Standing up against sexist comments can be difficult and uncomfortable. But one study shows it could actually make people nicer to you.
Heidi Grant Halvorson of Forbes notes that while many of us would like believe we'd openly object to sexist comments at work, the reality is that we're much shyer in practice — one study showed that while a majority of women said they'd refuse to answer sexist questions in a job interview, none of them actually did so. Halvorson speculates on the reason for this:
People usually want to avoid being seen as complainers, and assume that their objections will elicit very hostile reactions that will make their work environment even more tense and uncomfortable. Why make it worse for myself? we think. Just roll your eyes and try to ignore him.
In fact, women may have less to fear than they think. In a 2010 study, researchers had men collaborate with women to answer a set of ethical questions. They then asked the women to confront the men either for sexism (all men at one point assumed that a nurse would be female) or for some gender-neutral mistake. Says Halvorson, "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." They were also nicer to the women when solving a second set of problems, and at the end of the experiment reported liking their partners more than did the men who were accused of the neutral screwup.
So is speaking up really less risky than we think? It's often true that confrontation of any kind is scarier in theory than in practice, since we tend to imagine the worst possible reaction. But not every scenario is as equal and amicable as the one the researchers devised. And anecdotally, many women do report negative pushback when confronting sexism. In a memorable post from 2009, Harriet J writes about one possible way to speak up about rape jokes, and the pain that can result:
Initiate a Very Serious Conversation, out of nowhere, like. Tell your friend that joke was not funny. Tell him rape is never funny. Keep talking after his face has pinched up in resentment and disgust, because you are RUINING his day and his BEER and his FUNNY. You know you are actually ruining his sense of himself as a good and decent person, but you cannot communicate that to him, because he is smug and disengaged, and you are shaking and stuttering and trying to explain the experience of women to a man who has grown up among women, known women, loved women, and somehow doesn't know this already, which means he doesn't want to know, doesn't care. Feel vulnerable. Feel angry that you feel vulnerable. Consider stopping mid-sentence, getting up, and walking away. Promise yourself that after this you will never speak to this friend again. Immediately break the promise, because you know if you don't, he will tell everybody that you stopped being friends because you are Andrea Dworkin all of a sudden.
It's good news that in some situations, men actually respond well to discussions about sexism. But there are still plenty of situations where they — and sometimes women too — do not, and fear of confrontation isn't the only reason women don't speak up. Many have learned through harsh experience that starting a conversation about sexism opens them up to social stigma, hurt feelings, and unpredictable consequences, and it's going to take more than one study to convince them otherwise.
Image via Studio Araminta/Shutterstock.com