Home » Uncategorized » Sexism revisited: Perceived sexism among adolescent girls

Sexism revisited: Perceived sexism among adolescent girls

I spoke about sexism and stereotypes earlier this year, and I noticed a presentation I made during grad school that was a good follow-up to a few of the previously mentioned articles. Since I already covered those other two articles, it seemed only natural to continue exploring this problem.

This post expands on my reviews of “Can an Angry Woman get Ahead?”  (Brescoll & Uhlmann, 2008) and “The Glass Slipper Effect” (Rudman & Heppen, 2003). It’s not necessary to have read those two studies first, but it will definitely help form a good understanding of how meaningful this issue is.

In 2008, Leaper and Brown authored the work, “Perceived Sexism Among Adolescent Girls,” which discussed the sources of sexism in a typical girl’s life. I need to note that while this was a very strong study, we have to keep in mind it was a sample taken solely in the U.S. Sexism is a much larger problem in other countries, but it still occurs in the U.S. The authors hoped to illuminate where these sexist attitudes originate.

First we should remember why someone might hold a sexist idea. When someone fails to match the behavior of a construct, it creates a feeling of dissonance. The effect of this is articulated very clearly in Brescoll and Uhlmann’s (2008) work. If a young boy sees a girl acting in a way outside of his views of what a girl should do, it will cause this young boy a feeling of dissonance. This boy will either have to change his construct of what a girl can do, or he will decide there is a flaw with this particular girl. Most younger children will be very likely to blame the person for being at fault instead of themselves (adults do this all the time too).

This is not to say the behavior is excusable. We just hope to understand the process in hopes of changing it.

So how did this child have such a narrow construct of what a girl can do? This point is covered by “The Glass Slipper Effect,” (Rudman & Heppen,  2003). Growing up in an environment that models gender roles will instill them in the next generation. These children will then judge each other at school (or wherever they interact) based on these models.

Finally, Harris (1998) authored a book titled, “The Nurture Assumption” which famously stated, “parent’s don’t matter.” Clearly this is a polarizing statement, but it does have a hint of truth to it. For personality development, we are exposed to our peer groups for a greater amount of time than our families when our personalities begin to truly develop. This may seem a bit inconsistent with the Glass Slipper Effect, but I believe they can both be correct.

The Glass Slipper Effect (Rudman & Heppen, 2003) said we indoctrinate young men and women to expect certain things out of life; Brescolli and Uhlman (2008) stated that we judge those who fail to meet our expectations as flawed; and Harris (1998) said that our peer groups are the ones shaping us. So, in essence, the peer group is enforcing the rules for us to follow because our peers were raised in an environment with strict gender roles, and failure to follow those roles will have negative outcomes.

Now that we have an understanding of how this problem works, let’s look at the perceptions of sexism in this study.

This study had a great sample (600 adolescent female participants) that was asked who the agents of sexism were in their life. Which is to say, “Who makes sexist remarks in your life?”

The highest rate of sexism came from a few groups. First, male peers (classmates) were the most likely to make a sexist remark about anything. This could mean a remark about academic ability, sports, appearance, etc. Perhaps surprisingly, the next most likely group to make a sexist remark was a female peer. The agents of sexism were mainly male and female peers, which supports my earlier point. That is, the peer group is shaping us, and enforcing the rules.

The next two groups with the highest frequency of sexism were a bit unsettling. Third highest were teachers/coaches and fourth highest were fathers. While these two groups should avoid such sexist behavior and act as guides, they appear to be enforcing gender roles. Keep in mind, however, that sexism does not need to be overt. For example, a sexist statement could be, “You’re awful at math because you are female.” This is inexcusable, but think about this statement, “You’re pretty good at math (for a girl).” That is also very sexist, and still completely inexcusable.

So what happens when young women are exposed to these behaviors? It negatively affects their self-esteem. Participants frequently noted having a lower body image and it changed the way they saw future relationships. For example, if you get scolded for acting “unladylike” and change your behavior to fit in, you will be adopting a gender role. You may then begin to have more traditional views of relationships and fall into the “Glass Slipper Effect” that was noted earlier.

What factors reduce the effects of sexism?

There are a few things that moderate the effect of perceived sexism:

1. Math scores

2. Atypicality

3. Egalitarian views

4. Exposure to Feminism

First, the authors note that girls with higher grades in math classes tend to report a lower frequency of sexist remarks. Next, identifying oneself as atypical  tends to reduce frequency of reported sexism. Atypical, in this instance, refers to stating that, “I am not like other girls in my class.” After someone has identified as not “fitting in” to the mold, they are probably not very likely to be shaped by peer pressure (an interaction effect was observed for peer pressure/atpyicality showing that very effect). Egalitarian views (men and women should share responsibilities) led to a reduction in reported sexism as well. Finally, exposure to feminism (knowing a key person, or exposure to it from the media) lowered the rate of perceived sexism as well.

Did these girls actually experience less sexism, or was it that they were not affected by it? I would argue that the sexism still occurs, but when a young woman has these factors to moderate their effects, she is not as likely to ruminate over it, or have it affect her as much. The strongest interaction (atypical identification by peer pressure) showed something very interesting. As peer pressure and identifying oneself as an atypical young woman increased, one’s perceived exposure to sexism decreases. I believe this shows us that young woman are more likely to be affected by sexism when they feel like they identify as typical, and thus they feel as if they should act typical. For example, if a young woman identified as a “typical” girl for her class, she would be more likely listen to peers who told her she was acting inappropriately (based on gender roles). Those that disregard gender roles would not feel much pressure from it at all!

In conclusion, the people who enforce stereotypes are all around us – you, me, our children, our schools, our coaches, and everyone else. There are a few things you can try to instill in your progeny to help them avoid the pitfalls of gender roles, and if you can, remember that gender should not change someone’s opportunities or outlook on life. Gender roles are a needless shackle we place on people who inhibit achievements they could be making. I hope that one day we will look back on our society and simply say, “wow, how could we have been so foolish?”


A quick note about gender studies – As you may have noticed, a majority of gender studies are on female populations. This is mostly due to the negative outcomes of discrimination that woman tend to experience at a higher rate than men. Clearly, men experience this as well. If a young boy, such as myself, enjoyed playing music in band instead of playing football, he might feel pressure from his peers. I know I did! I was not fitting into the mold for a typical boy in school, and I felt pressure for it. It definitely happens, but the problem facing young women is much tougher. Once again, it definitely happens to men as well, but it does not occur so frequently. Whether women or men are being discriminated against, it only serves to move the society backwards.

Wow, that was a pretty grim ending, wasn’t it? Just a quick update – Life and work have been swallowing a lot of time, but I’m always thinking about stuff I can post here. Given how busy the holiday season can be, I might not actually have another post for a few more weeks. I’ll get to it, I promise! Thanks for reading!


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