How women react to sexism


Every day, women are subjected to sexist remarks and behaviors: sexist harassment in the public space, sexist remarks at work, unwanted sexual invitations … No area is spared, no place. Launched in 2017 to collect testimonials from students, doctoral students and young researchers, the “Paye ta fac” site had shown that the academic world was no exception.

Faced with these attacks, women put in place strategies. They can, for example, choose to react hot and tell their interlocutor that their words or behaviors are inappropriate in order to directly oppose sexism.

However, studies show that this reaction is not the most common remedy.

We will try to understand why by studying what happens between the moment when a man makes sexist remarks towards a woman and that when this one reacts.


For this, we observed and analyzed real interactions between a woman and a man, our accomplice. The task to be performed during the interaction was as follows: selecting candidates to participate in a survival test on a desert island.

The participant and the accomplice were seated opposite each other and had cards showing the main characteristics of the people to be selected.

During the interaction, while looking at his cards, the accomplice made three sexist remarks linked to traditional gender roles. The first affirms that women are responsible for the domestic sphere while the following two reflect a vision of women as a sexual object.

During the interaction, the two people were filmed by a device of small cameras located on the table.

At the end of the conversation, the participant was taken to a separate office to answer a questionnaire. In the questionnaire, we asked participants to remember three moments from the experience and to answer questions. The questionnaire allowed us to measure the emotions, the perception of sexism and the reasons why each participant had reacted in this way. Finally, the participant was thanked for her participation and we explained the real objectives of the study as well as the complicity of the other participant.

Reactions to the three sexist remarks were categorized from the videos as a confrontation reaction, defined as a verbal expression of dissatisfaction or disagreement with the sexist remark, or as a non-confrontation reaction. In addition, FaceReader software analyzed facial expression to measure the intensity of emotions such as fear or anger over time.

Feeling angry

How did our participants react? The majority of participants did not oppose sexist comments. But behind this apparent indifference hid a wide variety of possible reactions that were not always easily classifiable between opposition and non-opposition.

Indeed, among the reactions that we considered as reactions of opposition, many were indirect and only a minority directly denounced the sexist nature of the subject.

In addition, among the participants who did not verbally oppose sexist comments, a majority of them showed signs of disagreement, hesitation or embarrassment. For example, the participant nodded or said, with a convinced air: “yes, it can be interesting”.

This interpretation is in agreement with several observations: first of all, all the participants detected the sexist nature of the remarks in the same way, whatever the expression of their face. Then they reported the same subjective feeling of anger. Finally, they attached just as much importance to their image: whether or not they opposed sexism, the participants wanted just as much to show a positive image of themselves, not to be perceived as complainers and not enter into conflict with their interlocutor.

However, there are several differences between the two groups of participants. First, the women who opposed sexist comments expressed slightly more anger on their faces. Then, they gave more importance to the benefits linked to the confrontation, that is to say the will to get a message across, to make it clear that the subject is sexist, to help improve the condition of women, to mark disagree and put an end to the offensive behavior.

Gender norms

Anger is therefore an emotion which increases the tendency to confrontation. However, women, unlike men, are not encouraged to express anger and they are socially reprimanded when they do. The emotional gendered norms thus hinder the reaction of women to sexism.

Like anger, the motivations cited above are also at odds with the gender norms prescribed for women in our societies. Indeed, women are expected to be passive, accommodating, to consider the feelings and needs of others in priority over their own; non-confrontation is therefore more in line with the roles assigned to women. Confrontation, on the other hand, can arouse a perception of women as being difficult, aggressive and hypersensitive.

What to do then? First of all, organize training courses teaching women to set their limits. The idea is to establish techniques for saying no. Physical techniques first: say stop to someone who gets too close. Verbal techniques then, to say no without arguing. This also forces us to reflect on the place of women in society, so that everyone understands that certain behaviors are not innate but linked to standards that must be challenged. When they take these training courses, women show an increase in self-confidence.

But developing tools to enable women to oppose sexist comments should not make us forget that the only ones responsible in the event of gender-based violence are the aggressors and that they are mainly men. Raising awareness of gender norms, sexism and equality between women and men should therefore be a pillar of education for both men and women.

Author Bio: Patricia Melotte is a Researcher, Research Center in Social and Intercultural Psychology at the Free University of Brussels