US tab

Self-silencing in Response to
Sexist Behavior: Exploring Women's
Willingness to Confront Sexism

By Marie Sabbagh, Tess Hare, Erika Wheelhouse, and Holly McFarland | Mentor: Dr. Erin Murdoch


We anticipate that the present study is only the beginning of the use of high-impact designs to discover how to encourage women to confront sexist behaviors. In our study, we did not have a member of a non-stigmatized group present, in this case men, who could have acted as a barrier to confronting (Stangor et al. 2002). In addition, we offered the participants the opportunity to speak up on the behalf of a member of their own social group, should they not want to risk publicly acknowledging their own feelings of anxiety when faced with prejudicial behavior (see Sechrist et al. 2004). Even within these carefully created conditions, we did not find significant results for modeling the confronting behavior.

However, several of our findings are compelling. For instance, we did not expect to see an increase in intolerance for sexist remarks irrespective of the modeling. The increase in confrontational behavior following the second comment agrees with current research indicating that those who choose silence initially may be more likely to forgo silence if the behavior continues (Swim & Hyers 1999). Perhaps the worry over social disapproval is overridden by the anger women feel as their gender is repeatedly belittled, an idea supported by the results found in Swim et al. (2001). Indeed, Swim (2001) found that the average woman experiences sexist incidents one or two times weekly. We exposed our participants to two demeaning comments in a matter of minutes; it seems reasonable to conclude that women choose to brush off those one or two weekly incidents as not indicative of the social norm. Another possible explanation for the increase of confronting behavior with the second comment is the elimination of the bystander effect when Confederate #2 left the room to take the mock cell-phone call. Without another person in the room either to depend on for an appropriate response or to acquiesce with in silent acceptance of inappropriate behavior, the participant may have felt more comfortable with confronting or even experienced more pressure to confront.

One of the factors that proved difficult to analyze was how to categorize the participants' responses when they were not overt, even after the confronting behavior was modeled in the confronting condition. Although it was a simple matter to decide that "I don't appreciate that remark" was certainly confrontational, by far the most common reaction to the sexist comments was nervous laughter. The second most common reaction was an attempt (not always successful) to find a male candidate to fill the Housekeeper or Cook role, in direct opposition to Confederate #1's blatant sexism. These two responses are probably not the kind of confrontational behavior to which other researchers refer; however, they are also not passive silence. Indeed, because the number of women who indicated on the demographic survey that they were offended exceeded the number of women who directly confronted, we surmise that the social costs of speaking up are powerful enough to mute comments but not powerful enough to compel a woman to remain completely passive in the face of insults. The participants themselves may have believed that less overt forms of confronting count as confronting behavior, while still remaining within the socially acceptable gender-specific roles and lowering the risk of negative labels often associated with speaking out against discrimination (Kaiser & Miller 2001). It may indeed be important to study the nature of confronting in females versus males, as we may be overlooking confronting behavior that subtly guides others without risking the social costs of speaking aloud. Both Hyers (2007) and Ayers et al. (2009) found that more than half of participants' responses to sexism were non-assertive. This is consistent with our findings and warrants study of whether nonassertive confronting is as effective or nearly as effective as direct confronting, especially when dealing with men, in which social liabilities are associated with confronting. In other words, we were seeking evidence of direct confronting, when it is possible that indirect confronting is more pervasive and equally effective.

Our finding that only self-monitoring made a significant difference for confronting also has implications for the social cost of confrontations. Self-monitoring refers to the extent a person is concerned with how they are perceived by others, and the tendency to alter their behavior to ensure a more favorable impression (Snyder 1974). Those who are high self-monitors are far more concerned with their image than those who are low selfmonitors, and as such, are willing to adjust their demeaner depending upon the situation. Our analysis showed that although high self-monitors confronted less often than low self-monitors, they did so in a more assertive manner (e.g., direct verbal confrontations rather than passive commenting). We were not monitoring for facial expressions or other non-verbal behavior, but in light of our results and coupled with Hyers's (2007) findings regarding the high percentage of women who respond in a non-assertive manner, we must consider the possibility that high self-monitors would confront under different circumstances. For example, further provocation or a safer, more intimate environment might lead high selfmonitors to confront sexist remarks.

