'Objectifying gaze' triggers conflicting outcomes for women

Feb 03, 2011 By Steve Smith
Sarah Gervais

Something for men to think about the next time they gawk at an attractive female co-worker: That longing stare may touch off a vicious cognitive cycle that could hurt her ability to do her job well.

In a new study, researchers found that women who were subjected to an "objectifying gaze" were more severely affected by the action than men. Most notably, women performed significantly worse on after being ogled -- a concern for advocates of improving women's roles in male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

But at the same time, women were still surprisingly motivated to seek out and interact with the person who looked them over, the study showed.

"The objectifying gaze may lead to a vicious cycle in which women underperform in their work, giving people the impression that their looks are more important than what they do," said Sarah Gervais, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of psychology and the study's lead author. "Unfortunately, this cycle may persist if women continue to interact with the people who led them to underperform in the first place."

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The study involved 150 people -- 67 women and 83 men -- who were invited to take part in an interview-style exercise to examine how people work in teams. Each was assigned an interviewer of the opposite sex, who, when the participants entered the room, looked at them from head to waist and from waist to head in one sweeping motion and stared at their chests during the interview. Interviewers also gave participants written feedback at the end of the interview that said, among other things, that they were "looking good."

Participants were then given a dozen math problems, and also answered several questions to establish their feelings about their own bodies as well as their interviewer.

Researchers assumed correctly that women would have more trouble with the math problems than men in the study. Women also predictably reported more shame and dissatisfaction with their bodies than men.

But why would women then say they wanted more contact with someone who objectified them? Among the possibilities, Gervais said, is that being stared at in an objectified way can suggest to women that their appearance is valued over their other qualities. This may lead them to feel their sense of belonging is threatened and can motivate them to do something about it. Or, she said, women may want more interaction to show the person who objectified her that she is not simply a sex object.

The research is an important first step toward documenting and explaining the immediate consequences of the objectifying gaze in actual interactions, and shows that it is particularly problematic for women.

"The results suggest that seemingly innocent overtures -- checking women out or complimenting them on their appearance -- have remarkably negative effects on ," Gervais said. "Identifying the adverse consequences of the objectifying gaze is a first step toward creating interventions that can reduce its effects."

Explore further: Religious music brings benefit to seniors' mental health

More information: The article appears in the February edition of Psychology of Women Quarterly and is authored by UNL's Gervais and Jill Allen, along with Theresa Vescio of Pennsylvania State University.

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User comments : 32

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Sean_W
4.4 / 5 (7) Feb 03, 2011
I'm currious as to whether males of other species can "objectify" females by "gawking" at them or if the ability to objectify is unique to human males.
Corban
5 / 5 (6) Feb 03, 2011
Objectification is a form of attention. People like attention. That these two facts are enough to make the women seek the men out more says less about objectification than it does about an utter lack of attention most of us get.

Like settling for a vegan burger when there's no real burger around.
SoulmanOtto
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2011
I also experience similar troubles with math and body image, tending to suck in my belly (I dont have a belly) and check my breath etc. around attention-grabbing women. Is this also not an affliction of the same sort? I have learned to minimize these effects on my ability to do my work, and I would suppose that women could also do the same if this behavior is unavoidable in their lives?

My field of endeavor is being increasingly dominated by women. This induced response may be hindering my ability to do my job well. Surprisingly, I may still tend to seek out and interact with the woman who causes me to underperform in this manner, thereby perpetuating my underperformance.
nada
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2011
"The Men Who Stare at Goats" - Did the goat drop dead because it couldn't handle the sexual tension?
Code_Warrior
3 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2011
I found it ironic that in my reading of the article, the advertisement at the bottom of the article was for FilipinoCupid.com and featured a hot Filipino woman in an X shaped bathing suit that revealed the vast majority of her breast cleavage and where the intersection of the X was about even with her belly button. Freakin hilarious! I know those ads change all the time, but it was rather ironic to find that ad in this article.
dan42day
3.3 / 5 (9) Feb 03, 2011
What a load of feminist crap. Once again men are demonized for expressing their natural instincts in a world where women expect to be free to express their own by dressing like hookers and troweling on four pounds of makeup, fire-engine red paint on their nails, and a quart of perfume. If that doesn't get looks, they have several pounds of silicon added to their breasts, and/or lips. Still not working? Then just join in with the other homely gals and complain about men looking at everyone else!

Note the plunging neck line and the fishing lures hanging from the models ears.
Simonsez
5 / 5 (1) Feb 04, 2011
Note the plunging neck line and the fishing lures hanging from the models ears.

I'd probably stare at her cleavage too if she was wearing a low cut like that. What other reason to show it off than to have it seen?
jselin
5 / 5 (6) Feb 04, 2011
Note the plunging neck line and the fishing lures hanging from the models ears.

