Your colleague Jim calls you "honey," makes cracks about women drivers, and suggests that you be the one to shop for the retirement gift for Bob because "women like that sort of thing." A lot of the sexism that women encounter in the workplace looks like this—comments that are not necessarily meant to cause insult or discomfort, uttered by otherwise decent enough male coworkers who you generally like. But they are harmful nonetheless, because they perpetuate stereotypic views of women's preferences and abilities. If you found yourself in a situation like this, what would you do?
While we'd all like to believe that we would confront anyone who said something sexist (or otherwise bigoted) to us personally, the truth is that it rarely happens. For instance, in one study, 68% of women said that they would refuse to answer sexually harassing questions in a job interview, and 28% said they would openly confront the interviewer. But when the interview actually happened, all of the women answered the offensive questions, and not one confronted the interviewer.
It's no wonder so few are willing to confront sexism in the workplace (or anywhere else). 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.
Well, it turns out that there are three very good reasons why you should confront the perpetrator of a sexist comment.
1. It Won't Be as Uncomfortable as You Think
Countless psychology studies show that people are surprisingly bad when it comes to predicting how an interaction with another person will go. So it's worth asking, how do men actually respond when they are confronted about sexism in this day and age?
The answer: they are remarkably nice about it.
In a new study, conducted by Robyn Mallett and Dana Wagner at Loyola University Chicago, male participants were teamed with a female partner (who was actually a confederate in the experiment). Their assignment was to read a set of moral or ethical dilemmas and discuss together how to deal with each situation, including one in which a nurse discovers that a hospital patient has been given tainted blood.
During their discussion, the female confederate confronted her male partner either for sexism (i.e., having assumed the nurse in the story was female, which every male participant did) or in a gender-neutral way (i.e., disagreeing with the male's suggested solution to the dilemma).
As expected, men had much stronger reactions to being told that their remark was sexist than they did to mere disagreement. But the reactions weren't what you might expect. 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.
It turns out that when it comes to offensive remarks, offenders are also susceptible to social pressure, just like the victims of sexism who are so reluctant to complain.
Men who make insensitive sexist comments usually want to avoid being seen as sexist jerks. (Not always, obviously, but more often than not). This tempers their response to confrontation, and as a result, they react less negatively or harshly than anyone might have imagined, including the men themselves.
2. He Will Probably Be Nicer, and Like You More
Once confronted, perpetrators of offensive remarks are motivated to smooth the awkwardness of the situation. In the study, men were significantly nicer to their female partner while discussing a second set of dilemmas after having been accused of sexism, than they were after merely being told they wrong.
The "sexists" were more agreeable, more likely to try to search for common ground with their partner—they even smiled at her more. And because they had tried harder to make the relationship work, at the end of the study the men accused of sexism reported liking their partner more than those who weren't accused of it.
3. Being Confronted Makes You Less Sexist
Perhaps the best reason to confront sexism is that it is the single most effective tool we have if we want to get rid of it.
Hundreds of studies show that confronting bias (toward any group) actually improves intergroup perceptions and reduces future bias. If no one points out to Jim that his remarks about women are offensive, it's not likely he's going to figure it out on his own. And chances are, he doesn't really want to offend you or anyone else. Confronting him gives him a chance to see things from your point of view, and understand where his "innocent" comments went wrong.
Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson