I wouldn’t let my wife work!

        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 PsychologyUnderstanding 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.


  1. When I was five months pregnant with my son, I found myself in a similar position, facing blatant sexism. I had been covering the weekend shift dispatching longshoremen out into the field based on instructions I had received from the different terminals. We were then expected to relay the dispatch to a union member who would, in turn, call out the manpower to work in the field. On this particular Sunday, the union person, who was known to be a difficult person to work with, decided that my manning numbers were incorrect and that he wanted to dispatch more people for the job. He argued with me about it using expletives and name calling so, I made a choice to hang up the telephone. The next day, I arrived in the office and immediately reported the event to my manager. What ensued absolutely blew my mind and my fuse.

    The manager attended a meeting with the union president the union member who was being disciplined. They went upstairs and met for about 45 minutes. When the manager came back from the meeting he didn’t come to check in with me so I decided to approach him. When I asked how it went, his reply was not what I had expected. Without being able to represent my self, the conversation had turned from a disciplinary session for that employee to denigration session of my skills and abilities. My manager, without asking any further questions of me said: “we were wondering if you were unable to do your job because of you being pregnant?” I was one of three women in a male-dominated workforce and it was clear to me at this point that this was a version of hostile sexism. I can’t remember if any one of the other women were around, I think not, but I immediately stood my ground and told my manager that his comment was against the human rights laws in Canada. He didn’t reply, nor was anything ever done to address the inappropriate behaviour I experienced. Years later I met that same union member at a memorial. I had not seen him since I had left the industry probably ten years earlier. At that time he acknowledged that they had deliberately set out to give me a hard time. I worked at that company for 18 years and when I finally left, I was mentally, emotionally and physically defeated. That kind of treatment has an overall impact on the health and wellbeing of people. One of the advantages of being older is that you feel bolder to stand up for what is right. I did it then and I think I would encourage anyone else to do that for themselves.
    If you wait for someone else to speak about a sexist comment or behaviour, and if there are other women present, chances are diffusion of responsibility will come into play and nobody will say anything.

  2. Sydney, you are absolutely correct to point out that it isn’t always reasonable to reply to such comments. I found your application of evaluation apprehension and volunteers dilemma very interesting! Pearson (2006) also stated that individuals will assess the cost of confronting especially if the confronter may be seen as a troublemaker or face repercussions. As I stated, I certainly didn’t want to “rock the boat”, so while in I may feel that I should’ve said something, in retrospect, maybe it was best that I didn’t. Not only could I have possibly lost my job if I didn’t properly address the comment, but if he didn’t fire me, he could’ve found ways to retaliate via unfair performance evaluations, which would’ve resulted in little to no pay increase.

    In this case, the young lady did in fact report him to HR, and I was subsequently called in to collaborate her story. He was reassigned to a different department, but it was three weeks replete with awkwardness in our department.


    Peason, N.B. (2006). Why bother? the nature of of women’s implicit theories about the malleability of men’s attitudes. The Pennsylvania State University,ProQuest Dissertations Publishing . Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/305261543/6B686194F7B24FDEPQ/7?accountid=13158

  3. Hi there!

    Very interesting post! Unfortunately, infuriating comments like this one comes with the territory of being a woman. (Sigh.) I’ve had a lot of awful things said to me, but I think the worst one was during my freshman year of college. I was walking into the grocery store, and I heard someone yell something at me from a car in the front row of parking spaces. I don’t remember the comment — it was about four years ago — but I do remember that it was really inappropriate. Not just your standard catcalling. So, I turned around to yell at him, flip him off, or whatever…and it was a child! Seriously, he looked like he was eleven or twelve. And I was just like, “Where is your mother???” It was so gross to see a child saying something so predatory and explicit. I mean, any time where you feel like your personal safety is potentially at risk is, obviously, worse than this, but the weirdness of the whole situation really made it stick with me. I didn’t even really do anything at that point. I mean, I can’t curse at a kid. That’s not being the bigger person. I guess I could have waited to talk to their parent, but, really, I just wanted to go home.

    Anyway, I think “How to Best Respond to Sexist Comments” would be a great class, because I think a lot of women freeze up, feel scared, and just, generally, don’t know how to respond in the moment. However, this class would, unfortunately, have to include a lesson on when not to respond because it’s not always smart or safe to speak up. Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts (2012) point to the diffusion of responsibility as being a major factor behind women’s decision of whether or not they’re going to speak up, and I definitely think that’s true, but I also think there’s more to it than that.

    Thomas, De Freitas, DeScioli, and Pinker’s (2016) study on the bystander effect touches on some additional considerations to take into account, specifically evaluation apprehension and the volunteer’s dilemma. Evaluation apprehension is pretty self-explanatory. It’s the fear of being judged to have acted inappropriately (Thomas et al., 2016). However, the volunteer’s dilemma is a little more interesting. It investigates the idea that volunteering, while useful to the group as a whole, carries a negative consequence for the volunteer (Thomas et al., 2016). You kind of already touched on this in your post, and I think it’s an important part of the puzzle. Unfortunately, sometimes speaking up is going to get you in trouble. Is it worth it to say something and potentially lose my job or have my boss treat me worse in the future? A lot of times the answer is going to be “no, it’s not worth it.” And these types of reasonable but unfortunate decisions do help perpetuate sexist behavior. The best way to combat the volunteer’s dilemma is to remove the cost of acting. A situation like the one you described is supposed to be why companies have an HR department. Unfortunately, they’re not always looking out for the employees best interests, or they don’t always handle the issue correctly. I don’t have any great, world-changing ideas on the subject, but I do think that “lowering the cost of standing up for yourself” would be a great issue for interventions to address.


    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.

    Thomas, K. A., De Freitas, J., DeScioli, P., & Pinker, S. (2016). Recursive mentalizing and common knowledge in the bystander effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 145(5), 621. Retrieved from http://ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/1789777155?accountid=13158

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