Some participants in newly released research by Utah State University about objectification of women reported their first degrading experiences happened during childhood.
One respondent said when she accompanied her father on “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” that there were pictures “all over his work area of naked women.”
She recalled that when she was in her early 20s, he was told that 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,” she told researchers.
Another participant in the Utah Women & Leadership Project research recalled her male cousin’s remarks to her when she was 7 as she and her cousins played with water balloons on a hot summer day.
“My male cousin, who was 13 at the time, said, ‘Wait, I don’t know if it is a good idea that you play with us. Your shirt is white and will get wet, then it will be see-through.’ ... This is the first memory I have of realizing someone may look at me differently as a woman,” the woman told USU researchers.
These remarks were just two shared with researchers who explored sexist comments and responses as part of an extensive study on the topic.
What the USU study found about objectification of women in Utah
The policy brief notes “sexist comments and remarks are prevalent and normalized in everyday conversation, public discourse, and virtually every other social setting throughout the world.” The USU research explores how women experience such comments in Utah.
Susan Madsen, founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project and one of three report authors, said it is essential to provide education about how language and behavior can demean and disempower women.
“Unfortunately, many of the comments shared were much more explicit and vulgar than what we included in this report,” states the report, which was also authored by Robbyn Scribner and April Townsend.
“As difficult as it was for many of these women to share what was said to them, it is critical for us to be aware of what is happening so we can educate and help people do better, whether their comments were blatant, subtle, aggressive or unintentional,” said Madsen, Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in USU’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.
The remarks fell into seven general categories: a focus on women’s physical appearance/bodies; sexual harassment; sexualizing women; unwanted sexual advances; intersectional discrimination, meaning comments directed at more than one dimension of an individual; exclusion from work activities; and accusations of using sex to get ahead.
According to the report, women experience sexist comments and conduct in educational settings, in the workplace and places of worship.
One woman told researchers that when she shared that she got the highest grade on a test in computer science class, a male peer responded, “I wish I could sleep with the professor so that I could get an A.”
Another woman reported that her boss told her that he loved her.
“He was a married man and my direct supervisor. I stopped going to that job after this. I never quit, I just stopped going. It was too uncomfortable to talk to him, even about quitting,” the report states.
One respondent shared a sexist remark that focused on her appearance: “He looked at me and said, ‘You? But you’re a cute, little blonde thing. You can’t be a mayor!’”
The women who shared their experiences with researchers were predominantly white married women with children who work full time. More than a third had earned bachelor’s degrees and 56% were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Sexism in church?
Some participants reported hearing sexist remarks in church and from church leaders.
“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,’” the brief states.
One participant reported that her bishop was apparently fixated on her shoes.
“The bishop said, ‘You have no idea what you wearing those shoes does for me!’ The bishop said that!!!”
What women have reported
In a discussion about sexual assault a man told one participant in the research, “Well you can’t parade raw meat in front of a tiger and expect it not to pounce,” intimating that when women experience sexual violence, they were partly responsible.
In a comment categorized as sexual harassment, one woman reported, “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 because he would be distracted all day by her breasts.”
Another said, “I worked in a congressional office, and my boss frequently made sexist and inappropriate comments. 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 participants, who included an unnamed city council member, also shared instances when they experienced unwanted sexual advances.
“I was looking for a place to sit during a conference we were both attending as city council members, though from different cities. He patted his lap and told me I could sit there,” according to the report.
Another woman reported, “A male colleague told me, ‘Those jeans look good. They’d look better draped over my dresser.’”
Why study sexist comments?
The new brief is the latest in a series of the Utah Women and Leadership Project’s sexist comments research study.
“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. And second, by examining the types of responses women make when confronted with sexist behavior, we aim to equip women with the tools they need to better combat the sexism they experience from day to day.”
The authors continued, explaining that “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. By raising awareness of the widespread occurrence and damaging effects of sexist language, comments, beliefs, and behaviors, we can all help reduce the frequency of sexism in our homes, neighborhoods, workplace.”
For further information about the UWLP, visit utwomen.org.