Situation: Sexism is met with social disapproval and countered at many levels in advanced societies.
In fact: Regardless of personal ideas about gender equality, people tend to turn a blind eye to someone else’s sexist attitudes if they perceive this person as having positive and valuable characteristics such as high intelligence.
HSE researcher Elena Agadullina conducted a series of experiments to examine how people perceive sexist attitudes in others. She found that most respondents, regardless of their own gender or attitudes, are prepared to socialise with someone perceived as sexist but highly intelligent. Moreover, many people would rather socialise with an intelligent sexist than with a not-so-intelligent non-sexist. Agadullina's experiment involved some 1000 people, and the findings have been published in The Journal of Social Psychology.
Feminism and the gender equality movement have led many advanced societies to perceive sexism as unacceptable and condemn public manifestations of it. As an example, Agadullina refers to the case of a Google employee who was fired in 2017 after a controversial memo widely shared in the company which suggested there were fewer women than men at Google because the abilities of men and women were unequal, in part due to biological differences, making it harder for women to succeed in tech.
Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on one's sex or gender.
However, studies suggest that even people who believe in gender equality may still be willing to socialise with sexists and tolerate their sexist attitudes.
Researchers distinguish between hostile and benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism refers to negative attitudes towards women, especially those who claim power and refuse to submit to traditional gender roles. An important characteristic of hostile sexism is the belief that women are less competent than men and tend to use manipulation to gain power over men by exploiting their sexuality or falsely accusing men of sexual harassment or discrimination.
Benevolent sexism is a subtler and seemingly positive attitude which emphasises men's role of protecting and providing for women in exchange for the latter's compliance with traditional gender roles. 'Men are then seen as gallant knights and women as beautiful and delicate princesses in need of protection', comments Agadullina.
Yet, according to research, both forms of sexism rationalise gender inequalities, contribute to society's tolerance of gender discrimination, and perpetuate myths about sexual harassment, including the beliefs that women exaggerate the seriousness of sexual harassment, have hidden motives, and generally bring victimisation upon themselves.
Earlier research has mainly focused on describing sexists in terms of their religiosity, personality and worldview. 'Little is known, however, about the factors that make people willing to engage with sexists in everyday life. Understanding these factors is crucial, because social acceptance can send a signal that sexism is okay and thus perpetuate it', according to Agadullina.
The new study examines whether most people will readily engage with a sexist having socially desirable characteristics such as high intelligence.
Russia ranks 54th globally in the Gender Inequality Index, placing the country behind most societies in Europe and North America but ahead of those which emphasise a patriarchal culture and traditional values.
The study author explores the role of the halo effect, or the halo error; the tendency for positive impressions of someone’s socially desirable characteristics to influence our opinion of that person in other areas as well. For example, people are likely to assume that someone who is physically attractive is also a good person. Studies confirm that intelligence is another highly valued characteristics which is likely to influence our judgment. According to Agadullina, 'being a socially desirable trait, high intelligence can put one at an advantage in terms of social status'.
To test her hypothesis that a sexist person's perceived intelligence may influence others’ willingness to engage with them, the researcher staged two experiments.
The first experiment involved 348 young men and women — first-year undergraduates at a large Moscow university. Each of them was asked to read one of six descriptions of a fictional character named Peter, aged 21. The descriptions, presented to the subjects in random order, differed in Peter's ascribed IQ — either 130 which is high or 100 which is average — and in whether or not his opinions, reflected in two types of statements, were sexist.
The sexist statement was 'women are not as smart as men, so homemaking and raising children is more appropriate for them, while the man protects the woman and provides for her financially', and the non-sexist statement was 'women should be paid as much as men for their work and enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men'. There was a control group which did not receive any information about Peter's views on men and women.
The second experiment had a more complex design and involved 614 university graduates and current bachelors' and masters' students, of whom 446 were women.
They were presented with two opposite-sex characters, Peter and Sophia, whose IQs were either above or below average. Acting in a sexist manner, each of the characters either tried to engage the other one, a young new colleague, in sexual relations by promising a promotion, or asked the other one to meet at a cafe to discuss a work project.
The second experiment was also designed to measure the levels of different types of sexism: hostile and benevolent.
A variance analysis was used to assess the effect of the independent variable (i.e. the character's IQ level and attitudes) on the respondents' willingness to engage with this character.
In the first experiment, the respondents, regardless of gender, were willing to engage in a friendship or a relationship with Peter when his intelligence was described as high. 'Indeed, when asked to choose between an intelligent sexist and an unintelligent non-sexist, most respondents preferred the former, which means that intelligence is the more important factor', according to Agadullina.
The second experiment confirmed this finding, because most respondents were willing to overlook sexist attitudes as long as the character — whether it was a man (Peter) or a woman (Sophia) — was perceived as highly intelligent. The respondents were also less likely to perceive the female character's sexist behaviour as sexual harassment.
Another seemingly unexpected finding from the second experiment was that while the respondents perceived the promise of promotion in exchange for sexual favours as sexual harassment, they were nonetheless more willing to deal with a smart harasser than with a smart non-harasser. According to the researcher, the reason may have been that the subjects were presented with a quid pro quo situation.
Earlier research confirms that this type of interaction is perceived as not-so-harmful sexual harassment, because both parties receive rewards such as employment opportunities or sexual favours; the potential negative consequences of refusing the harasser's advances are often ignored.
According to the Levada Centre (a non-profit organisation designated by the Russian authorities as performing the functions of a foreign agent), 40% of Russian men do not find it important for men and women to enjoy equal rights, and only 18% of Russians, according to a 2017 survey, agree that gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment are serious problems faced by women in the workplace.
Agadullina's study did not confirm her original hypotheses that people holding hostile sexist attitudes are more inclined to engage with harassers. On the other hand, it turns out that hostile sexists prefer to interact with women perceived as having low IQs. 'This is consistent with the hostile sexist belief that women are generally incompetent; therefore, sexists prefer to deal with less intelligent women who do not threaten their male status or disrupt the existing order of things', according to Agadullina.
The study findings confirm that sexism remains a problem in modern society. 'People are prepared to engage with sexists, e.g. as long as they are smart, indicating that sexism and gender inequality are not seen as really serious problems', Agadullina notes.
One of the reasons may be that according to the social exchange theory, people engage in social behaviour seeking to maximise their rewards and minimise costs. Expecting high rewards — in terms of social status, career opportunities, etc. — from their interaction with an intelligent person, many people tend to downplay the factor of sexism in making their decision to engage with that person.
In addition to this, according to two other theories, people tend to perceive personal attributes either as fixed, trait-like entities (an entity theory ) or as dynamic and malleable characteristics (an incremental theory), and these two perception frameworks can coexist. Thus, the study author explains, 'sexism may be perceived as a changeable characteristic as opposed to high intelligence which is perceived as a fixed trait — in other words, a sexist may eventually stop being sexist, but a smart person will always be smart'.
This study is a step towards a better understanding of factors that contribute to everyday sexism — in this case, people's willingness to tolerate it as long as the sexist person has certain valuable qualities. 'A strategy which may be helpful in dealing with everyday sexism is promoting the idea that no positive personality characteristics can justify sexist attitudes and behaviour', Agadullina concludes.