Casual Fridays: What makes something / someone sexist?

Yesterday, some commenters complained that the story I used to introduce the study I was discussing was sexist. They might be right. So let's see what our readers think -- what is sexist, and what's not?

In this study, you'll see eleven different scenarios, and you'll be asked to evaluate how sexist a person in the scenario is, or the scenario as a whole is. Next week, we should be able to have some idea of what types of things are seen as most obviously sexist, and whether there are differences in individuals' perceptions of sexism.

Click here to participate

As usual, the survey is brief, with just 14 questions. It should take only a few minutes to complete. You have until Thursday, May 14 to complete your response. There is no limit on the number of respondents. Don't forget to come back next week for the results!

More like this

A couple of the scenarios tell more about the assumptions that we bring to the scenario than they do about the scenario itself. More on that later (but the e-mail is good for PM.)

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 08 May 2009 #permalink

The Titanic one is funny, since I know the data about the economic class break down of survivors. If I didn't suspect that was a confounding factor, it would sound a lot more sexist.

you can't tell how sexist the one about mom/tech support is. could be very sexist or could just be ageist.

some of the stories are very ambiguous, and the determination of sexist/non-sexist depends on unknowns, but I'm still interested in the results =)

I agree with the previous commenters - many of the scenarios were open to different types of prejudice. not necessarily related to sexism however..

Looking forward to the results and also looking forward to reading the flames from the feminists telling us how horribly slanted this is and how our male dominated society offends them.


p.s. just a lighthearted troll, nothing to take too personally or seriously.

Ageist, over-possessive, "husbandist", "momist" others have mentioned, many of the scenarios dinged at *other* prejudices quite strongly.

does it not occur to anyone that the survey may be intended to look at implicitly sexist assumptions in the survey takers. Many of those questions seemed (rather clumsily) to be intended to SEEM sexist while not being sexist at all. And as several others pointed out many were other'-ists' but not actually sexist.

@Owen Yes, I agree. My guess is that the groups probably have the genders of the participants switched (i.e., male & male, male & female, female & female, female & male), but perhaps not.

I am very interested to see if there are any age differences. I am female but don't feel I noticed or cared about sexism until my mid-twenties. Now, I care somewhat but not nearly as much as my even older friends who were adults in the 60s and 70. These women consistently complain that women my age are careless with our freedoms and are even backsliding into "traditional" gender roles. I don't know if that's true or not, but it would be interesting.

I thought it was "what makes someone sexiest?" What a disappointment.
Plus, yeah a lot of the questions seemed a little ambiguous.

The question about the Titanic was the most sexist, but I only gave it a 3 because I agree that children should get priority, so the policy was only half sexist.

In addition to the tech support question(maybe the boss knows the Mother and her skill set; this would be true in our office), I thought some of the family roles questions also needed an Unknown. I don't think it is sexist to appreciate the chores a spouse does, providing the division of chores was arrived at through negotiation instead of assumed gender roles. My wife generally does dishes, washes the car, and changes our "babies" diapers(the pine chips in their cage) and I do laundry, vacuum, and clean the toilet. Other things we each do when we can't stand the mess anymore. We just sort of fell into these roles when we were first married. Mainly based on who wanted something cleaned first. :) My wife drinks coffee and goes through more cups than I do, so she did dishes when she was out. I have fewer work clothes than she does, so I needed laundry done first.

The water cooler question actually happens in our office a lot, but for a difference reason. My female co-worker has a bad back. Sometimes she changes the bottle, but if her back is acting up she asks one of the guys because we can do it.

I also tended to mark things as more sexist that could easily have had a non-sexist meaning. Take the firefighter example. If being a firefighter requires being able to life 150 pounds and 70% of male applicants can do that but only 30% of female applicants can lift that weight, then it isn't necessarily sexist to say that most of the women who apply can't pass the test. I'm old, fat, and out of shape. I couldn't pass the test. It wouldn't be ageist or sizeist to point that out. It's a fact.

Without more context and background, I ended up picking what I thought was the "right" answer. And maybe that was part of the test.