Our results indicating that older women were more likely to confront sexism also sparked much discussion. We believe that there were most likely two factors at play. Perhaps older women have toughened up. Having paid the price for making unpopular comments and surviving relatively unscathed, they may have learned that the social cost is not prohibitive. These older women could now identify with a higher level of optimism and acknowledge the risks as minimal when weighed against the interpersonal benefits of speaking up (Kaiser & Miller 2004). The second factor could be that our confederates were almost always younger than the participants, and it is possible that the older women slipped into the role of moral advisor, feeling the need to speak out when a younger woman entered dangerous territory. This supposition seems to be borne out by the nature of the comments that were made by older women,such as "You know, I don't appreciate that remark. It really hurts me." Future studies could add to the current body of knowledge by focusing on women in their postcollege years, thereby broadening the understanding of the implications of confrontation.

By far the most unexpected result was that one in ten participants believed they had confronted and actually wrote out sentences they had spoken aloud in response to the questionnaire items, when in fact (as evidenced by our audio recording), they had said nothing. This surprising result suggests two possible explanations. Recall bias is the most obvious possibility. Women who truly did find the comments offensive may have spent more time thinking about them and pondering what they should have said, and in recall the comments erroneously became reality. Perhaps the participants were feeling the emotional cost of not overtly responding to the prejudicial remark, and by annotating it on the questionnaire, they were seeking some sort of social comfort (see Hyers 2007). Response bias is another possibility: when called upon to explain why they did not react, participants may have found it less objectionable to claim that they had, perhaps the session was recorded. Whether the participants' claimed responses were the result of social desirability or a failure of memory, the fact that 10% of women report having confronted when they did not confront is intriguing and suggests that there may be some degree of cognitive dissonance in our everyday recall.

In retrospect, the present study has several limitations. First, the design proved to have great variability. Several students played the role of Confederate #1, and personality differences resulted in different presentations of the offensive comments, possibly influencing participants' reactions. It is possible that some participants were more likely to feel critical of confederates who were naturally more aggressive in their presentation and more tolerant of those who were soft-spoken; conversely, it is conceivable that other participants were intimidated by outspoken confederates and more likely to confront one who was less threatening. Furthermore, because the confederates were following a memorized script, the comments themselves were subject to error or at least great variability and possibly elicited different degrees of reaction merely by the specific words spoken. This flaw could be corrected by presenting a videotape of confederates choosing candidates, rather than a realtime "skit."

Another limitation was the time pressure experienced by participants. For consistency and time purposes, we imposed a ten minute deadline for each trial, which in effect limited participants to only sixty seconds to choose each household position. The effects of this time limit showed up on the demographic questionnaires, where several participants who did not confront the sexist behavior explained that they had been offended by the sexist comments but believed there was insufficient time to debate or confront. Because we were exploring how to increase confronting behavior, the time limit proved to be a major stumbling block. It is apparent that some percentage of women will actively ignore objectionable behavior if they are focused on a specific task that must be completed, a factor that we did not anticipate.

A final limitation that must be mentioned is a design flaw regarding the Reality House contestants who were presented. To facilitate the presentation of the scripted comments, the contestants were crafted simplistically. For instance, Amanda was the only unemployed candidate, and she was identified as a stay-at-home mother. When the position of Main Housekeeper arose early on in the script, she was too obvious a choice. In real time, confederates realized that without another candidate who clearly knew or enjoyed maintaining a household, the selection of Amanda as the Main Housekeeper was difficult to dispute. After the sexist comment about her, participants often looked for someone else, but there was no better option. In retrospect, the design would have been more definitive if it had included, for instance, an unemployed man who was a former hotel manager, a stay-at-home father, or a male chef. We facilitated the sexism by design, but inadvertently made it more difficult for participants to contest.

Although it is true that, as is often the case with psychological studies, the participant pool was composed of undergraduate psychology students, this group was drawn from a regional campus, so there was diversity of background, home situation, and age. This we viewed as one of the strengths of our participant pool, despite the small sample size. However, this was a group of psychology students, many of whom had taken or were taking psychology courses in prejudice or women studies and have been exposed to the positive examples of confronting behavior. In addition, the older students were women who have chosen to forgo the traditional female role for higher education and job opportunities. It seems logical to speculate that as a group, these women would have greater intolerance for attempts to assign women to traditional roles of housekeeper and cook. Therefore, the degree of confronting exhibited may be higher than it would be in the general population.

Conclusion >>