LOL... that's not a model that's the author of this study! I'd mention shes attractive but I wouldn't want to compromise the quality of her ongoing work ;)
MadPutz
4 / 5 (4) Feb 04, 2011
The researcher skips over the more plausible direct biological cause and comes up with arbitrary feminist rationalization. We are animals, it is quite obvious that when we receive attention from the opposite sex we become subconsciously fixated on who is showering the attention and evaluate them as a mate. This makes it hard to concentrate on tasks that have nothing to do with our basic desire to reproduce (ie math). We then want to converse and interact with the other to learn more in order to make a decision (subconsciously, even after we may have seemingly consciously rejected/offended by them).

As for females experiencing this to a greater degree than males, perhaps it is the complementary component to the biological fact that males are programmed to be the proactive party in visibly showing attention and seeking the opposite sex. Men ask women out, because of inherent biological, not societal, impulse. Other animals are no different.
Bog_Mire
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 04, 2011
how on earth do you read in a feminist agenda with this research? Seems to me some of the blokes posting here have got some issues, and are perhaps being a tad sensitive?
antialias
5 / 5 (3) Feb 04, 2011
[sarcasm]
And those men that gawk at a woman are certainly the ones who think "I may be impairing her ability to do work well, I'd better be considerate and stop" [/sarcasm]

The upshot of this study is: Women should interact with men who ignore them if they want to perform well.
(or is that still sarcasm...I can't decide)
Au-Pu
1 / 5 (1) Feb 04, 2011
Is Gervais a lesbian or perhaps a closet lesbian?
She has ignored two very serious possibilities and I would not trust her to honestly pursue either.
They are (a) that the woman was sexually aroused by the visual attention and wished to follow up on that to see if it was real. After all women do use appearance and sexual attraction as mechanisms for attracting a mate and (b) She may have felt that the objectifying stare meant that the male found her attractive and she wished to pursue this further.
In both cases the female was more interested in pursuing either the appearance or sexual attraction aspects than the math problem.
This Gervais is simply a natural mating instinct.
Something you probably would not understand.
zafouf
5 / 5 (3) Feb 04, 2011
As a woman, I know why I wouldn't think as well about math if someone were staring at my breasts. It's because I have to cope with them doing that. Even if it isn't directly a threat, it still reminds me of situations when I've had to physically fend off men, and the vast amount of vigilance and doing things to avoid rape that I and other women have to do. It is a VERY large part of one's life as a woman.
Of course one learns ways to cope, like not dressing sexy etc.
When I first read the article I thought "come on, isn't the woman distracted because she starts to think about sex too?" But actually when men act outside the norms of politeness, it comes across as insolent, aggressive and threatening, so it never causes me to be attracted to them.
Kind of surprising that most of the comments come from males who want to dismiss the article in some way. This kind of thing is a blatant reality in the life of any woman who's at least somewhat attractive.
zafouf
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 04, 2011
What they describe in the article, the male interviewer staring at one's breasts, making some inappropriate comment later - would be utterly familiar to just about any woman, from times where some male - and it's almost always not an attractive guy - has acted that way. It's not part of mutual sexual attraction, it's something else. Like you're to him a living inflatable doll. Normal, nice guys don't act like that, and a woman doesn't have to be gay to dislike it.
dan42day
2.6 / 5 (5) Feb 04, 2011
Seems to me some of the blokes posting here have got some issues, and are perhaps being a tad sensitive?


Exactly my thoughts about the women in the study.

Sonhouse
3 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2011
All you idiots should read Zafouf's comments and take them to heart. Why should a woman have to defend herself against rapists and would be rapists, the staring at breast thing is just a few steps away from rape.
Sonhouse
5 / 5 (1) Feb 05, 2011
If I want a woman's attention, I look in their eyes and smile a lot. To connect eye to eye is to make yourself vulnerable, a precursor to love.

Anyone who looks in the eyes of Sarah Gervais and sees nothing but lesbian is a pure idiot. Such beauty is to die for. Her eyes leap out beauty, intelligence and sensitivity and sense of humor. If you can't see that you are a real low life.
StandingBear
not rated yet Feb 06, 2011
If the logical end to this discussion were to make it illegal for men to look at women, then lesbians would seemingly have found a way to cut we men out of the competition....and coopted us in our own legal castration! I like women, and particularly like good looking women, and will tell a woman if I think she is good looking and takes pride in her appearance. If some idiotic law hands me a ticket or put me in jail for that, I would go with a smile on my face. I spent thirty years with one such attractive woman, my wife who I lost two years ago to atherosclerosis and osteoporosis caused by smoking. So you fellas keep praising the ladies. Who knows, the gal you praise may just end up your wife!
Bog_Mire
5 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2011
Praising is one thing. Unwanted ogling is another. Sorry about your wife too.
nuge
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 06, 2011
I've had to physically fend off men, and the vast amount of vigilance and doing things to avoid rape that I and other women have to do. It is a VERY large part of one's life as a woman


