I was running to be the Republican legislative district chair in my area some years ago and one of the delegates who would be voting said to me that he would vote for me, but he had a question: “How do you get your husband to let you do this?” I responded with “There is no ‘let.’” I don’t have to “ask permission” from my husband.
Many times, I’ve been asked “who is taking care of your children,” when actively involved in politics. None of my male colleagues or male opponents were ever asked that question. I even once heard another woman say they loved their children too much to be involved in politics. My response is that I love mine too much not to be.
I know many of my female friends, especially those active in politics, have heard similar comments, so when I read the five policy papers published by the Utah Women and Leadership Project, I was not surprised to see how pervasive these comments are. That doesn’t mean it’s not disheartening.
During May and June in 2020, the Utah Women and Leadership Project began surveying Utah women about their experiences with “messages that reinforce gender roles and stereotypes, demean women as a gender group, and sexually objectify women.” Hundreds of women responded, leaving 1,750 examples of sexist comments that had been made to them. One respondent left a comment at the end of the survey that she could have added hundreds more examples. Many of the comments that were shared were “much more explicit and vulgar” than those shared in the series of five reports.
Overall, most of the sexist comments were made by men (84.6%), in the workplace (58.2%), by someone who had a position of authority or influence over the person. The goal in publishing these reports, say the authors, is to educate people on the numerous ways that “language and related behaviors can demean and disempower women,” and give women tools for confronting such behavior.
Researchers were able to sort the comments into four broad categories: inequity and bias, objectification, stereotypes and undervaluing women. A fifth category, direct aggression, contains elements of the other four, but some distinct characteristics as well.
The survey also asked respondents how they reacted when hearing these comments. There were five general reactions. One was to do or say nothing. A second was to have a direct response to the comments. A third was to have an emotional response, including feeling hurt, disappointed or angry. A fourth was to react indirectly by laughing it off or changing the subject and the fifth was the internal dialogue respondents had with themselves afterward.
Here’s a sample of the comments shared across five policy briefs:
Inequity and bias
“A manager said, ‘I don’t know how you handle so many children plus your job!!’ No one would say this to a man, plus then he viewed me as unable to take on leadership roles.”
“At a formal function, all of the male professors in the room were introduced as Dr., but the female professors were introduced by their first names.”
“When I asked for a raise commensurate with a male colleague’s salary, I was told that because I didn’t have children and wasn’t the head of household, I didn’t need to make as much money as he did.”
“(I was) trying to get a candidate ... to understand what needed to be done. ... He repeatedly checked with men before taking my advice.”
“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!’”
“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.’”
“He looked at me and said, ‘You? But you’re a cute, little blonde thing. You can’t be a mayor!’”
“My husband’s co-worker said, ‘You know your wife is going to have an affair,’ as a response to my being in MBA school.”
“He said that women were too irrational and emotional to be good legislators and make the difficult decisions that needed to be made.”
“A teacher of a course on marriage said that he didn’t help with housework because he knew how much satisfaction doing housework gave his wife.”
“A male boss said, ‘If you become pregnant, you’ll be asked to resign. If you get married while employed here and don’t get pregnant after a certain amount of time, we’ll meet to determine if this job is stopping you from getting pregnant.’”
“In a group setting, with multiple external influencers, he said, ‘She’s pregnant so you can’t trust that she cares about us or her children. Women should be in the home taking care of children, and any woman who chooses to work doesn’t care about her kids.’”
“I work on thoughtful, thorough, comprehensive policy analysis. The policy area is incredibly nuanced and complicated. A relative in my family describes what I do as, ‘You have some opinions from your heart.’”
“My boss makes comments such as, ‘I can’t believe your husband lets you have such a demanding job,’ and ‘What does your husband think of this?’”
“I was arguing a case before the Utah Court of Appeals when opposing counsel was trying to assert why my argument was incorrect (normal for lawyers) and kept referring to me as ‘little missy.’”
“During grad school, I had multiple male classmates say I got in because I was a girl or that I wasn’t as qualified as they were because the standards were lower or even that I was taking away a spot in the program from a man who needed to support a family.”
Lead researchers Robbyn Scribner, April Townsend and Susan Madsen conclude their five-part series with these recommendations: First, prepare. Have a go-to phrase you can use on the spot, such as “What makes you say that?” or “Can you explain what you meant by that?”
Second, take action. When you hear offensive comments or inappropriate jokes, respond with something like “That’s not funny,” or “Ouch,” or “That’s inappropriate.”
Third, call out the behavior, whether that behavior is always asking the woman on the team to take notes or remember birthdays, interrupting women while they’re speaking or taking credit for the ideas women on their team have shared.
Their final thought is this: “Speaking up against sexism can be a powerful force for reducing gender inequity. ... By raising awareness of the widespread occurrence and damaging effects of sexist language, comments, beliefs, and behaviors, we hope to reduce the frequency of sexism in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and the state as a whole.”
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy, a former lawmaker and holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Utah.