Casual Fridays: What's sexist? Depends on what order you read the story in

Last week, we asked our readers whether certain characters or "stories" were sexist. I said that the survey was inspired by the story I had told the previous day:

Joe and Michelle are having dinner at a romantic restaurant. It's their first anniversary, and everything is perfect -- until an attractive woman walks past the table. Michelle notices that Joe casts a quick glance at the woman. Michelle flashes an annoyed glare at Joe, who knows he's in trouble. "I didn't mean to look at her," he pleads, "guys just can't help it when a pretty woman walks by." Michelle gasps. "B-but she's not as pretty as you," Joe stammers, unpersuasively.

Many readers felt that this story was sexist because it promotes unfair stereotypes about men and women. So, I said, we'd put it to the test and ask our readers how sexist various situations were. Over 1,600 people responded.

As some of you suspected, that's not all that was going on with the survey. I was interested in whether you thought that story was sexist, but I was also interested in how context can affect judgments about sexism. So respondents were divided into four different groups. While everyone rated brief scenarios for how "sexist" one of the characters or the entire story was, different groups saw different scenarios.

First, everyone was split into two--a "male" and "female" group. These groups read what I felt was very strongly sexist story, either against males or females, depending on their group. Then each of these groups was split again, into another "male" and "female" group. This time the groups read several milder examples of sexism, either against males or females. Then everyone read some of the same stories, both against males and females. So there were four groups: male-male, male-female, female-male, and female-female, depending on which types of sexism they were exposed to first.

Did the order the scenarios appeared in matter? You bet it did! Here's a summary of all the ratings:


When making sexism ratings in scenarios where the sexism was directed against females, the rankings for each group were significantly different from each other. The ratings for sexism against men, however, did not differ significantly from group to group. You can see the pattern more clearly when I focus in on the group that saw all sexism against females compared to those that saw all sexism against males:


So readers who rated examples of sexism against men first were more likely to judge sexism against women more harshly than those who rated sexism against women first. Why? I'll leave that for you to discuss in the comments.

Overall, women were more likely to rate scenarios as sexist. There was a significant correlation (r = .31) between being female and rating scenarios as sexist. Women were also more likely to rate the examples of sexism against men as strongly sexist. There was also a positive correlation (r = .21) between age and sexism against women ratings: the older you are, the more likely you are to rate a scenario as sexist.

Finally, here are some of the responses to individual scenarios. The percentage is the portion of all respondents giving each rating, where 1 means "not sexist at all" and 5 means "extremely sexist. The "Lacey" story was the what the people in the Female-Female and Female-Male groups saw first. The "Titanic" story was what the people in the Male-Female and Male-Male groups saw first.




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That last graph is very interesting to me. If I am reading it correctly, this indicates that females do not find it sexist to assume that an attractive male would be lacking in intellect? And the fact that males realized that this position is sexist where the females did not really tells a story.

Am I going down the wrong path with this reasoning?

couldn't edit my last comment

... And in conjunction with the statistics that show females are more likely to view a situation as sexism, this information leads me to believe that reverse sexism may be an influence on how females perceive human interactions between members of the opposite sex.

"So readers who rated examples of sexism against men first were more likely to judge sexism against women more harshly than those who rated sexism against women first. Why?"

Probably because, having rated sexism against males at a certain level, they felt compelled to rate sexism against women higher (either because they honestly perceived the sexism as worse, or because socially I think we're more prone to expect or look out for sexism against women). When it comes to rating several items in a row, my guess is that earlier ratings tend to be more conservative (it was "kinda sexist" or "not really sexist"), whereas later ratings will be influenced by the standard the rater set for him- or herself earlier on ("well, compared to the previous 'kinda-sexist' story, this next one is really sexist").


No, that last graph isn't broken down by gender of respondent. *Everyone* seems to think that it's less sexist to assume that an attractive man isn't intelligent than it is to assume that an attractive woman isn't intelligent.

In general, actually, women were more likely to rate examples of sexism against men as worse than men.