You have to struggle every day to avoid rape? Where do you live?? I think the problem is definitely in your perception, not in reality. Rapists are not as common as you presume. Believe it or not, some men are probably reasonable human beings with no sexual interest in you.
frajo
3 / 5 (2) Feb 07, 2011
I've had to physically fend off men, and the vast amount of vigilance and doing things to avoid rape that I and other women have to do. It is a VERY large part of one's life as a woman
You have to struggle every day to avoid rape?
She didn't say "every day". Why are you making things up?
Where do you live?? I think the problem is definitely in your perception, not in reality.
Obviously the problem is in your perception. The perception of a guy who never had a good-looking friend who is permanently stared at and always on the verge of being harassed in public places.
Rapists are not as common as you presume.
And everything else is ok for you? Being touched by passing strangers at breast and bottom? Being stared at with that lewd glance?
Believe it or not, some men are probably reasonable human beings with no sexual interest in you.
Some, certainly. It's the rest who's making life difficult.
nuge
not rated yet Feb 07, 2011
All I was saying is that I think a woman who suspects the threat of rape lurks around every corner is overreacting a little. I can see that getting stared at a lot might make you feel uncomfortable, and I never said that she didn't have a right to feel that way or anything, I was just pointing out that a lot of the worry might be coming from that feeling and not from the existence of hordes of rapists out there.
Bowler
not rated yet Feb 09, 2011
I have not read the full study. Would be interesting to compare results if women subjects were varied in visual parameters (low cut vs turtleneck, breast size, written messages on shirt/chest area, exposed undergarment, prominent nipple, etc), using men (oogle crotch?) as subjects, some physiological measures (blood pressure?) for the subjects, different cognitive problems (math vs spelling vs drawing), varying the men oogler appearances (suit vs blue collar outfit). I'm guessing this article won't get posted in a Hooter's breakroom; which is a "naturalistic" study site--does the promoted oogling at Hooters impair the female wait staff's ability to do math calculations with customers' bills?
Corban
not rated yet Feb 09, 2011
Both sexes have their share of oglers and ogled. Each has folks with enviable problems that the rest yearn to have. The complaint of the commenters is that this symmetric problem is portrayed asymmetrically. Understand the frame, and you understand the ulterior motive.
frajo
not rated yet Feb 10, 2011
The complaint of the commenters is that this symmetric problem is portrayed asymmetrically.
It is not symmetrical. A lot of things can be done only to women. A lot of things are done only to women. And vastly more things are done to women vastly more often than to men.
Understand the frame, and you understand the ulterior motive.
I understand your frame and I don't approve of your ulterior motives.
diagonal
not rated yet Feb 10, 2011
What was the race of the subjects?
What was the ethnic background of the subjects?
What was the class / socio-economic status / background of the subjects?
Were the subjects from Oberlin College or one of the Seven Sisters?
Did the subjects have prior existing self-esteem issues?

...and, uh, is that a photo of the author at the top? The one with the silver dollar ear- rings? Jes askin' 'cause where I be from in da Bronx? Sister sweetie, EVERYBODY gonna be eyes wide at u with them dangly things all over your face!

Get ova it!
Corban
not rated yet Feb 10, 2011
Corban
not rated yet Feb 10, 2011
And vastly more things are done to women vastly more often than to men.
Have proof? Make a list. Each bullet point has to be a certain size, and they'll be discounted. Recent studies have shown women take offense 1/2 SD more than men, after all, and we shouldn't encourage grade inflation!

I don't approve of your ulterior motives.
It's not even ulterior. I hypothesize that both sexes have it rough, just in different holes. I'm wililng to argue my point with facts. That I even tender this idea offends you.

...Sounds like a personal problem.
frajo
not rated yet Feb 10, 2011
And vastly more things are done to women vastly more often than to men.
Have proof? Make a list.
Why should I want to convince or persuade you? There's nothing to gain.
nuge
not rated yet Feb 10, 2011
Why comment at all then?
frajo
not rated yet Feb 11, 2011
Why comment at all then?
For the set of all readers who don't think like Corban.
Corban
not rated yet Feb 11, 2011
Frajo, did you mean Sake instead of Set?

The difference between the truth and a believable lie is consistency: there is at least one angle from which the lie is inconsistent. Thus, sniffing the truth out will likely involve shots from every angle, leaving only it standing.

So given two mutually exclusive ideas, which one's the truth? I don't know. You don't know. However, I'm willing to shoot and be shot to tell. I wish you would feel the same.

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