Sick of sexism

In Shannon McCoy’s psychology lab, the goal is to identify strategies for confronting the prejudice in order to improve outcomes for everyone
Photographs by Adam Küykendall

Sick of sexism

In Shannon McCoy’s psychology lab, the goal is to identify strategies for confronting the prejudice in order to improve outcomes for everyone

Photographs by Adam Küykendall

Lots of women are sick of sexism.

Shelby Helwig is investigating whether that statement is true literally as well as figuratively: Does sexism affect women’s well-being?


The University of Maine psychology doctoral candidate also is exploring when and how women confront sexism, and the consequences of that on their physiological and psychological health. 

To learn more, Helwig developed a lab study that mimics real-world sexism. In a controlled environment, she records women’s blood pressure, heart rate and blood flow as they experience sexism. She also records their facial expressions and what they say in response to men’s sexist comments.

A total of 140 women have participated in the studies in associate professor of psychology Shannon McCoy’s lab.

The 18- to 24-year-olds were told they’re part of a mock search committee and were asked to review resumes of two candidates — a woman and a man — for a job as a research assistant. While both candidates were well-qualified, the woman was objectively the clear choice based on her qualifications for the job. 

The women who chose the female candidate discussed their choices via intercom with two male committee members. The men were actually lab assistants who always picked the male candidate and read scripted lines. 

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Women who experienced sexism indicated on a 1-to-7 scale they thought
the men’s decision to hire was driven by the applicants’ gender
(6.89 out of 7) and they labeled the men as sexist (5.9 out of 7).

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Women’s heart rates went up from a resting baseline through the rounds of increasingly blatant sexism.

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Women’s heart rate variability — the fluctuation between heart beats — decreased as the sexism became more overt. Lower heart rate variability is correlated with increased efforts to manage emotions, including anxiety and anger, in a socially acceptable and personally beneficial manner.

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65% of women confronted the men’s sexist behavior in some way.

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The meetings were structured so one of the men spoke first, followed by the woman, then the other man. The process was repeated three times and the women were told that everyone’s microphones were muted while others talked. 

In the first round, the men ignored the female committee member. For instance, when the second man spoke, he only addressed the other male committee member: “You made some good points, man. I picked Robert, too.” 

In the second round, the men made ambiguously sexist remarks; that is, their statements could be open to more than one interpretation. One line they said: “I think she’s probably a better team player than a leader.”

In the third round, the men made blatantly sexist comments. “Most girls I know kind of just like to do what they’re told to do … they don’t really think up their own ideas.” And, “If they want someone who picks up on stuff more quickly, better pick a guy.”

Helwig and the research team also conducted a comparison, or control, condition. While the women committee members were still in the minority opinion — they picked the female applicant and the men chose the male — the men didn’t ignore them and they didn’t make sexist remarks.

The women who had experienced sexism had visceral responses that those in the comparison study did not. Helwig found women’s heart rates went up from a resting baseline through the rounds of increasingly blatant sexism. 

This demonstrates that women differentiate between more subtle and blatant expressions of sexism. “The more overt the sexism the greater women’s autonomic arousal, suggesting greater intensity of emotional response,” says McCoy.

At the same time, the women’s heart rate variability — the fluctuation between heart beats — decreased as the sexism became more overt. Lower heart rate variability, says McCoy, is correlated with increased efforts to manage emotions, including anxiety and anger, in a socially acceptable and personally beneficial manner. 

The results suggest that over a lifetime sexism may take a toll, says McCoy. Decreased heart rate variability, if prolonged and repeated over time, is associated with decreased resilience to stress and increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

When women thought they couldn’t be heard by the male committee members, they said, “I am livid” and “I am fuming” and other statements consistent with the “physiological findings that sexism makes your blood boil,” says McCoy.

Also consistent with the cardiovascular findings, the women who faced sexism reported on a mood questionnaire that they felt more angry and less confident.

Helwig and McCoy also were curious whether women would confront the sexist behavior in real time. And if so, how? 

Prior research has shown women often attempt to refocus attention on the task at hand, or ask a question regarding the sexist comment, says McCoy. In 1999 in a similar study, Janet Swim and Lauri Hyers found 55% of women directly confronted sexist remarks.

