Comments that Stereotype and Undervalue Women Are Prevalent, Utah Study Shows
Julene Reese | March 2, 2022
A Utah State University Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) study sought to understand Utah women’s experiences with sexist comments and remarks, which have become prevalent in conversation, public communication, and social settings.
Four themes emerged from the study, and five research reports have been created from the findings. Previous reports focused on inequity/bias and objectification. This report focuses on the themes of stereotypes and undervaluing women.
The study was administered in the spring of 2020 through an online survey of Utah women ages 18 to 70+ from diverse backgrounds. The survey consisted of three parts: participant demographic information, questions about perceptions of sexism in Utah, and an open response section inviting participants to share sexist comments they heard and responses they made, or wish they had made, to the commenter. Overall, 839 Utah women participated in the survey.
Susan Madsen, founding director of the UWLP and one of three report authors, said the study was conducted to educate the public on forms of sexist comments, both conscious and unconscious, and to equip women with the tools needed to better combat sexism.
“Specific examples are critical to helping us better understand the many forms that sexist comments can take, whether blatant, subtle, aggressive, or unintentional,” she said.
Analysis of the responses within the “stereotypes theme” produced six categories:
1. Gender stereotypes – generalizations about the characteristics and qualities of men and women based solely on their gender. 2. Prioritizing homemaker roles – comments indicating that women’s highest priorities should be connected to marriage, motherhood, and homemaking. 3. Women’s internalized sexism – sexist beliefs/attitudes held by women about other women or themselves. 4. Motherhood penalty – situations when women in professional settings are penalized (e.g., loss of opportunity, pay, advancement) once they become mothers. 5. Benevolent sexism – comments or behaviors that treat women differently in what seems to be a positive way but that can undermine them. 6. Double standard – circumstances where women are expected to exhibit or shun some behaviors relating to gender stereotypes and are punished when behaving contrary to gender norms.
Some of the comments reported in the study that show stereotypes include: “He said that women were too irrational and emotional to be good legislators and make the difficult decisions that needed to be made.” “When I informed a certain man, to whom I had just been introduced, that I was in the process of getting my Ph.D., his response was ‘You haven’t found a husband yet, huh?’” “My father told me that nobody cleans a bathroom like a woman.” “A friend said, ‘I would never allow a stranger to raise my kids and send them to daycare. You are choosing to abandon your kids every time you go to work.’”
Madsen said that many of these comments are so shocking and disappointing that they take the women by surprise, leaving them wishing they were better prepared to respond and refute the sexist expression.
Analyzing the responses within the “Undervaluing Women” theme produced five categories: 1. Undervaluing women’s contributions – the belief that women are less capable, intelligent, and competent than men solely due to their gender. 2. Infantilizing/condescending – comments where women are treated like children or otherwise need to be taken care of. 3. Assumed incompetence – comments indicating the expectation that women are less competent than men in various areas. 4. Sexist language/terms – the use of language that demeans women. 5. “Affirmative Action” assumption – comments that indicate the speaker believes women only achieved success or position due to a certain quota for hiring women.
Comments the study respondents received that undervalue women include: “While my female colleagues and I were on our way to a women’s network meeting, a manager called after us and asked if we’d really be baking cookies and discussing makeup tips just so we can have an hour away from our desks.” “We were in a meeting. I shared an accomplishment, and this person said, ‘Our little girl is growing up.’” “He said, ‘I hired a woman, and she is doing a really good job. I never expected this. I might hire more.’” “I was arguing a case before the Utah Court of Appeals when opposing counsel was trying to assert why my argument was incorrect (normal for lawyers) and kept referring to me as ‘little missy.’” “A male manager said, ‘You were hired because we had to add a female, but you broke up our bro-mance.’”
Robbyn Scribner, UWLP research fellow and lead researcher on the study, offers three recommendations for women and male allies who experience sexist comments.
“Be prepared,” she said. “In the moment, it can be difficult to think quickly enough to respond. Having a go-to phrase such as ‘What makes you say that?’ can give you time and shifts the focus back to the person to explain their thinking. Then, take action. When you hear offensive jokes or comments, push back immediately. Possible retorts include, ‘Ouch,’ or, “We don’t do that here.’ And finally, call out the behavior. When you observe a man repeatedly interrupting a woman, or when you see only women being asked to take on ‘office housework,’ point it out and offer an alternative.”
Madsen said speaking up against sexism can be a powerful force for reducing gender inequity.
“By raising awareness of the widespread occurrence and damaging effects of sexist language, comments, beliefs, and behaviors, we hope to reduce the frequency of sexism in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and the state as a whole,” she said.
An additional author of the study is April Townsend, UWLP research fellow.