Do most people recognize sexism in their daily lives? And what does it take to get them to shake their sexist beliefs?
In a recent study titled "Seeing the Unseen" psychologists Janet Swim of Pennsylvania State University and Julia Becker of Philipps University Marburg, Germany, set out to answer these questions.
Over the course of three separate, seven-day-long trials, Swim and Becker asked 120 college undergraduates (82 women and 38 men, ranging from 18 to 26 years old, some from the U.S., some from Germany) to record in a journal sexist comments they encountered on a daily basis. According to Swim, she and Becker hoped to determine whether forcing people to pay attention to less obvious forms of sexism could decrease their endorsement of sexist beliefs.
During the trials, subjects were instructed to note instances of sexist behavior toward women, ranging from unwanted sexual attention to blatantly sexist jokes and derogatory comments.
They were also asked to record subtler actions that many would consider harmless: men calling women "girls, " complimenting them on stereotypically feminine behavior and sheltering them from more "masculine" tasks. Swim and Becker described this less obvious sexism to participants as “benevolent sexism,” a term coined by psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske in a 1996 study to refer to "a paternalistic attitude towards women that idealizes them affectionately," Glick told The Huffington Post.
On average, subjects recorded two derogatory terms, two sexist comments, 1.5 expressions of negative beliefs about women and 1.5 expressions of seemingly positive but in fact sexist thoughts about women each week. Swim recalled that one female participant reported a complete stranger had walked up to her in a laundromat and asked if she would fold his laundry because she'd be better at it.
This kind of sexism is "ambiguous," Swim said, and "people don't know if they're kidding, so we discount them one after another."
"If you document it and are confronted by a group of instances of sexism, then people start to see the unseen," she added.
The prevalence of sexism -- benevolent or hostile -- was not the study's primary focus, nor its major reveal. The more significant finding had to do with how men and women's beliefs about sexism changed after they became aware of its prevalence. In addition to asking participants to record instances of sexism, researchers also evaluated the degree to which subjects tolerated sexist behavior.
Researchers found that after recording the sexist incidents they observed, women were more likely to deem the behavior less acceptable. Men, on the other hand, continued to endorse sexist behavior even after becoming more conscious of it.
But when asked to empathize with the female targets of specific sexist incidents, male participants were less likely to sanction blatant sexism.
In one example, men who were told to consider women's feelings were less likely to think women overreact when responding negatively to sexist behavior.
When it came to instances of benevolent sexism, though, men's attitudes did not change. According to Swim, men did not consider statements including "a good woman should be put on a pedestal" or "in a disaster, women should be saved before men" to be sexist.
Becker and Swim's research provoked outrage in some quarters, aided by loaded headlines like this one in the UK's Daily Mail: "Men who hold open doors for women are SEXIST not chivalrous, feminists claim." Criticism focused on the researchers asking participants to identify seemingly well-intended male behavior as discriminatory.
Anna Rittgers, a blogger for the conservative Independent Women's Forum, wrote that she first thought the study was a hoax and that she was "beginning to suspect that the modern feminist movement is actually comprised of a bunch of honest-to-goodness misogynists whose goal is to make women look ridiculous."
The Irish blog Joe.ie It's Man Stuff sardonically wrote, "Great work ladies, we'll be sure to get you both a beer in recognition of your service if you ever pop over to Dublin. You'll have to pay for it though, obviously."
And blogger Mockarena, co-founder of the Chicks on the Right blog, wrote, "I don't know about you all, but it is VERY HARMFUL TO ME when my husband insists on driving during long road trips. I am TOTALLY PSYCHOLOGICALLY DAMAGED when he tells me he can't live without me. And I feel deeply discriminated against when he has the AUDACITY to fix the brakes on my car."
Mockerena later told The Huffington Post that she was in "utter disbelief at the sheer absurdity” of the study.
"Of course there are men who can be total pigs, and who'll ogle inappropriately and without any regard for the boundaries that an individual woman might set," she said. "But I really believe that if women get as bent out of shape about pure acts of kindness, affection and helpfulness” -- such as a husband helping his wife carry groceries -- "as they do about, say, an unwelcome pinch on the backside, then frankly, they've got issues."
Glick, co-author of the original study on benevolent sexism, said he worries that benevolent sexism has become a caricature to the media and public.
"We don't think that men should no longer be polite," he said. "Often chivalrous behavior is appropriate. It is just important to know when you are crossing the line."
"Women themselves ignore [all types of] sexism, and part of it is a coping mechanism," Swim said. "You want to live your life."
But ignoring sexism has consequences, she said. Often the acceptance of subtler forms of sexism can lead to the acceptance of broader forms of gender discrimination.
According to Glick, benevolent sexism can often unintentionally become hostile sexism when a woman breaks out of her assumed role. He used the workplace as an example.
If a man offers to help a female coworker set up an office computer, Glick said, and she accepts, she is perceived as warm, but lacking a level of competence. If she politely refuses, however, she is often viewed as a "bitch." Men who accept help are also seen as vulnerable, Glick said, but they do not suffer the same repercussions for trying to do things on their own.
So where do we go from here?
“[Change] requires some conversations about when benevolent sexism does feel bad," Swim told The Huffington Post. "Not all women think that it's bad either, so it becomes about creating a cultural awareness of what happens when [women] maintain dependency and [men] do those things that are not necessarily obviously sexist."
In the meantime, Swim said she finds it "just as interesting" that people can discount the sexism they experience in their daily lives "when they think about whether sexism is a problem or not."