But what about now, in light of #MeToo? 

The context of the UMaine study would seem to make confrontation a likely possibility, says McCoy. It’s a psychological experiment; the men can’t see the women and don’t know who they are; and the women would be confronting the men on behalf of another woman.

And in private, after the committee meeting, the women who experienced sexism indicated on a 1-to-7 scale that they thought the men’s decision to hire was driven by the applicants’ gender (6.89 out of 7) and they labeled the men as sexist (5.9 out of 7). 

But in real time, Helwig found that 65% of women confronted the men’s sexist behavior in some way, and only in response to the blatant sexism they exhibited in the third round. Of those who did confront the men, 12% called out their comments as sexist. 

The remaining 53% of women indicated that hiring decisions shouldn’t be based on gender. McCoy says only about half of these women (29%) directly stated the men should not consider gender, and should not make these comments. 

The remaining women (24%) were less direct and talked about how gender should not be a factor in the decision, or that “we” [including herself] shouldn’t consider gender in the decision.

Research intriguingly suggests that women who use this more neutral approach might be more effective in combating sexism, says McCoy. 

And while McCoy says she can’t imagine not confronting the men who made such sexist comments, she knows — even though this is her area of study — that she doesn’t always speak up when something similar happens to her.

“Maybe an effective confrontation is one that both empowers the woman and leads the man to reduce expressions of sexism,” she says. While the more neutral approach might be perceived as letting the perpetrator off the hook, labeling him a sexist and humiliating him with jokes are more likely to lead to backlash and entrenched bias rather than behavior change.”

Calling men chauvinist or embarrassing them can result in backlash, or retaliation that could negatively affect a woman’s career or well-being, says McCoy.

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Women who faced sexism reported on a mood questionnaire that they felt more angry
and less confident.

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Nonverbal expressions speak much louder
than words.

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Plus, a person can verbally state one thing while their nonverbal expressions say something else entirely, says assistant professor of psychology Mollie Ruben.

And nonverbal expressions speak much louder than words.

Nonverbal expressions are everything but the spoken words, including general impressions of surprise, anger, anxiety, sadness, engagement (with the speaker and the task), and smiling, says Ruben. Smiling is included because the researchers are interested in how smiling helps women cope with sexism. 

Ruben is a certified Facial Action Coding System (FACS) coder, meaning she analyzes facial expressions to assess emotions. She’ll use videotapes of the study’s committee meetings to code the women’s nonverbal expressions in sync with their physiological reactions to, and recovery from, the sexist statements.

FACS is an anatomically based system for describing visually perceptible facial movements. The system breaks down facial expressions into individual components of muscle movements that encompass the brow, eyes, cheek, nose, lip, chin, jaw, mouth and more.

While some of the nonverbal expressions and behaviors are overt and easy to interpret — open mouths, rolling eyes, shaking heads — Ruben is helping the team develop a rigorous coding structure to differentiate anger from other negative emotions, like discomfort or anxiety.

Additional related research in the lab will explore if physiological stress responses and nonverbal expressions are predictors of whether women will confront sexist behavior, and if confronting sexist behavior is beneficial for women’s well-being.

And, master’s psychology student Margaret Gautrau will explore men’s experience with the various confrontational styles observed in the study.

The plan, says McCoy, is to identify strategies for confronting sexism that improve outcomes for everyone.

Helwig, a Janet Waldron Doctoral Research Fellowship recipient, is interested in the interpersonal consequences of bias, with a particular focus on conflict resolution. While these studies are focused on learning about effects of sexism, Helwig says the paradigm could be used to examine physiological effects of various kinds of prejudice — including racism, classism, ageism, lookism and religious discrimination.

“Shelby began to conceptualize confrontation as a potential coping strategy. Like many of our coping strategies — eating ice cream when we are stressed, for example — not all confrontations are likely to be beneficial for both the target and the perpetrator,” says McCoy. “To reduce conflict, Shelby is seeking to identify confrontational styles that both protect the well-being of the target and reduce the potential for future conflict with the perpetrator.” 

Helwig presented her work in February at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in New Orleans. She’ll also present in July at the European Association of Social Psychology in Krakow, Poland.

“It’s rewarding to conduct research that can help people better themselves and can help improve society,” Helwig says. 

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