What Happens When Women Confront Men About Sexist Remarks?

Have you ever been in a position at work when male colleagues say or do things you find offensive, such as expect you to make tea, take minutes, comment on other women’s bodies etc? Are you comfortable pointing out to male colleagues that their comments are sexist and therefore upsetting to you?

Business men by Jan Willem GeertsmanThis point frequently comes up when I’m running my women’s personal development courses and we’re on the topic of  their assertiveness skills. Even if they are very uncomfortable with the ‘jokey banter’ of male colleagues very few of them feel able to say anything about it. When pushed their explanation comes back to fear. Fear of upsetting their colleague, fear of being called humourless, fear of being ignored or of increasing the sexist behaviour and so on.

Are women’s fears founded?

Well, not if a study by Robyn Mallett and Dana Wagner at Loyola University Chicago in 2011 is to be believed. They set up an experiment where women would do just that and observed the results:

Unsuspecting male participants were teamed with a female partner who, unbeknown to the men, was actually taking part in the exercise.  Their task was to read a set of moral or ethical dilemmas and discuss how to deal with each of them, including one in which a nurse discovers that a hospital patient has been given infected blood.

During their discussion, the woman confronted her male partner either for sexism, for example, having assumed the nurse in the story was female, which every male participant did, or in a gender-neutral way, for example, disagreeing with the male’s suggested solution to the problem.

As expected, men had much stronger reactions to being told that their remark was sexist than they did to mere disagreement.

However,  the reactions weren’t what might have been expected. The men accused of sexism smiled and laughed more, appeared more surprised, gestured more often and with greater energy, and were more likely to try to justify or apologise for their remark. They did not react with more hostility or anger – in fact, they reported liking their woman partner in both conditions equally well, and were generally pleasant across the board.

Your fears about what might happen may be largely unfounded; if we adopt the principles of treating someone with respect, while respecting yourself (and not putting up with sexist remarks) you may get a pleasant surprise.

I haven’t yet come across any research where women confront other women about sexist comments. There’s a topic for research! If you’ve had any experience of this I’d love to hear your stories.

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Photo by Jans Willem Geertsma

Posted on March 14th, 2013 by

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