Can You Spot a Sexist?

A new study finds that it's harder than you think.

Posted Apr 20, 2015

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Well now, this is revealing: A new study finds you can determine how sexist a man is—whether the more hostile and malignant form, or the more benign and patronizing model—by how he smiles towards women, and how he speaks to them, during social interactions.

This study, conducted by Jin Goh and Judith Hall of Northeastern University and published in the journal Sex Roles, found that if you want to uncover a man’s true attitudes about women, you only need to observe him with them. 

The researchers examined how men’s word choice, attitudes, and smiles can reveal their version of sexism in different ways by observing men interact with women they just met. They examined the interactions between 27 pairs of American men and women, all undergraduates, who were filmed while they played a trivia game together and then chatted afterwards.

Before meeting the women, the male participants' attitudes had been measured using a test called the Ambivalent Sexism Index, to determine whether they could be considered sexist, and if so, what type of sexist. With that information in hand, the team analyzed the men’s behavior in the interactions, including nonverbal behavior and choice of words. (Learn more about their methodology here.)

The authors contend that sexism can range from hostile to benevolent. (Of course, either form reflects negative, discriminatory, or dominating attitudes.) The researchers describe hostile sexism as an antipathy or dislike of women, often manifesting as dominating and derogatory behavior toward women in order to maintain power over them.

The team describes so-called benevolent sexism, which may appear less negative on the surface, as more paternalistic, reflecting a “chivalrous and subjectively positive view of women.” Men who demonstrate this “well-intentioned” sexism see women as warm and pure yet helpless, incompetent, and in need of protection. This is something most women have experienced, as the kind of sexism many term “mansplaining.” 

Interestingly, the team found that the more “hostile sexists” were viewed by women as less approachable and less friendly, in their speech. They also smiled less during the interactions. However, the men who were more of the “benevolent sexist” variety were rated by the women they met as more approachable, warmer, friendlier, and more likely to smile. Moreover, the benevolent sexists used more positive emotional words and were, overall, more patient while waiting for a woman to answer trivia questions.

The researchers point out that their study sheds light on how sexism subtly influences interaction between men and women. According to Goh, “While many people are sensitive to sexist verbal offenses, they may not readily associate sexism with warmth and friendliness. Unless sexism is understood as having both hostile and benevolent properties, the insidious nature of benevolent sexism will continue to be one of the driving forces behind gender inequality in our society.”

“Benevolent sexism is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing that perpetuates support for gender inequality among women at an interpersonal level,” Hall adds. “These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing, and harmless.”

And that more insidious form of sexism, as well as the more blatant, is something against which both men and women should be aligned.

Center for Progressive Development

Blog: Progressive Impact

© 2015 Douglas LaBier

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