Hmmm. I completed appr. half of the questions, but had to quit. My assessment? It would truly, truly scare me if anyone were to think that they are qualified to pass judgment on ANY of the scenarios just based on the information given. But I guess many enough people would do just that. I hope there is a decent lesson to be learned next Friday.

i took some guesses, but really, how am i supposed to know if the water bottle is too heavy for someone because it's too heavy, or too heavy because she sees herself as a weakly female? how do i know if the vacation is impossible because the sole breadwinner can't get his shit together, or because the wife's income can't cover living expenses for all plus tropical vacations? the information gives an impression, but not a complete story.

By libbyblue (not verified) on 08 May 2009 #permalink

Hmmm. I completed appr. half of the questions, but had to quit. My assessment? It would truly, truly scare me if anyone were to think that they are qualified to pass judgment on ANY of the scenarios just based on the information given. But I guess many enough people would do just that. I hope there is a decent lesson to be learned next Friday.

It would truly, truly scare me if anyone were to think that they are qualified to pass judgment on ANY of the scenarios just based on the information given. But I guess many enough people would do just that. I hope there is a decent lesson to be learned next Friday.

Yeah, pretty much all of the scenarios I thought "it depends". Without more info, it is generally very difficult to tell.
The firefighter one is interesting because it is one job where I expect more men than women. It is a very physical job and women are, on average, physically weaker than men. It, along with a few other jobs like the military, is a case where true equality will result in uneven proportions: you set the requirements, and you accept those who meet them. This doesn't, of course, stop individual fire cheifs from being sexist.

Can someone here explain why the story in Dave's original post was sexist?
Rachael: ...Joe and Michelle story really sucks! Did we have to go with such unflattering and sexist stereotypes?"

Maybe someone here can help me with this.
I've been in a similar situation when my gaze unconsiously followed a tall blond girl that was walking past and my head even turned around to follow her as she walked past (I was actually looking at the face and not the bottom or the boobs, believe me). It happened without any thought at all. My girlfriend at that time was standing next to me and noticed this and it took her hours to get over this (She was of the jealous type).

What exactly is sexist about the story mentioned in the previous posts? Is it sexist to suggest some women can be jealous?

Is it sexist to even mention some women are more attractive than other women?
I really don't get it.

I abandoned this one only a few questions in. As others have commented, almost all the scenarios allow for more than one explanation, so it is impossible to determine intent, motivation, or prejudice. Basically, like the story which motivated it, the survey itself is mostly informative about how conditioned people are to view something as sexist, or to assume an action which might spring from sexism (or might spring from something else entirely) is in fact sexist.The survey doesn't allow any exploration of how people make those determinations. Of course, a simple Casual Friday survey doesn't really have room for that.

And yes, the earlier commenter was right about Titanic. The rule wasn't truly women and children first. It was rich women and children first, followed by rich men, followed by whomever was determined, clever, lucky, and sneaky enough to get to a spot where some of the rich and powerful were being saved. There's sexism there, but there are other, uglier -isms rearing their heads, a positive Hydra of them.

I couldn't complete this survey, there is something "wrong" with almost any question, in almost every case other factors are more powerful than the sexism aspect - yet I'm afraid I'd misrepresent myself if I answer according to my perception of what actual sexism is.

Many have already commented on the Titanic, where sexism played a role but wasn't the predominant problem. The question with the firefighter? I don't know, I don't have the data on either him nor the applicants he had to judge. In the date scenario, it's not so much the guy who's sexist but rather the stereotypical nature of the example (women look at attractive people just as much) - so which aspect am I supposed to respond to?

I know how a guy complementing a female coworker is taboo in American office culture. Yet, a woman complementing another woman or man is acceptable? How screwed up is that?

