The Situationist

Sexism: The Worst Part Is Not Knowing

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 12, 2008

From New Scientist (“Chauvinists Less Unnerving than Ambiguous Men“).

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Chavinistic men can be petty and infuriating, but that might be as far as it goes. Women are more unnerved by not knowing a man’s views than by overt sexism – so much so that they perform worse in exams.

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton at the University of California, Berkeley, asked 170 female undergraduates to take a written test. Before the test they were randomly assigned to one of three empty offices, which they were told belonged to their male examiner. The fictional offices were furnished in one of three ways to allow the students to infer the examiner’s view of women. They either had “progressive” decor such as a breast-cancer awareness banner, overtly sexist posters of women, or neutral objects such as a stack of papers.

Students who were sensitive to sexism, as measured by a separate questionnaire, scored worse if they had been in the supposedly neutral office. They were not fazed, though, by the chauvinist office, scoring better than less-sensitive peers (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology).

“Ironically, if you ‘know thy enemy’, you’ve got a better chance of dealing with it than if you are constantly wondering if you will be judged unfairly,” says Mendoza-Denton.

Indeed, previous studies suggest that black people prefer dealing with overtly racist whites than with those who behave ambiguously. Because overt racism and sexism has become socially unacceptable, prejudice has become more subtle, he concedes.

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To review some related Situationist posts, see “Stereotype Threat and Performance,” The Gendered Situation of Science and Math,” “Gender-Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

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