Is "Subtle Sexism" Rampant in Your Office?

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Most businessmen know not to whistle at their female co-workers or make other gestures of blatant sexism. But new research suggests that subtler signs of sexism, like calling women "girls" or even seemingly complimentary comments (called "benevolent sexism") about how great women are at cooking or caregiving, are rampant and just as harmful.

In fact, these hard-to-detect comments can have an insidious effect, impeding women's advancement at work. "The downside of benevolent sexism is women are perceived as weak and incompetent and not suitable for powerful positions," said Julia Becker, a co-author of a new study looking at the prevalence of different types of sexism and whether men and women condone them.

The study was conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, and published in Psychology of Women Quarterly. Researchers did three studies asking 120 participants (82 women and 38 men ranging in age from 18 to 26) to keep diaries of a list of subtle sexist comments and actions for seven days. A control group had diaries with lists of stressful comments and events.
What Subtle Sexism Looks Like
Participants observed six sexist incidents during the week. Here are a sample of the more common subtle incidents that occurred on average between 1.8 and 5 times in the week:

  • Comments that women are not as good as men at certain things (math, sports, cars, leadership)
  • Hostile remarks about women as a group, such as that they are too easily offended or exaggerate problems at work
  • Seemingly benign comments about women, such as that they are naturally better at cooking, shopping or child care
  • Ignoring women employees or using degrading or nonverbal expressions (rolling eyes, looking down nose with disdain)
  • Choosing women for stereotypical assignments or tasks
  • Making negative comments about "feminists"
  • Unwelcome remarks about a woman's body or clothing
  • Using derogatory terms to refer to women or men (e.g. bitch, chick, bastard, faggot)
The research also found that men and women perceived these incidents differently, with men tending not to see the incidents as offensive or sexist as women did.

How to Increase Men's Sensitivity
The researchers investigated this question and found that:

  • Pointing out sexism isn't enough. After doing the diary exercise, men still were not as attuned to the subtle sexism as women. "...it might be important to change men's perception of everyday discrimination as being serious and problematic and not to just direct their attention to the occurrence of sexism," the researchers wrote.
  • Increasing men's empathy is key. In the study, when men were given nine scenarios of sexism and asked to rate various emotions from the perspective of the female target of the sexism, it increased their sensitivity to sexism. The authors write: "Our results point out the crucial role of empathy and perspective taking in changing their attitudes toward gender relations."
In a podcast discussing her study, Becker concluded that, "these beliefs are integrated into social norms. Women and men are not aware of the extent of sexism in their life." When women are made aware, they understand the negative impact, but men still need to be educated that any kind of sexism is harmful to women.
Have you seen evidence of 'subtle sexism' in your workplace?
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Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, Ladies Home Journal, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter. Photo courtesy of flickr user Carly & Art