Sexism is simple. It's discrimination based on gender. If you treat men and women differently due to some perceived difference in value or abilities, that's sexism. Additionally, many people seem to be unable to display attraction without being disrespectful, which may or may not be a form of sexism but mainly it's just cultural stupidity (and those are generally the sort of people that don't know how to treat anyone with respect in the first place)

The guy making that moronic comment about the girl in the bar is stupid, but I don't have any reason to believe he'd treat an unknown man with any more respect, do I? How am I supposed to judge? I'm frankly tired of the stereotypical examples in that questionnaire. Which makes the entire thing a little sexist, now that I think of it ;-)

I'm taking this now but I have a problem with a lot of the questions-- I find myself asking the greater context of the ordeal. If ALL that the woman's boss commented on was her appearance then yeah it's sexist. If the girl asked the tiny scrawny guy to replace the water cooler and just assumed he was stronger just because he's a guy, perhaps that would be sexist. It really all depends in a lot of these questions...

Come back next week for results!!! I was on the edge of my seat waiting to know the answers. Good questions, Dave :) Also, the tech support one: VERY sexist ;)

I completed it, but without a "would need more info to determine" option, it was pretty random. I'll be interested to know what conclusion you think you can draw from this.

Also, the original story's sexism:

I don't know if calling it sexist is the best way to address the unpleasant feelings it evokes, but I would agree with the original commenter who made this argument for this reason: Women get tired of being portrayed as jealous shrews, as I'm sure men get tired of being portrayed as unfaithful or constantly distracted by women. Your original post didn't explicitly say this story was emblematic of women and men in general, but we are bombarded by images like this constantly. It starts to wear you down, and when you complain about an individual instance, people jump on you as "too sensitive."

More importantly, the fact that "They did not find a sex difference in response -- the faces they used were evenly divided between sexes, and they found the effect with both male and female participants." would make me lean toward using an intro story that didn't feed into such stereotypes. The fact that such an example popped into your head doesn't make you personally sexist, but it shows how pervasive these harmful images are.

It's sexist because of the stereotyping. The wife is a controlling, insecure bitch and the husband is henpecked.

I like how Joe "casting a quick glance" at an attractive woman in yesterday's post morphed into "flirted with a woman across the room" in the quiz, as if they were interchangeable. One could imagine someone shrugging off the former while being reasonably annoyed and hurt by the latter, especially during an anniversary dinner.

Agree with everyone about the poor questions.

Isabel: "It's sexist because of the stereotyping. The wife is a controlling, insecure bitch and the husband is henpecked."

Wait, all the wife did was "flash an annoyed glare at Joe, who knows he's in trouble." I don't think that counts as being a controlling, insecure bitch. Plus, even if she was, that is not a stereotype of all women. Some women are like that, others are not. I've known both types.

Is it really the case that quite normal behaviors, when described, must get mapped into a stereotype and then labeled as sexist? Here is a story:

A woman of 78 years old fumbled for her keys in her purse. "I seem to have forgotten them again, thank you dear," she said to the young man who unlocked the door to the apartment building and let her in.

Is that "age-ist"? No, it is just one apt description of many possible.

I agree that almost all the questions did not provide enough information to determine sexism. As a default, I tended to assume no sexism if there was no explicit sexism shown.

(Is this going to turn out to be one of those clever psychological tricks in which you will reveal to all the male commenters that, when we go back and re-read the questions, they are all like, "Mr. Henderson hired Suzette, his personal assistant, for one thing and one thing only, her bronzed flexible body and jazzercise training, because, after all, she's a dame, and dame's are only good for one thing." but we just had some kind of cognitive illusion on reading them the first time?)

I gave a lot of 3s because there was no way to say if something was sexist or not without more information. I kept wanting to know if the comment was based on a true assumption.

For example, when Steve says that Tim's mother wouldn't be good for a high-level technically oriented position, have Steve and Tim been friends for so many years that Steve has met Tim's mother and knows that her job qualifications are in other areas, not technical ones? Or is Steve's assumption that no female old enough to be Tim's mother could be qualified for a technical position? It makes a difference.

For a better example, maybe Lisa really isn't strong enough to lift the 5 gallon water bottle for the cooler. Lots of people, male or female, aren't. Maybe she supplies the information about not being strong enough because she's embarrassed. Perhaps she used to be able to do it, had been doing it for years, and has now injured her shoulder. She feels it necessary to offer an excuse for asking for help.

