems people hold negative views of women who confront sexism and find them to be more likeable when they stay passive in situations of sexism. These negative perceptions of confronters and tolerance for apathetic responses could help explain why discrimination persists in the face of egalitarian norms. Someday, perhaps a woman will be able to stand up to sexism without negative social consequences. As demonstrated by movements like #MeToo, raising awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment can help garner support and shift attitudes. Similarly, if we can increase how common it is for people to stand up to sexism, we can increase support for those who do so and reduce the backlash that can come with it.
For Further Reading
Vaccarino, E., & Kawakami, K. (2020) In the office or at the gym: The impact of confronting sexism in specific contexts on support for confrontation and perceptions of others. Self and Identity. doi: 10.1080/15298868.2020.1832566
Elysia Vaccarino is completing her Ph.D. at York University in Toronto, where her research focuses on intergroup relations, prejudice, and social cognition.