Sexist Comments & Responses: Study Introduction and Overview

Sexism takes many forms, from blatant and aggressive to unintentional and subtle. Gender-related societal attitudes, social norms, unconscious biases, and microaggressions all contribute to sexist behaviors and attitudes that are partially responsible for much of the inequity women face every day. Researchers have noted that “in both private and public spaces, women encounter messages that reinforce gender roles and stereotypes, demean women as a gender group, and sexually objectify women.” Sexist comments and remarks are prevalent and normalized in everyday conversation, public discourse, and virtually every other social setting. Though not the only form of sexism, sexist comments often take people by surprise, leaving women wishing they were better prepared to respond and refute this form of sexist expression. Further, face-to-face confrontation of sexism can be extremely difficult, so in an attempt to avoid backlash or retaliation, women often chose to ignore or minimize the sexism they experience.

As sexist comments are pervasive, and appropriate responses elusive, this research study was designed with the intent of collecting and analyzing a wide variety of sexist comments experienced by women across the state of Utah, in addition to the responses women made (or wish they had made) to such comments. The goal of this research and policy brief series is primarily to educate the public on the many forms of conscious and unconscious sexist comments made by individuals (both men and women). Language and related behaviors can demean and disempower women, even when people are not aware that their words are problematic. In addition, by examining the types of responses reported in our study, along with other responses supported by scholarly research, we aim to equip women with the tools they need to better combat the sexism they experience from day to day.

Study Background & Overview

During May–June of 2020, an online survey instrument was administered to a nonprobability sample of Utah women representing diverse settings, backgrounds, and situations (e.g., age, marital status, education, race/ethnicity, parenthood status, employment status, faith tradition, and county/region). Overall, 1,115 respondents started the survey, and 839 Utah women participated enough to provide usable data.

Perceptions of Sexism in Utah

Study participants responded to nine statements:

  1. I have experienced bias (subtle or overt) that I feel is due to my gender.
  2. I hear sexist comments often.
  3. Some people can behave in sexist ways without realizing it.
  4. Women are more likely to hear sexist comments in Utah than elsewhere in the US.
  5. My opportunities have been limited because of the biased attitudes of others about gender.
  6. Most Utah men are supportive of advancing women into leadership roles.
  7. Women need to be prepared to be leaders.
  8. I believe women can find meaningful opportunities to thrive in Utah.
  9. Utah is making progress in terms of gender equity.

The two items that received the highest levels of agreement were “Some people can behave in sexist ways without realizing it” and “Women need to be prepared to be leaders.” The statement the study participants agreed with the least was “Most Utah men are supportive of advancing women into leadership roles.”

Sexist Comments – Major Themes

Four major themes emerged in the results of the study with their related comment categories:

Inequity and Bias:
    • Defensiveness/backlash against feminism
    • Gender inequity
    • Gender pay/promotion/hiring inequity
    • Unconscious bias
    • Accusations of using sex to get ahead
    • Excluded from work activities
    • Focus on physical appearance/bodies
    • Intersectional discrimination
    • Sexual harassment
    • Sexualizing women
    • Unwanted sexual advances
    • Benevolent sexism
    • Double bind/double standard
    • Gender stereotypes (general)
    • Motherhood penalty
    • Women should prioritize homemaker roles
    • Women’s internalized sexism
Undervaluing Women:
    • “Affirmative Action” assumption
    • Assumed incompetence
    • Infantilizing/condescending
    • Sexist language/terms
    • Undervaluing women’s contributions

Participant Responses to Sexist Comments

After thorough analysis, survey responses were divided into five major themes, each with subcategories: (1) No Response, (2) Direct Response, (3) Emotional Response, (4) Indirect Response, and (5) Internal Afterthoughts, which may have occurred any time after the sexist comment was made, whether within hours or after many years.

In addition to these five main themes of responses, eight other categories also emerged: discussed with others, experienced backlash after response, proved them wrong, reported commenter to a superior, successful response/had desired effect, third person response, unsuccessful response, and walked away/ended engagement.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This introduction and overview is the first of five briefs that will be released over the coming months. Each subsequent brief will focus on one of the four major themes of sexist comments identified in the study: Inequity and Bias, Objectification, Stereotypes, and Undervaluing Women, along with the types of responses women reported making upon hearing such comments. In summary, the purpose of this brief series is twofold: First, we hope to educate readers on the various ways that language and related behaviors can demean and disempower women, especially for those who may not realize their words are problematic. And second, by examining the types of responses reported in our study, along with other responses supported by scholarly research, we aim to equip women with the tools they need to better combat the sexism they experience from day to day. By raising awareness of the widespread occurrence and damaging effects of sexist language, comments, beliefs, and behaviors, we can reduce the frequency of sexism in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and the state as a whole.

To learn more about sexist comments and responses, read the full brief.

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