Perhaps the questionnaire is more about what sort of backstory the different participants provide for the scenarios.


I agree with commenter "m" above - many of the scenarios were highly ambiguous, and I think not having an answer option of "not sure" or "need more info" might skew the data depending on how you analyze.

The important question is not "is this sexist" but "is this bad?" and "should the elite (govt, etc.) do something against it". "Sexism" is now considered as systematically bad (and statists will want govt to help them fight it) but I find very positive that humans are extremely sexists in their choice of sexual partners (whatever their taste).

There is no such thing as reverse-sexism or reverse racism. Terms like sexism, racism in sociological literature imply hierarchies of power. When women as a whole have been under systematic oppression, and so while they can be prejudiced or discriminatory, they cannot perpetrate "sexism" (unless you live in the amazon, or a woman-ruled society).

So I suggest you take this into consideration when reviewing the results because I am sure most people who have actually studied some anthropology/sociology/women's studies or any of the related fields have a different perception of these terms than those guessing at the definitions.

The question about the guy's mother in a technical role raises an interesting question. I know that individual differences are so great that you can never be certain that an older person will be inferior, but I have been talking to some older computer scientists lately. Many of them find themselves falling behind as technology moves forwards. I can think of a few good reasons for why this might happen, so I don't think it's necessarily easy to dismiss out of hand. My question:

Am I doomed to fall of the cutting edge as well?

So, judging from some of the -ve comments on the questions, some people didn't notice the 'Casual Friday' in the title - how about cutting people some slack guys?
I thought there was some ambiguity to the questions but there's some ambiguity to most things in life. I'm looking forward to seeing the results...

I think some commenters here may be missing the point. Dave specifically says in his post that he is testing perceptions of sexism, not sexism as an absolute. Almost all of the questions were ambiguous, in that more information would have enabled a much better assessment of sexism or other prejudices.

The questions were set up to test exactly that; did the respondants assume sexism, or did they give the protagonist the benefit of the doubt because there could have been other explanations?

By embertine (not verified) on 11 May 2009 #permalink

I think that you should have a short one line comment box for each question. You could have had the survey-taker identify whether the there was likely a different type of discrimination present, like age-ism, or whether any additional situational information would have made a significant difference to them. It might help you get a handle on how biased or unbiased the survey-takers really were based on their comments.

I'm imagining a different sort of survey now. In this one, the scenarios are used as a sort of Rorschach test. The participant is asked to provide a backstory for the sentence, comment or brief dialog. The idea would be to give your first impressions of what you think the setting might be, what happened immediately before the comment, or what the relationship between the speakers might be. Then the scenarios are examined for sexism.

For example, in the one where a male speaker says that Ellen is the best assistant he's ever had, I got a pretty clear image of a grandfather washing a car with his granddaughter, a little girl of about 6-7 years old. There's nothing to suggest a summer day with hoses, buckets and rags, but that's what I imagined. There's nothing to suggest an office with a male professional assisted by a female secretary either.

In my scenario, there's nothing sexist, or if there is, there's nothing particularly negative about it. If the male speaker sounds a little patronizing, it's because there's natural authority and affection in the relationship.

If someone else imagined a patronizing boss in a work setting, one where the male boss takes credit for his female employee's accomplishments with the back handed compliment of calling her good while calling her a mere assistant at the same time, then we've got the presumption of sexism.


The Ellen story is one of the few (in my version of the survey - no Titanic) that I felt was definitely sexist because of the use of the word "girl." "My girl Ellen blah blah blah..." Sort of like how African-American men in the South were referred to as "boy" no matter what age they were relative to the speaker. I only briefly considered a version where it was referring to an actual child [and I tend to be one of those people who say "huh? what's wrong with that??" when people huff about sexism or other offenses - i'm not as sensitive about it as many I know]

Not having read the other comments, I need to make two comments:

1. There's an issue of stereotype threat built into the survey. Starting with M/F and age, plus the way the survey is introduced here, makes for us not answering based on our "real" opinions but based on expectations of what we should be answering, while recognizing that men are more sexist more often, so we overcorrect or overanalyze... it's a serious issue.