The last pair of stories are not parallel. The buxom woman may have been that way naturally and without effort. The large pecs on the man suggests he spends a lot of his time working out instead of pursuing intellectual endeavors.

In the first situation (the engineering class) it first struck me that the professor is being racist, rather than sexist. He seemed to be compensating for societal sexism by arranging that the womens' work could not be inappropriately credited to a while male co-worker. The question is whether he was simultaneously compensating for societal racism, or whether he had lowered expectations of black males.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 15 May 2009 #permalink

I´m with the post above. The professor scenario blurs the sexism a bit by the emphase of the non-white team-member, that directs it way to racism. Nonetheless there is sexism in it. But the racism could definitely have had an influence on the sexism rating of that item.

By HolundaeR (not verified) on 15 May 2009 #permalink

I think perhaps, in part, that the male senerios hit on less sensitive topics than the women senerios. Women seen as jealous shrews, or as pretty but dumb, are touchy issues.

I think a more touchy stereotype for men is being "weak" = not masculine/gay. Next time put in a senerio like this and see how many people rate it as sexist:

Jim and sees Steve at his desk. He(she) asks John/Jill else at work what's going on. "Steve's found out he's being let go at the end of the week. He's crying? That's so gay."

Your stories focus on behaviors which are typically gender-coded: the wife who cleans the house, the man who eyes other women, the buxom bimbo. There's a big difference in responses to existing stereotypes and non-stereotyped behaviors.

Examples like a man who wasn't allowed to volunteer at a school, because he made parents nervous just being around their children, or a woman who praises her husband for making a lot of money and buying her expensive jewelry, would play to existing male topics.

The last comment is interesting and I think valid in terms of evaluating sexism in terms of how harmful the stereotype in question is. But if you include calling a man gay as a pejorative in your scenario, then sexism slides into homophobia. It also gets complicated when you consider sexism in terms of the risk of the situation. A scenario at home might have a different impact than a scenario at work or out in public, who observes it, and the gender of the observer.

I'm confused. Sexism is presumably an attitude, rather than a set of behaviors. So these scenarios present behaviors, and ask us to infer the attitude. And then we read into how people have responded by looking at the variation in how they treat scenarios involving women and those involving men. But aren't we ignoring the fact that the evaluators of the scenarios have some representation of the base rates of sexism among men and women. I'm inclined to think that a woman who makes a casual joke about a handsome man being dumb is much less likely to be sexist against men, than a man who makes a casual joke about a pretty woman being dumb is sexist against women. And that's solely cuz there's more sexist men than sexist women *or so I think*. Maybe I'm missing the point of the experiment?

By Michael Johnson (not verified) on 15 May 2009 #permalink

I took part in it, so I couldn't wait to read the results.
I'm with Anonymous and HolundaeR about sexism mihed with racism.
I wonder: if we are much more tolerative about sexism against male - some day will men need more care as now women do?...

1)How many respondents were there?

2)"So readers who rated examples of sexism against men first were more likely to judge sexism against women more harshly than those who rated sexism against women first. Why? I'll leave that for you to discuss in the comments."

I have a guess based on my feelings (as far as I remember, since I took it very quickly) while responding. I was in a group that got the Titanic example first. If I judged sexism against women more harshly than those in the other group, I don't think it was because I was thinking "because, having rated sexism against males at a certain level, [I] felt compelled to rate sexism against women higher." I don't remember what I ultimately selected for an answer, but my reaction to the Titanic example was that it is an obvious example of sexism against men. Not only are their class, age, and historical issues going on there, but you could just as easily see it as an example of sexism against women (women are "weak" and need extra help getting out of the boat). So, if indeed my judgements were "harsher" after this first example, I think it was because I was annoyed about the ambiguity of the questions and having to select simple answer rather than being able to respond verbally. In any case, I didn't see it as a clear case of sexism "against men," but rather a generally mixed ambiguous case, so whatever affected my subsequent answers it was not because I had "rated sexism against men at a certain level."

