I won’t make any assumptions on others’ experiences, but it’s probably safe to say some of us have either experienced sexism or witnessed it. Put me down for both. I once overheard a manager say, to a very pregnant employee, that if he were her husband, he wouldn’t let her work. Let her. That has really stuck with me all these years later. How and why would he say that? Some forms of sexism, like benevolent, are pervasive in our society. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what to say; I was a new assistant and didn’t want to necessarily rock the boat. While I advocate for others to speak up (do as I say, not as I do), my take on this should not be misconstrued as shifting the responsibility away from those who choose to make sexist comments. So, why didn’t either of us confront him?
To say the other employee and I were taken by surprise is an understatement. Neither of us said anything, we stood there in shock. When there is more than one person present when such a remark is made, they tend to look at one another to respond, this is known as diffusion of responsibility (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). She may have said something if I wasn’t there, but I will never know for certain. I immediately thought that it was such an awful thing to say and considered quitting because I didn’t want to work with someone who would take their position of power to denigrate another person.
But do most women keep quiet and not address the sexist comment? In a study by Swim and Hyers (1999) they looked at the responses’ women made to sexist comments. It also examined how they responded both publicly and privately. They found that 45 % of women responded publicly in some way and 16 % responded in a more direct manner(Schneider et al., 2012). What was so interesting about their study, was that when a participant was the only woman, they were more likely to respond, then if there was another woman present (Schneider et al., 2012).
When faced with outright sexism, some women don’t speak up. There are factors that affect our behavior; is there someone else that can speak up or as it once occurred to me, will I be perceived as thin-skinned? Whether you speak up or not, sexism has no place in our society, whether it is hostile, benevolent, or ambivalent, none of it is acceptable. I hope that now that I am aware of diffusion of responsibility (as hopefully you are too!) that when confronted with such egregious comments, that I will say something and not keep quiet. When I say nothing, it may inform the offender that I am somehow okay with their comment, when in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.). (2012). Applied Social Psychology. Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Swim, J. K., & Hyers, L. L. (1999). Excuse me—what did you just say? Women’s public and private responses to sexist remarks. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 68–88.