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Sexism in Utah is ‘prevalent’ and ‘normalized,’ new report reveals

Clouds hang over the Salt Lake Valley on Tuesday, April 27, 2021.
Clouds hang over the Salt Lake Valley on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Sexist comments are prevalent in Utah and normalized in everyday conversations, public communications and social settings, a new study by Utah State University researchers shows.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Sexist comments are prevalent in Utah and normalized in everyday conversations, public communications and social settings, a new study by Utah State University researchers shows.

Susan Madsen, founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project and one of the report’s authors, said the study was conducted to educate the public on forms of sexist comments, both conscious and unconscious, and to equip women with the tools needed to better combat sexism.

“Specific examples are critical to better understand the many forms that sexist comments can take, whether blatant, subtle, aggressive or unintentional,” she said.

According to the online survey of 839 women ages 18-70, sexist remarks were more likely to occur in workplaces, within the home, churches or communities. The survey was conducted in spring 2020.

Most sexist remarks were expressed by men, 84.6%, but also by women, 14.5%, according to the findings. Most often, the remarks were made by someone with authority or influence over the woman, followed by peers and someone over whom the woman had authority.

The approximate ages of commenters suggest the remarks more likely come from people ages 46 to 59, followed by those 36 to 45 years old and people ages 26 to 35, and less likely from younger people and those over age 60.

On a 7-point scale — 1 meaning strongly disagree, 4 neutral and 7 strongly agree — a statistical mean of 5.97 reported they had experienced bias they felt was due to their gender.

Research fellow Robbyn Scribner said sexist comments often take people by surprise, and women wish they were better prepared to respond and refute them.

“Language and related behaviors can demean and disempower women, even when people are not aware that their words are inappropriate,” Scribner said in a statement.

“In addition to helping understand sexism more fully, we also hope to equip women with the tools they need to better combat any sexism they encounter.”

Women often choose to ignore or minimize the sexism they experience because face-to-face confrontation with the person who makes sexist comments can be extremely difficult. So to avoid backlash or retaliation, women elect not to respond, the researcher wrote.

According to the survey, many women respond to sexist remarks by asking a question of the commenter, providing information, humor or a snarky response. Others opt for an “indirect response,” such as laughing or changing the subject, while others react with an emotional response by expressing embarrassment or anger.

Responding to a sexist comment can be uncomfortable so “humor can be a powerful tool because it takes a little bit of the edge off the situation. It’s seen as less aggressive, less condemning to someone who’s made a comment but it absolutely draws attention to the fact that that they said something that’s not OK,” Scribner said in an interview.

Another tactic identified by the women surveyed was to “directly provide information to say ‘What you just said isn’t accurate and here’s why,’ and doing it in a in a nonaggressive way. It’s not confrontational, but it is direct. In a lot of cases, we found that women who did that were successful, and that the people that they were responding to did respond well.”

The report, the first of five planned on the subject to be released over the next few months, indicates that married women hear fewer sexist comments than women who are separated or divorced, single, have a domestic partner or are widowed.

“Latter-day Saint respondents also believe that they hear fewer sexist comments than women in all other faith tradition categories,” the report states.

In response to a question whether their opportunities have been limited because of others’ biases about gender, women who identified as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “agreed significantly less than those of other faith traditions.”

Madsen said it is crucial to raise awareness of the widespread occurrence and damaging effects of sexist language, comments, beliefs and behaviors.

“Through this effort, we hope to reduce the frequency of sexism in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and the state as a whole,” she said.

Scribner said the survey results also pointed out how sexism stands in the way of women advancing in their careers or being considered for leadership positions. This is consistent with other research, she said.

“One of the categories of comments that we saw was women being left out of workforce opportunities and experiences simply because of their gender. The underlying current behind that was, ‘I can’t go to this conference with you because it will look bad’ or ‘People will think that we’re having an inappropriate relationship’ or ‘My wife won’t be comfortable with me talking to you privately at a lunch,’ Scribner said.

“There are definitely a lot of situations where that is still happening even though women make up a pretty high percentage of the workforce,” she said.

Upcoming reports will provide more in-depth analysis and examples for each of the four themes that emerged, including inequity and bias, objectification, stereotypes and undervaluing women.