2. Too many of the scenarios are both blatantly sexist OR highly personal situations in which we have no background information on whether the person is or is not sexist. Perhaps the mom is an idiot about technical matters, but a genius manager - who can tell? Meaning, the questions ask about stereotypes, they do not ask about real world situations.

I completed the survey, but too many of the situations seemed depended on information we had to assume. For example, is it sexist for a husband to be thankful that his wife has done the dishes/changed the diapers/cleaned the house? No - unless he expects her to do that. This is important information.

In the firefighter example, my reaction was approximately: well, ARE they less qualified?

Regarding Mom/tech support... the way it was worded made it sound like the guy was recommending her because she was his mother, not because she was a good professional. Plus, we can reasonably assume that the other guy knows his Mom - and possibly knows for a fact that she is not qualified.

It's not clear that the Titanic involves sexism at all. Some people believe that children should be rescued rather than adults (because they have more years in front of them). But given the then prevailing norms, women were better able to care for the children. So 'women and children first' does a reasonable job of tracking 'children and their guardians first'. The norms that had women as the best guardians were sexist, but given they were the prevailing norms, it was appropriate to take them into account if the goal was to maximize child welfare.

So I suggest you take this into consideration when reviewing the results because I am sure most people who have actually studied some anthropology/sociology/women's studies or any of the related fields have a different perception of these terms than those guessing at the definitions.

The problem with some of the scenarios is that there is not enough information to make an informed decision on to what degree they are sexist. For example, regarding the question about the man recommending his mother for the tech support job: we don't know how familiar the recruiter is with the mother. Perhaps the recruiter knows that mother well enough to know that she doesn't have the abilities to be a good tech support person. I think the scenario was meant to assume that the recruiter knew nothing about the mother

Or this one:
"Less than 3 percent of firefighters nationwide are women.
'I would hire more female firefighters, one fire department administrator said, but frankly, the women applicants I see are less qualified than the men.'

The key words here are "I see" ; it means that for this department administrator, he has personally found no female applicants who have qualifications equal to the men. In this case, what if it were true? What if female applicants really were less qualified, not because of inherent sexist flaws in the hiring process (which I think was the original intent of this scenario), but because none really did have the qualifications. Let's say the women and men applicants were given a test, and ALL the female applicants just all happened to score less than the ALL the males, then this statement would be true and NOT be sexist -- again this would just apply to only those women that were screened/seen/interviewed by the administrator, and would NOT apply to females in general.


When you say, there is not such thing as reverse racism or reverse sexism, you are right. Racism is racism, sexism is sexism -- no matter who perpetrates it, and no matter who is the victim. We typically assume that men have the power, and women do not; that whites have the power, but that non-whites do not. But what about situations in which this is reversed?

Are not these just as racist and sexist as the traditional examples?

For example: my boss is black, and most of us working under her are not. This is a power situation. If she makes a disparaging situation about "whities" or "slanties" [Asians], she is being just as much racist as a white person making bad remarks against blacks. It doesn't matter whether whites have more power overall in society; in THIS particular situation, she has the power.

This would be the same if gender was involved. In the same office, we have 28 women and 1 man. If I make a disparaging comment about the man, then I am being sexist. Sexist is not just males making sexist remarks against females; the reverse is also sexist.

Power is at the root (among other things) of racism and sexism, but that power need not be culture-wide or society-wide or from traditional social structures. It can also be group wide, and those groups need not be large, but can be ANY situation where one group holds power over another. But these -isms are not just about power, they are also about stereotyping. And, again, they apply to not just those in general power, but specific situations.

I agree that a lot of situations were ambiguous, but maybe that's deliberate. However, I noted that there were 2 sexual harassment scenarios (different genders doing the ogling). I think both are wrong, but am not sure if women harrassing men is "sexist" (since I usually associate sexism with discrimination against women). Discriminiation against men by women is also wrong, but usually has a different name in my experience.