3)I'm not sure if I understand the experimental set up completely, why assume the *first* question had the biggest affect on all the following responses? Why not check if responses were more or less "harsh" after, say, Jason/Julie? I have no doubt my previous responses affected my judgement of each question, but I don't (consciously) feel like the Titanic one had an inordinate affect on all subsequent answers. Whereas, I do remember for example mulling over the Jill question (having now been reminded of it).

One more thing. I want to agree with delzoup about the examples given as stereotypes about men not being as "touchy." Generally, you seem to have reversed widespread stereotypes about women and used those as examples of sexism against men. delzoup suggested using examples of masculinity being questioned, but a better example, less mixed with the issue of homophobia, might be examples including assumptions about men being violent or womanizing.
The real problem might be that there just are more *negative* stereotypes about women. Stereotypes about men tend to be more positive, or at least celebrated.

I disagree with the assumptions being made about what the last graph means. I do not think that the two statements are equal... I think that "knockers" is a very offensive and sexist term in and of itself, while "pecs" is simply short for pectoral muscles, which is simply a descriptive term. I think part of the discrepancy between responses to these two stories comes not from the sex of the person being objectified, but more from the pejorative term being used to describe the woman's breasts.

I am confused by some of these comments. Wasn't the idea to find out how sexist people thought the *examples* were, not the situations? For example, Jessica's comment. I thought the quiz was supposed to be testing our responses to sterotypical gender roles, not the actual sexism in a situation. Therefore, it is irrelevant whether it is a standard gender stereotype or not.

I'm sorry, but do you really know what sexism means? It does not seems so to me, and I don't think a survey taken by someone who does not know very much about the topic shows very much. It's fairly easy to judge whether some obvious (negative/prositive, towards men/towards women) discrimination takes place, but sexism is not only about these obvious things, it's something much more subtle within society nowadays. You can't simply swop the scenarios from discriminated women to discriminated men. Do men have a long tradition of discrimination that disadvantages them and brings them into terrible dependence? But these things DO matter. I ca understand why someone complained that your first story that started it all was sexist, but the concept underlying this accusation is more complex than the one you are pushing people towards in your survey

It seems that it is more socially acceptable for sexism to exist/persist against men than against women, i.e. sexism against men is more tolerated than sexism against women, a situation that is profoundly sexist in itself. Sexism is sexism, whether the victims are female or males does not matter; in the end, it hurts everyone, even those who continue to perpetrate it.

Hardly any of the comments were sexist. Most could have been true (worst applicant, best assistant etc.) without the sex of the person being a factor. We really need to know more detail before we can judge if the comments are entirely due to sexism.
Sexism is about being given the same opportunities - but only if we all have the same abilities. Otherwise it's not sexism at all, but just "unsuitability".
If a person is judged to be unsuitable based purely on their sex, this would be sexism.
Having said that, there are real differences between men and women (other the obvious ones) and we shouldn't ignore them. Instead, we should recongnise them and use them to our mutual advantage.

I agree that this is not about sexism. If Jim is happy that his wife stays at home, cooks and changes the baby's nappies, it doesn't mean he's sexist.

He's sexist if he insists that all women stay at home, cook and take care of children, but he doesn't.

If Joe looks at attractive women and Michelle gets jealous when he does it, it doesn't say anything about male sexuality or female jealousy in general, it just says that Joe looks at other women and Michelle doesn't like it.

As Bob H says, sexism is about lack of opportunities, not about what one individual says about another individual.

"In general, actually, women were more likely to rate examples of sexism against men as worse than men"

That is because generally we don't kick up fuss over nothing.

My favourite has to be that women think it's less sexist that men were asked to sacrifice themselves for the women on the Titanic, than a professor who was likely testing productivity of groupings in his class. preposterous.

And also, a 4 on the sexist rating for the judges question, did the women who voted on this not think that maybe jobs are held on merrit of skills, and are defined by previous conduct, not to mention the gender split % of applicants. Not just that LESS WOMEN IN A JOB, SEXXXISSSMM!!! RAAAGHHHGHG.

At the end of the day, we are not equal, we have very different biological functions and nature has a place for what it nurtures don't you think?

Oppression of women is obhorant, but expecting everything in life to be a 50/50 split 'because its more fair' is unrealistic.