How Costly is Confronting Sexist Speech?

How Costly is Confronting Sexist Speech?

Take Home: Mildly assertive call-outs of sexist speech can actually be a good thing. Not all confrontations lead to negative outcomes.

Depending on your age, you may remember learning in school that when you need to use a pronoun when gender was unknown, the rule was to use the generic “he” or “his.”  I learned grammar in the 1970s. It was common to hear, “Man’s quest for knowledge…,” “Mankind’s greatest victory…” or “…one giant leap for mankind”. I would question my teachers about why we couldn’t just use “humankind” or “humans.” I was never given a satisfactory explanation. My teachers would say things like, “That’s just the way it is.”

But I know that every single time I heard the word “man” used to refer to all of humankind, it chipped away at my identity a little bit. I felt excluded. I noticed this gendered pattern in other language use. I could not find a satisfactory reason for why Wilma needed to be called “Mrs. Fred Flintstone.”  Nobody could explain to me why, if I became an adult married woman, I would lose my identity to become Mrs. Husband’s-first-name Husband’s-Surname.

Language matters. It did to me.

In the meantime, I’ve seen change. We are now taught to use gender-neutral language. However, we do live in a gendered culture, and it is easy to use gendered language and be influenced by gender stereotypes (e.g., to assume a doctor is a man or a flight attendant is a woman). The thing is, for those of us who desire social change, we need to be willing to step up and say something when language is sexist. Mallett and Wagner (2011) conducted an interesting experiment to look at the effects of those confronted with a sexist “call out.”

Participants came to the lab to take part in a social interaction or “get to know you” study (common among relationship researchers). The researchers were interested in how men would respond when confronted for making a mildly sexist remark. How do you ensure that your volunteer male participants actually say something “mildly sexist”? The set up is quite clever.

As part of the getting-to-know-you task, pairs were asked to discuss a number of moral dilemmas. Each dilemma involved stereotypically gendered professions. For example, one dilemma described a nurse who discovers that a patient has been given blood contaminated with the AIDS virus.

Most of the time, a male participant would say something along the lines of “I think she should…” (Even when gendered language was not used, all men recalled referring to the nurse as female in the debriefing discussion at the end of the experiment). The female member of the pair (a confederate of the experiment) was trained to follow the same script. Men who were randomly assigned to the sexist confrontation condition heard the following: “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?”  In the gender-neutral confrontation condition, men heard “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. There’s got to be a better way. Do you think they should notify the patient first?” (p. 217).  The interactions were video recorded.

Participants were separately asked to make ratings about their partner on items such as, “The two of us worked well together,” “the other participant is nice,” and “the other participant and I could successfully work together on a group project.”

Next, the pair was given a list of topics to discuss for their next interaction. (e.g., study abroad programs, funding for women’s sports programs). After these conversations, participants rated statements about compensatory behaviors, such as “I searched for common ground on the issue,” and “I tried to present a positive image of myself.”

Finally, the participants were asked to help out with a “pilot test” of a proofreading task to be used in another study. The task involved working quickly to identify grammatical errors as well as inappropriate use of gendered pronouns and use of the generic “he” or “his” to refer to all people. This task was used to assess sexist language detection.

Did men respond differently to a sexist confrontation compared to a neutral confrontation? Unexpectedly, men’s rating about how nice the other participant was and how well the interaction went were similar for both types of confrontation. Men were more likely to smile, laugh, display surprise, apologize, justify their responses, and gesture when responding to a sexist confrontation. Only in the case of stammering were there no differences between the sexist and gender-neutral confrontations.

Interestingly, men were more likely to report compensation behaviors during the discussions that followed the sexist confrontation. Men were more likely to compensate by, for example, finding common ground in subsequent confrontations, and this type of behavior resulted in more mutual liking.

For the sexist language detection task, men in both conditions were equally good at detecting general grammatical errors. However, men who experienced a sexist confrontation were better at detecting sexist language in the proofreading task.

As with all psychological experiments, there are limits to how far one can generalize the results. The context here was face-to-face interactions with a new person, thus the implication is that for in-person interactions, a mild confrontation may not turn out as badly as we expect. However, this research does not address confrontations that happen in asynchronous electronic communication, or when one or both parties are anonymous.

When there is dissatisfaction with the status quo, someone has to confront it. Social change starts when someone is willing to make a complaint, be it as simple as pointing out instances of non-gender-neutral language or questioning assumptions about gender roles.

Face to face, mildly assertive confrontations may be less costly than you think.


Mallett, R. K., & Wagner, D. E. (2011). The unexpectedly positive consequences of confronting sexism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 215-220.

Related Readings

Czopp, A. M., & Monteith, M. J. (2003). Confronting prejudice (literally): Reactions to confrontations of racial and gender bias. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 532-544.

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