Observing Sexism Negatively Affects Women's Self-Esteem and Career Aspirations

Sexism and sexist language are all around us. Sexism manifests in both subtle and not so subtle ways. In some cases, it is hostile in nature, such as when demeaning comments are made about women and their abilities. In other cases, what we call benevolent sexism, where men might make comments that on the surface might be helpful in nature but still serve to reinforce notions of women's inferiority. 

There is also considerable evidence that both forms of sexism negatively affect women's careers. Women who experience sexism are less likely obtain mentoring, will sometimes engage in behaviors that limit their potential in the workplace (what we call self-limiting behavior), and are less like to advance in the organization or their careers overall. 

There is also work showing that people who observe sexism and incivility are likely to be negatively affected. Thus, it is not just the target or actor who are affected, but also bystanders. This was the focus of a recent study from Jill Bradley-Geist, Ivy Rivera, and Susan Geringer published in the journal Sex Roles.*

Participants read about a woman interviewing for a job. In one case, the interviewer noted, "This job requires moving bulky products...that can be a little dangerous...the guys would probably be happy to help a nice young lady like you though." This is consistent with observing benevolent sexism. In another case, the participants read of the interviewer engaging in hostile sexism: "To be frank, it seems like most women simply aren't cut out to manage the warehouse and oversee the use of heavy equipment." In a third condition, what is termed the control, no sexism was present: "Do you have any warehouse experience? At times this job requires familiarity with moving bulky products..." They then asked the participants about their performance-based self-esteem at that time and their career aspirations. 

They found that observing hostile sexism negatively affected women's self-esteem and career aspirations, but not those of men. In fact, men who observed it had higher self-esteem and career aspirations, while these outcomes decreased for women. Contrary to their expectations, women who observed benevolent sexism did not experience a decrease in their self-esteem. 

In discussing their results, the authors concluded "that both managers and scholars alike need to consider the broader ramifications of sexism as impacting far more individuals in the workplace than those directly targeted by sexism." In furthering this position, I submit that (1) policies are needed to unequivocally punish those expressing sexism, and (2) training is needed to equip those who observe it to take action to stop it. 


Bradley-Geist, J. C., Rivera, I., & Geringer, S. D. (2015). The collateral damage of ambient sexism: Observing sexism impacts bystander self-esteem and career aspirations. Sex Roles, 73, 29-42.