A woman who bristles when a male friend or colleague uses sexist language has to make a quick decision: Call him on it, or not? Although she might be personally offended, she may be reluctant to speak up, anticipating his response will be dismissive or defensive.
Research just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests such fears may be overblown. It describes a carefully structured study in which college-age males are confronted over the use of sexist language — and respond with heightened sensitivity regarding gender issues.
“Confrontation reduces the future occurrence of biased behavior,” write the study’s authors, psychologists Robyn Mallett and Dana Wagner of Loyola University Chicago. “If [a man who is challenged after expressing a sexist statement] is motivated to be liked by the confronter, or wishes to present a non-prejudiced image, then he will likely compensate in response to confrontation and change his future behavior.”
Their three-part study featured 109 college-age males. In the first section, each participant entered into a conversation with a female about an ethically ambiguous scenario. Their talk was engineered to include a confrontation. For half the men, this exchange had nothing to do with gender; for the other half, it revolved around their alleged use of sexist language.
Specifically, as they discussed whether a nurse should be fired, the woman said with some annoyance, “I noticed that you said ‘she’ when referring to the nurse. Are you assuming the nurse is female? That’s kind of sexist, don’t you think?” (She made this accusation whether or not the man had actually used the term “she.”) Two research assistants — one male, one female — observed the man’s reaction, noting both verbal and nonverbal responses.
After that discussion concluded, the couple went on to a second round in which they discussed two topics, one of which involved gender issues (such as funding for women’s sports). The research assistants noted any “compensatory behaviors” on the part of the man, such as smiling, making eye contact and “putting a lot of thought” into his answers. Afterwards, the man reported the extent to which he liked his female counterpart and his perception of whether she liked him.
Finally, each man took a test in which he was asked to correctly identify three types of errors in 30 sentences. These ranged from spelling and grammar to sexist language such as using “he” or “his” when referring to all people. Before the test began, the men received specific instruction regarding what constitutes sexist language.
The results: “We found that a second conversation, which involved gender-relevant topics, went just as well if the man had been confronted a few minutes earlier for using sexist language,” the researchers report.
The men who were confronted for their alleged sexism engaged in more compensatory behaviors — everything from outright apologies to emotion-based body movements such as leaning back or forward. These efforts, perhaps surprisingly, “paid off in the form of mutual liking,” according to Mallett and Wagner.
In other words, the confrontation shook them up, but not in a negative way: They described a more cordial relationship with their partner than those men who were spared the sexism accusation and resultant agitation.
What’s more, “confrontation and mutual liking were both positively associated with sexist language detection,” the researchers write. “Men experienced more mutual liking with their confronter after the sexist confrontation, and that mutual liking increased their subsequent detection of sexist language.”
The researchers caution that the “generalizability of these effects across social groups, and with different types of confrontation” still needs to be tested. Indeed, it’s quite possible that screaming “sexist pig!” would be counterproductive.
Moreover, it’s unclear whether the reaction of male college students would be mimicked by, say, workers at a construction site. Mallett and Wagner conclude men are constrained from using sexist language by “social forces” and a desire to appear unprejudiced. If so, their behavior would presumably be impacted by the level of sexism considered acceptable in their social sphere.
Nevertheless, the study should bolster the confidence of women in professional situations who have been reluctant to speak their minds. According to this research, men — at least under certain circumstances — respond better to criticism than anyone suspected.