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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


As women go about their daily lives, it is not uncommon for them to encounter some form of sexist behavior (Swim, Hyers, Cohen, & Ferguson 2001). Sexism is not an innocuous annoyance but a serious issue with negative psychological impact (Swim et al. 2001). When a woman encounters sexism, she must choose whether to confront such behavior or to remain silent. Although most women want to confront and even believe they would speak up in the face of sexism, research has shown that most choose silence (Swim & Hyers 1999). Those who speak up report feeling better about the situation as compared to those who choose silence (Hyers 2007), but researchers need to find ways to encourage women to challenge prejudicial behavior even under the strain of social disapproval. Gender-related social pressures are the main reason women fail to oppose sexism, preferring to avoid conflict rather than addressing inappropriate remarks (Hyers 2007). Concerns about personal image are not unjustified: research demonstrates that individuals who confront discriminatory behavior are judged harshly (Dodd, Giuliano, Boutell, & Moran 2001; Kaiser & Miller 2001). Our research focused on whether we could increase the likelihood that a woman will choose to oppose sexism. We hypothesized that women would be more likely to confront a sexist remark after witnessing another person confront such behavior.

Sexism can take many forms, ranging from subtle, nonverbal behaviors to overt and openly hostile expressions of prejudice (Hyers 2007). Utilizing daily diary reports, Swim et al. (2001) examined the impact such encounters bear on the emotional well-being of the women involved. They found that not only were there more sexist incidents aimed at women than at men, but the emotional impact these encounters had upon women was overwhelmingly negative. On average, women experienced sexist incidents one to two times weekly. Such incidents usually took the form of tradition-al gender-role prejudices, including derogatory comments and sexual objectification—both of which demeaned the women involved. The researchers noted that by using diaries to record incidents as they occurred, participants became more aware of subtle types of sexism, such as behavior related to inequality. The prior lack of awareness suggests that covert forms of prejudice may be so common as to blend in with a woman's daily experiences.

Sexist behavior is not always displayed by strangers or superiors. Ayers et al. (2009) demonstrates that 70% of those responsible for sexist incidents were familiar to the women (e.g., friends, family, employers), and 59% had equal social status to the woman's standing. The most common incident was unwanted sexual attention (38%), with unfair treatment occurring nearly as often at 37%, and sexist comments occurring 25% of the time. Unfair treatment came predominantly from higher status persons (66%) and would include those in the role of employer or teacher. With the majority of sexist encounters occurring between women and men who share a familiarity and who are of equal status, daily occurrences discussed in previous research (Swim et al. 2001) potentially indicate that women face these perpetrators on a regular basis, which would undermine the feelings of security one might expect from people

Sexist encounters typically bear a negative effect upon the women involved. In the Swim et al. 2001 study, 75% of participants reported anger as their emotional response to the prejudicial behavior, and their anger increased with a rise in the number of incidents. In addition, women reported more incidents of depression and lower social self-esteem, with an increased level of discomfort and anxiety due to exposure to sexism. Although the participants were undergraduate college students, which may limit generalizations to the larger female population, the results of this study suggest that sexist incidents are not uncommon and present themselves in many forms, both subtle and overt. The possible psychological impact of these events illustrates the need for more studies like this one so researchers can identify additional ways to

Understanding the motivations behind a woman's decision to respond is an important step. Hyers (2007) focused on three aspects of the decision-making process: the goals that guide a woman's decision, the frequency with which women choose to be assertive or nonassertive, and the consequences they face after confronting sexist behavior. The study looked at different types of prejudicial behavior, including verbal stereotyping, verbal hostility, nonverbal manifestations such as bad service, and sexual harassment, which included unwanted flirting and objectifying comments. Avoiding conflict was the most frequent reason women gave for deciding against confrontation. Thirty-seven percent of the women in the study reported that they wanted to avoid interpersonal conflict when dealing with inappropriate behavior. Slightly over 20% wanted to educate the perpetrator, and 17% acted upon a need for self-validation. Not wanting to expend energy on the individual who makes a sexist comment was also listed as a motivation behind the respondent's silence. Some women remarked that the person was not worth their time or that responding would have strained them emotionally. As the researcher predicted, women who held activist-minded beliefs were more likely to speak up than women who identified with more traditional gender roles (Hyers 2007). Conflict avoidance and ignoring the remark are behaviors consistent with traditional gender-roles, and a desire to educate and self-validate are more congruent with activist norms. These findings again show that women who consciously decide to confront such behaviors are more likely to do so when faced with such a situation.

The current study had four aims: (a) to investigate group differences on self-reported loneliness and anxiety; (b) to investigate group differences on level of anxiety and behavioral characteristics (i.e., internalizing or externalizing) based on parental reports; (c) to assess the relationship between parent ratings of children and child self-report ratings of social withdrawal; (d) to assess the relationship between child self-report of loneliness and anxiety. Overall, it is expected that children with AD and SP will have higher ratings of loneliness than TD. Based on the literature, children with AD will have the highest ratings of loneliness as compared to children with SP and TD. Children with AD experience peer rejection, whereas children with SP purposely avoid social situations; thus, being rejected by peers would have a stronger effect on the child. For anxiety, children with SP and their parents will report higher ratings of anxiety than TD children and children with AD. There will be a positive relationship between parental reports of their child's social withdrawnness and children's self-reports. Furthermore, there will also be a positive relationship between children's self-reports of loneliness and anxiety in children with AD and SP.

