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Survey: Significant majority of Utah women experience sexism, harassment

By Genelle Pugmire - Daily Herald | Jan 18, 2022

Tim Vandenack, Standard-Examiner

Susan Madsen, director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project, addresses a gathering of the Weber County Republican Women on Sept. 13, 2021, at The Ice Sheet in Ogden.

In a 1953 country western tune, Hank Williams asks, “Hey good lookin’, what you got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ something up with me?”

Women have long been objectified, targeted with sexist remarks and treated with some disdain through music, pop culture and in everyday interactions.

Although sexist comments are prevalent and normalized, researchers at the Utah Women & Leadership Project wanted to understand how women experience these comments in Utah.

This is the third of five briefs focused on the results of their study.

The study was designed to collect and analyze a wide variety of sexist comments experienced by women across the state, in addition to the responses women made — or wish they had made — to such comments, according to the introduction.

Researchers aim to equip women with the tools to confront more successfully the sexism they experience and to educate all people, regardless of gender, about the subtle and not-so-subtle sexism within general society.

In this study, the “objectification” theme included comments in which women were viewed or treated like objects as opposed to human beings. Notably, many of the comments coded in this theme were much more explicit and vulgar than those included in the brief.

Additionally, not all responses were limited strictly to sexist comments — some respondents also reported sexist situations and behaviors such as unwelcome touching, grabbing or groping.

The analysis of the responses within Objectification produced seven specific categories for the survey:

  • Focus on physical appearance/bodies.
  • Sexual harassment: Remarks or behaviors toward women in workplace or similar settings that were sexual in nature.
  • Sexualizing women: Comments that focused on women as sexual objects, rather than as whole individuals.
  • Unwanted sexual advances: Solicitations or advances toward women that were unwelcome.
  • Intersectional discrimination: Comments directed at more than one dimension of an individual. For example, sexist comments that also included references to race, age, weight, religion or other elements.
  • Exclusion from work activities: Statements specifically related to women being excluded at work because of their gender, with the implication that women are viewed as “sex objects” rather than as colleagues.
  • Accusations of using sex to get ahead: Comments centered on the idea that women use sexuality to gain an unfair advantage.

Participants who shared comments related to this theme were most often white (90.%), married (67.8%) women with children (66.7%) who worked full time (77.9%), were 30-39 years old (27.1%), had a bachelor’s degree (35.2%) and were a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (56.0%), according to survey data.

The vast majority of these women (89.7%) either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they felt people can behave in sexist ways without realizing it. Most of them (84.8%) agreed or strongly agreed that they had personally experienced bias because of their gender.

A similar percentage (85.6%) agreed or strongly agreed that women need to be prepared to be leaders.

The most referenced category within “Objectification” was the focus on physical appearance and bodies, which included 251 distinct comments.

Comments categorized as “Focus on Physical Appearance/Bodies” were most commonly made within the workplace by a man who was between 46 and 59 years old and was in a position of authority, according to the survey data. Some shared comments include:

  • “The first time we met, he said, ‘What a surprise. I thought you’d look a lot older than you do. You’ve still got a good 10 years of sex kitten left in you!'”
  • “The bishop said, ‘You have no idea what you wearing those shoes does for me!’ The bishop said that!!!”
  • “In a presentation to all the young women about modesty, she said, ‘Sometimes, if you wear clothes that are too revealing, it can make boys turn to mush and they might assault you and lose control of themselves. Modesty is a protection.'”

Other comments were framed to be compliments, but they made women uncomfortable because of the setting, context or how the statements put the focus on a woman’s appearance rather than her abilities:

  • “A professor I worked with told me that although he knew the comment wasn’t appropriate, the shirt I was wearing that day was particularly flattering.”
  • “In an interview with a candidate I was representing, he said, ‘I’m old and have forgotten a few things, but I still recognize a beautiful woman.’ And pointed at me.”
  • “A manager asked, ‘How do you keep that slim figure?'”

This category also included a number of negative, non-sexual comments about women’s bodies:

  • “In a setting with friends and family, this man commented that women shouldn’t serve as president because ‘once every month, the country would be in deep trouble’ (referring to a woman’s monthly period), insinuating that a period and any moodiness associated with a period makes a woman unfit to hold the presidency.”
  • “He said, ‘You’re getting a little fat here (grabbed the back of my arm in the triceps area). I bet you could … run on your lunch time.'”
  • “He wanted to know how they could let me, someone who is ‘homely and looks like a sad old man’ work the front desk when there was a real looker in the other office who could be in my place.”
  • “He said, ‘You are not to be seen by clients while you are visibly pregnant.'”

Another topic that emerged was the idea that women’s bodies were somehow the property of men, or that men had certain rights to women’s bodies:

  • “My bishop said (over the pulpit) that his pretty wife was a reward for him being a good missionary, so the young men in the ward needed to be good missionaries. He said, ‘Women shouldn’t be insulted by catcalling and constant requests for affection or physical contact because it is a compliment and women should accept the compliment.'”
  • “Upon meeting for the first time, a man said, ‘My wife is here somewhere. She used to model, but she was too weak to get back into shape for me after the kids were born.'”

According to the survey, the second-most common category was sexual harassment. In all seven categories, the survey collected comments and feelings from women on how the sexual comments and objectification impact them.

Women participating in the survey also shared specific instances of sexual harassment they faced, including:

  • “When I went with my father to work (take your daughter to work day), hanging all over his work area were pictures of naked women. I remember in my early twenties the day he was told he would have to remove the pictures. He was so mad and felt like he had a right to have them hang in his space. He yelled about it to my mother for days.”
  • “My male manager told me an old man was probably going to sexually harass me and to not report him.”
  • “A male colleague was interviewing candidates for a vacant position on his team. He told [other subordinates] that he could not consider one of the internal candidates (a female) because he would be distracted all day by her breasts.”
  • “I worked in a congressional office, and my boss would make sexist and inappropriate comments frequently. I finally called and reported him, but was told, ‘Unless he touches you, there’s really nothing we can do. Congress wrote themselves out of the sexual harassment laws.'”

The number of comments shared by women taking the survey showed the lack of propriety and equal respect for women as compared to their male colleagues.

Women shared that, frequently, they were so shocked or stunned that they did not say anything in response to sexist comments. This accounted for 38.2% of the responses. One participant said, “I was shocked. I was only 20 and it was my boss. I didn’t know how to react and was scared that if I said anything, I would lose my job.”

Many participants reported responses they wish they had made, once they had time to reflect. These afterthoughts ranged from clever comebacks, to providing information or wishing they had reported the comment. There were 110 responses (20.1%) related to this theme.

Researchers on the study said, “The purpose of the series is twofold: First, we hope to educate readers on the various ways that language and related behaviors can demean and disempower women, especially for those who may not realize their words are problematic.”

Speaking up against sexism can be a powerful tool for reducing gender inequity. Further, being prepared in terms of how to respond to everyday sexism can help women feel more confident in their interactions with others.

The researchers wrote that by raising awareness of the widespread occurrence and damaging effects of sexist language, comments, beliefs and behaviors, everyone can help reduce the frequency of sexism everywhere.

To see the entire study, visit https://www.usu.edu/uwlp/files/briefs/40-sexist-comments-responses-objectification.pdf.

Authors of the project include Robbyn T. Scribner (research fellow, Utah Women & Leadership Project), Dr. April Townsend (research fellow, Utah Women & Leadership Project) and Dr. Susan R. Madsen (Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership).


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