Confronting prejudice may be 'antidote' for workplace distress

November 23, 2010 by Steve Smith
Sarah Gervais

( -- Women who publicly confront instances of sexism in the workplace tend to feel more capable and competent in their jobs and about themselves in general, a new study shows.

The research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln examined how both men and perceive, react to and relate to everyday episodes of workplace , and found that women who challenge sexist behavior experience psychological benefits such as self-esteem, empowerment and competence.

"Most everyday instances of prejudice are somewhat subtle, but things like sexist jokes can undermine workplace performance and perceptions of competence and control for women," said Sarah Gervais, assistant professor of psychology at UNL and the study's lead author. "Importantly, directly challenging such instances of sexism can serve as an antidote for negative psychological effects -- turning a negative event into an instance that makes women feel better about themselves and their work, and even to feel empowered."

For the study, researchers set up a simulated online interaction. After participants were presented with a sexist comment that was openly directed at a woman in the group, they were given the chance to respond publicly to the statement and discuss its appropriateness.

The analysis showed that workers of both sexes most likely to confront the comment were the ones who were more "communal oriented" -- that is, they saw their workplace as a community, and were naturally more willing to help others, with no expectation of getting anything in return.

Unlike women who confronted the sexist remark, calling out the employee's sexist behavior had little relationship to men's general feelings of competence, self-esteem or empowerment at work. That suggests, Gervais said, that confronting workplace prejudice may be particularly important for those who are the traditional victims of the behavior -- in this case, women.

Gervais said the study's findings also could help employers look at confrontation of workplace prejudice in a different light, promoting a work culture that would foster greater understanding between employees.

The study is the first to examine employees' communal orientation as a factor in confronting workplace prejudice, and suggests that companies may want to think about ways to reward workers for helping others, Gervais said.

Also according to the study:

* Participants who identified as "exchange oriented" -- more self-interested and likely to think about what personal gains might be made in helping others -- were far less likely to confront the sexist comment.

* It is possible that "communal oriented" people are perhaps not equally concerned with the needs of all others. Instead of allowing the offender in the simulation to save face, it seems communal oriented participants were more concerned about the needs of women in the group and the importance of acting in a socially responsible way.

"Challenging prejudice can be good for the and can help overcome some of the negative effects victims of prejudice might experience," Gervais said. "The next time you hear a prejudiced statement, it could be an opportunity to make a difference for yourself and others."

Explore further: Cat-calls are detrimental to everyone

More information: The study, which appeared in a recent edition of the journal Sex Roles, was authored by UNL's Gervais and Amy L. Hilliard, and Theresa K. Vescio of Pennsylvania State University.

Related Stories

Cat-calls are detrimental to everyone

March 18, 2010

For every woman who is a direct target of sexism, there are others who witness the event and are also affected. The actions of one sexist man affect how female bystanders feel and behave towards men in general. Stephenie ...

Redefining sexual discrimination

August 5, 2010

verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey insulting, hostile and degrading attitudes to women - is just as distressing for women victims as sexual advances in the workplace. According to Emily Leskinen, Lilia Cortina, and ...

Study: Workplace aggression commonplace

January 18, 2006

A McMaster University study indicates 47 million U.S. residents are victims of workplace aggression, with the general public the primary source of abuse.

Recommended for you

Ancient parrot fossil found in Siberia

October 26, 2016

(—A Russian paleontologist has discovered a parrot fossil uncovered in Siberia several years ago—the first evidence of parrots living in Asia. In his paper published in Biology Letters, Nikita Zelenkov describes ...

Ancient burials suggestive of blood feuds

October 24, 2016

There is significant variation in how different cultures over time have dealt with the dead. Yet, at a very basic level, funerals in the Sonoran Desert thousands of years ago were similar to what they are today. Bodies of ...

Meet Savannasaurus, Australia's newest titanosaur

October 21, 2016

The outback region around Winton in central Queensland is arguably Australia's ground zero for giant dinosaur fossils. Here, graziers occasionally stumble across petrified bones on their paddocks, amid the stubbly grass and ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.