One of the reasons for this reluctance is that women often face social repercussions for confronting sexism, especially from men. Women, as found by Dodd et al. (2001), like other women more when they confront sexism. However, while men may not lose respect for a woman who confronts another woman's sexism, they consider such women less likeable. Women, then, may be justified in their concerns for their public image when making decisions on how to deal with sexism. Couple this dynamic with the gender-related social ideals that influence women to avoid conflict, and it becomes even more important to find ways to encourage women to confront the issue rather than to succumb to social influences.

Speaking out against discriminatory behavior entails making a mental cost-benefit analysis on behalf of the confronter. A study conducted by Kaiser & Miller (2001) examines how stigmatized groups are viewed by others when making a claim of discrimination for a failing exam grade rather than attributing it to their own failing. The results indicate that the repercussions for speaking out include being labeled a complainer and being devalued as an individual, even if those judging the person are fully aware that discrimination was the true reason for the failing grade. These findings indicate that, even though the discriminatory behavior is not in question, the person who speaks against it faces public scrutiny and is dismissed as "hypersensitive, emotional, argumentative," among other negative characterizations (Kaiser & Miller 2001). The desire to avoid the social cost of speaking out was also highlighted by Stangor et al. (2002), who showed that members of stigmatized groups were less likely to claim discrimination when receiving a failing exam grade if it required having to make the claim publicly in front of a member of a non-stigmatized group. Privately, those who were the target of discrimination were more likely to state that prejudice was the dominating factor, rather than attributing the failure to their own ineptitude. The authors suggest that people who are members of stigmatized groups are well aware of the social costs associated with confronting discriminatory behavior and choose to avoid the penalty, even if it means blaming themselves for failure.

Research shows that a woman's level of optimism influences her decision to confront sexism. In Kaiser & Miller's (2004) study on optimism as a contributing factor for confronting, researchers hypothesized that the level of a woman's optimism, as reflected in her anticipation of a greater potential for gain, would predict how likely she was to confront sexist behavior. Utilizing a retrospective method, participants were asked to recall two recent sexist experiences and their reactions to them. Participants who indicated a higher level of optimism were more likely to confront sexism relative to pessimists, suggesting that the optimists viewed the prejudicial incidents as a less-threatening experience with lower personal costs and minimum risk for benefits achieved. Optimists also indicated that the incidents were less anxiety-provoking for them, whereas their pessimistic counterparts did not echo this sentiment. The researchers concluded that some women confront sexist behaviors because they believe that doing so has a higher interpersonal benefit than accepting the behavior, so they do not view the social costs as prohibitive.

Although risks arise in opposing prejudicial behavior, there are also positive reasons to confront sexism and negative repercussions for not confronting it assertively. In the Hyers (2007) study, women who responded assertively to sexism reported feeling more satisfaction with their actions versus those who chose a non-assertive response. Non-assertive responses include using humor, laughing, or removing themselves from the situation, which comprised 60% of the incidents. Assertive responses were defined as direct verbal and nonverbal behaviors such as questioning the perpetrator and displaying negative facial expressions. This study illustrates that women who use a less assertive approach are not as happy with their choice as more assertive females, and many less-assertive women hope to respond differently in the future. In fact, nearly 75% of the women who chose a non-direct response wished they had responded differently, whereas many of the assertive participants reported that their responses gave them a "liberating boost" and they were in a better mood after the incident. After the choice is made and the incident is over, there are repercussions for the non-assertive responders: they may have avoided conflict and retained their social image, but they must now expend energy and cognitive resources to mentally prepare for future incidents (Hyers 2007). In addition, 35% of the women who employed a less confrontational approach reported seeking some form of social support after the incident (Hyers 2007), suggesting the likelihood of emotional issues.

While holding feminist ideals is a common motivating factor in determining whether a woman speaks out against sexism, other factors can be at play, especially defending fellow ingroup members or perceiving a lack of personal control over a situation. Sechrist et al. (2004) conducted an experiment utilizing a failing grade scenario similar to the Stangor et al. (2002) study. Their results indicate that members of stigmatized groups find it easier to claim discrimination on behalf of another member of their group, especially if the claim is made publicly. The focus on protection of another deflects some of the social pressure to be well-behaved and proper. Additionally, the results of this study indicate those who were deprived of control during the experiment were more willing to confront discrimination; perhaps the need to reassert control may outweigh the threat of social repercussions, as the authors suggest.

When one understands the regularity with which women face prejudicial behavior and the negative psychological impact of sexism, the need for research focused on increasing confrontation becomes clear. The extant research shows that many women believe they will confront sexist behavior, and most want to, but in reality few actually take an assertive stance. This study is an important step toward understanding how researchers can and cannot encourage women to confront social pressure. To the best of our knowledge, no other research has utilized a high-impact design to explore methods for encouraging women to confront sexist behaviors. We predicted that by modeling assertive behavior, the frequency with which women will take an assertive approach when facing derogatory remarks made by women toward women will be increased.

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