Thursday, September 8, 2011

The science of calling out sexism?

A lot of people, male and female, are often afraid of calling out instances of sexism. They don't want to be perceived as oversensitive or troublemakers, or they're afraid of angry backlash.

I say "they," because I obviously don't have a problem with blowing up the whole internet in order to call out sexism.

But is this an accurate representation of how men respond to accusations of sexism? One study says otherwise:
In a recent study, conducted by Robyn Mallett and Dana Wagner at Loyola University Chicago, male participants were teamed with a female partner (who was actually a confederate in the experiment). Their assignment was to read a set of moral or ethical dilemmas and discuss together how to deal with each situation, including one in which a nurse discovers that a hospital patient has been given tainted blood.

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

As expected, men had much stronger reactions to being told that their remark was sexist than they did to mere disagreement. But the reactions weren’t what you might expect. 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 apologize for their remark. But they did not react with more hostility or anger – in fact, they reported liking the female partner in both conditions equally well, and were generally pleasant across the board.
At first, that sounds great. Yay, men who were called out for the sexism smiled more and didn't respond with hostility! Time to go politely tell MRAs how they're wrong!

But I have a couple of concerns about the study. For one, their sexist remark...isn't that sexist. Assuming a nurse is female is based on pure probability rather than assumptions about gender roles. The vast, vast majority of nurses are female, therefore a nurse in a story is much more likely to be female. It's not like 50% of nurses are actually male, but it's still perceived as women's work.

This may seem like nitpicking, but I have a feeling men would react differently depending on what type of sexism is being addressed. It's easy for a man to go "Whoops, yes, I suppose some nurses are male." But it's hard for a man to go "Whoops, yes, I suppose I do have (insert any type of male privilege I've never thought about and vehemently disagree with here)."

I'd also like to see results from how the men felt long after the exercise concluded. Were they just acting nicer when they were in immediate social interaction with the woman? Was in genuine? Did they turn around and start telling their buddies about how she's a stupid oversensitive bitch, or did they really change their minds about sexism?

And finally, I'd love to see this repeated in the setting of blog comments or a forum. What happens when you put the internet between two people, and you have the drug of anonymity in your system? I know it's anecdotal evidence, but I don't exactly see people skipping together through e-fields of daisies after an accusation of sexism.

More science! We need more science!


  1. I am concerned that the guys laughed sounds to me like they where laughing off silly feminism "yes of course men can be nurses" to placate the women.

  2. Dear Jen, Thanks for your comments and insightful questions. All of the issues you mentioned above are certainly things we've thought about. One thing to keep in mind is that men were randomly assigned to one of two confrontation conditions, so we had to create a controlled situation where it was plausible that men would think they said something sexist during the discussion. Gender role errors are among the most common types of sexist remarks. That's why we used that specific type of sexist behavior. Also, only 80% of the men actually used gendered language in the scenarios overall (but all of the men recalled having a sexist response after the study). This suggests that, in some cases, men did have the "Whoops" experience you described above. My dissertation will be a follow-up to this where I investigate men's responses to being confronted over an instant message program. So, I'm working on your call for more research. Unfortunately, it becomes more difficult to measure the nature of responses on an online forum. I suspect that, as decades of research suggest, a person's response and perceptions of sexism in a forum will be susceptible to constraints of the social situation.  For instance, I would expect that characteristics of the context (i.e., the nature of the original post, who posted it (male or female), the nature of the responses (supportive vs. unsupportive of the original post)) would impact subsequent responses. Again...more research!

  3. Sexist men might react differently, but these weren't necessarily sexist men, because, as you point out, it is natural to make an assumption based on the sheer numbers of women in the profession. And you certainly don't have to be a man to make that assumption. If someone tells me a car is broken down on the highway, I would probably picture a sedan or small car rather than an SUV. This is because there are many more sedans and small cars on the road than SUVs, not because I think it is 'the role of sedans to break down.'