Sexist Comments & Responses: Inequity and Bias

Although sexist comments and remarks are prevalent and normalized in everyday conversation, public discourse, and virtually every other social setting throughout the world, researchers at the Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) wanted to understand how women experience these comments in Utah. This is the second of five briefs focused on the results of an extensive study of sexist comments. The “Study Introduction and Overview” was published November 4, 2021, and more will follow. The 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 series is to educate the public (both men and women) on the many forms that conscious and unconscious sexist comments can take, from egregious statements to those that are more subtle. Additionally, we aim to equip women with the tools to confront more successfully the sexism they experience. 

Findings - Comments and Remarks

The analysis of the responses within the Inequity and Bias theme produced four specific categories:  

  1. Unconscious bias: Stereotypes and beliefs regarding certain groups of people that individuals hold without being consciously aware.
  2. Gender inequity (general): The phenomenon by which women are treated differently and disadvantageously, solely because of their gender.
  3. Defensiveness/backlash against feminism: Comments that indicate the speaker disapproves of feminism or other women’s equality/empowerment efforts.
  4. Gender pay, promotion, and hiring inequity: Comments that demonstrate that women are discriminated against in various aspects of their professional lives because of circumstances or assumptions related to their gender.

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious Bias was the most common category of the Inequity and Bias theme. Unconscious bias is frequently at play any time discrimination or inequity exists; indeed, a high percentage of all the sexist comments reported in this study could have been included in the category of unconscious bias. To simplify and clarify this category, we limited the designation of “Unconscious Bias” to comments related to broad stereotypes or beliefs regarding women about which the speaker was generally unaware. 

Examples of comments:  

  • “I was taking a standard exam and the person running me through the timing/rules asked what score I was hoping for and told me it was ‘a high score for a girl.’” 
  • “I’m a VP at my company. After an executive meeting, the CEO asked me, the only female in the meeting, ‘so you’ll share the notes?’ No one asked me to take notes. It was an assumption that the only female would also play secretary.” 
  • “This one happens regularly. I’ll make a comment in a meeting that isn’t paid much attention to. Then, my boss (who is male), later throws out the same comment or idea, and there is a lot more attention or value placed on it.” 
  • “I have received a number of group emails in which I am the only female recipient, and we are all addressed as ‘gentlemen.’”

Gender Inequity (General)

The second most common category that emerged under the Inequity and Bias theme was gender inequity (general). This was somewhat of a catch-all category for comments that clearly disadvantaged or disparaged women solely because of their gender. 

Examples of comments:  

  • “I hear things like, ‘The new girl is so nice to work with. She is always smiling.’ I’ve never heard this said about men/boys. And men are rarely referred to as boys, but women are consistently referred to as girls.” 
  • “When the individual realized I was the manager, they asked for the actual man who is in charge.” 

Defensiveness/Backlash Against Feminism

The third most common category that emerged from the analysis demonstrated defensiveness and/or backlash against individuals, activities, or ideologies that seemed connected to feminism or support for women’s issues in general. 

Examples of comments:  

  • “He said, ‘If women weren’t seducing men in the workplace, then these ‘#metoo’ situations wouldn’t be happening.’” 
  • “He told me that having a successful career makes me intimidating to men and that I won’t ever find someone to date and marry unless I tone things down.” 
  • “A male colleague said, ‘By trying to bring attention to females in the workplace, you are discriminating against men.” 

Gender Pay, Promotion, & Hiring Inequity

A final category under the theme of “Inequity and Bias” relates specifically to the workplace in terms of gender inequities in the areas of pay, promotion, and hiring. 

Examples of comments:  

  • “I was told, ‘He got the raise even though you have the same qualifications because he has a family to support.’” 
  • “A company boss discussing annual pay increases said that a female employee should get less of a raise because her income is supplemental.” 
  • “A boss used the excuse to pay women less because he would have a hard time if his wife made more money than him.” 

Findings - Responses

In addition to sharing sexist comments they had heard, study participants were also asked to share any response they made (or wish they had made) to the comments. 

  1. Direct Responses: More than half of the women’s replies incorporated a direct response to the sexist comment. Some asked a question back to the commenter, while others provided information or education, offered a rebuttal, or used humor to respond. 
  2. No Response: Women shared that many times they were so shocked or stunned that they did not say anything in response to the sexist comment. 
  3. Internal Afterthoughts: Many participants reported responses they wish they would have made, once they had time to reflect. These afterthoughts ranged from clever comebacks, to providing information, to wishing they would have reported the comment. 
  4. Indirect Response: In some cases, women responded to sexist comments indirectly, by changing the subject, laughing, or even agreeing with the commenter when they did not know how else to respond. 
  5. Emotional Response: 5.7% were designated as emotional responses; women shared that they felt ashamed, embarrassed, or even hurt or angry, or wished someone had stood up for them in the moment. 
  6. Other Responses: In addition to the five categories of responses above, eight other types of responses were also noted: discussed with others, experienced backlash, proved them wrong, reported to a superior, successful response, third-person response, unsuccessful response, and walked away. 

Conclusion

This brief is the second in a series of five related to the UWLP sexist comments research study. Subsequent briefs will focus on the remaining major themes: 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 women make when confronted with sexist behavior, we aim to equip women with the tools they need to combat the sexism they experience from day to day. Speaking up against sexism can be a powerful force for reducing gender inequity, as it can help others challenge their own biases and model more equitable forms of communication. Further, being prepared to respond to everyday sexism can help women feel more confident in their interactions with others. 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 state. 

To learn more about sexist comments and responses related to inequity and bias, read the full brief.

Check out some of our other posts

January 2022 Newsletter

The January 2022 Newsletter for the Utah Women & Leadership Project highlights new resources released, editorials, and announcements about women's groups and partnerships.

Sexist Comments & Responses: Objectification

In this study, the “Objectification” theme included comments in which women were viewed or treated more as objects than as human beings. Speaking up against sexism can be a powerful tool for reducing gender inequity.