Summary of Becker & Swim (2011)

Summary of:  “Seeing the unseen:
Attention to Daily Encounters with Sexism as Way to Reduce Sexist Beliefs

Full article published by the Psychology of Women Quarterly &

written by Julia Becker and Janet Swim


Have you been treated in a sexist manner?  --- Many will say this has rarely occurred to them.

Has anyone assumed that you have an ability or trait consistent with your gender or not have an ability or trait inconsistent with your gender even when they knew nothing about you?  Has a stranger ever made you feel uncomfortable or threatened by making sexual comments about your body? Has anyone took over a task for you that you could do but would not be expected to be able to do because of your gender.  For women -- Has anyone called you a bitch when you spoke your mind?  For men – Has anyone called you a fagot when displayed a lack a male defined skills (e.g., sports) or the presence of a feminine attribute (e.g., artistic talent).

Many will call these examples sexist. Plus, they are more likely to say they have experienced them than to say that they have experienced sexism.  

Thus, there is a discrepancy between reporting having never or rarely experiencing sexism and more more frequently reported having experienced several examples of everyday sexism.

Psychological research has attempted to understand this discrepancy and the psychological consequences of this discrepancy.  In our studies we examined the implications of this discrepancy for endorsing sexist beliefs.

What was the purpose of our research?

The purpose of our research was to test whether paying attention to everyday incidents of sexism decrease men’s and women’s endorsement of sexist beliefs.

How do we define sexism?

We define sexism as: “Attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that are harmful to a person because of their gender.”

There are different types of sexism.  One type is called “Old-fashioned sexism.”  This is related to blatantly saying hostile beliefs about a person or prescribing that women and men can only do behaviors that are consistent with old-fashioned rigid gender roles.”  Another type of sexism is what has been called “Modern sexism.” This is exemplified by sexist treatment that often goes unnoticed because it is normalized or habitual.  A third type is “Benevolent sexism.”   Benevolent sexism is related to behaviors that appear positive but are actually negative.  These behaviors are not any type of positive treatment but, corresponding to the general definition of sexism, they are behaviors that are harmful but could be mistaken as being benign, flattering, or helpful… it is akin to saying to a woman, “don’t worry your pretty little head about important matters of science, politics, or the economy.”  They are often harmful because they presume incompetence, are controlling, or have harmful side effects (Examples of Benevolent Sexism).

There are beliefs that correspond with these different types of sexism.  We were interested in whether attending to everyday examples of sexism decreased endorsement of the beliefs associated with the modern and benevolent sexism. 

What are everyday incidents of sexism? 

Everyday examples of sexism are expressions of sexism that become part of people’s everyday lives.  They are akin to what researchers studying stress call “everyday stressors.”  These are not major life incidents but are annoyances that, when they accumulate, they become stressful. 

Everyday sexism can be expressed in different manners.  Expressions can come in the form of nonverbal behavior, overt comments, or actions.  Nonverbal behavior are not by definition sexist but can be sexist.  So, for instance, staring is not necessarily sexist but it can be when it is demeaning and threatening.  People generally know when staring turns from interest to threat, such as, if it does not stop when one conveys discomfort about having one's breasts stared at or if it is accompanied by comments or gestures denoting offensive sexual acts.  Further, not all overt comments and actions are sexist.  For instance, helping women is not by definition sexist but helping can be sexist if it undermines a woman’s ability to learn a skill, do her work, or communicates a lack of confidence in her abilities. 

Men and women both experience everyday sexism though women report more experiences than men. 

What did we do in our studies?

Participants in the United States and Germany 1) reported their observations of examples of incidents that could be interpreted as sexist OR incidents not likely to be seen as sexist and 2) thought about how the people involved in the incident felt OR did not thing about this (or in two studies published elsewhere, were told what might be offensive about the examples of sexism or not told this).

In order to understand what people were reporting, we checked the types of incidents people reported.  Of those who were asked to report examples of incidents that could be interpreted as being sexist and, of the incidents participants reported that they thought were sexist, the most frequent type of incidents reported were 1) demeaning names (e.g., being called a bitch or faggot); 2) unwanted sexual attention; or 3) being stereotyped. They reported their observations of sexism, the incidents did not have to be directed at the participant themselves.  Women and men reported incidents directed at both women and men, though, overall more incidents were directed at women than men.  These descriptions were not the results of the study.  They help clarify what types of incidents participants were thinking about and we thought might affect beliefs about sexism.

Testing our hypotheses, at a later time, we measured whether participants would or would not endorse different types of sexist beliefs and sign or not sign a petition to implement a program to teach about sexism.

What did we learn in our research?

Women who pay attention to sexism were subsequently more likely to think that it is important to address sexism and less likely to endorse various types of sexist beliefs.

Men do so as well, but they need to think about the harm the incidents cause by either considering how the person who was the target of the incident feels or having the harm explained to them, particularly when incidents are consistent with Benevolent sexism. 

Why did some people become upset about our research?

Some news media did not present the study accurately. You can see Janet Swim's response to such a comment published in the USA Today here.

You can see a more accurate description of the study here (Science daily).

You can find a positive response here (August 2011 The Psychologist, 24 (8), 563)