This study report presents a summary of the results from a survey of male and female college-aged students in an urban college campus. Prior studies have shown that the gender of the individual may be a factor in whether sexism is perceived to occur. For example, Zell et al. (2016) found differences in perception of sexism based on gender. Riemer, Chaudoir and Earnshaw (2014) found that both context and perpetrator influenced women’s perceptions of sexism. This study is intended to determine if contemporary upper-class (i.e., junior and senior) college students’ perceptions of sexism correlate to the person’s gender.
One of the more consistent findings in research on sexism is that women tend to define it more broadly than men do. As noted earlier, the context of the behavior is an influence on whether women perceive an incident as sexist or not (Riemer et al., 2014). Young girls also interpret situations as sexist or not sexist based on their understanding of feminism and sexism, with those girls more educated in sexism being more likely to perceive situations as sexist (Leaper & Brown, 2008). Perception of sexism is also dependent on the understanding of men’s (but not women’s) normative social levels of what constitutes benevolent and hostile sexism (Sibley et al., 2009).
A sampling of other studies demonstrates similar disparities between men and women as they perceive sexism. For example, Whisenant, Lee and Dees (2015) found that the genders of athletic directors and coaches determined in part the perception of fairness that coaches held; male coaches had a lower perception of justice of female athletic directors than of male athletic directors. Whisenant et al. (2015) noted that simply because the athletic director position is not typically held by women, the presence of a female athletic director generated negative perceptions in male coaches, even those who had low levels of sexist attitudes. Sexist attitudes also have been found to increase with increasing perceptions of differences between males and females, and this was true for both men and women (Zell et al., 2016).
Sexism and sexual discrimination is more than just a troublesome issue; sexual discrimination has been shown to have negative impacts on women’s psychological health. Stahlman, et al. (2015) found more than one in eight U.S. military women reported being exposed to unwanted sexual contact during their military service, and revealed a greater likelihood of misuse of tranquilizers/muscle relaxers and a strong correlation between unwanted sexual contact and mental health. The data also found positive correlations unwanted sexual contact and depression, anxiety, PTSD, psychological distress, and suicide ideation and attempts (Stahlman et al., 2015).
Understanding the perception of sexism in contemporary college students can help identify the degree to which sexism is an issue in today’s college campuses, and thus can determine the scope of the divide between the genders in this issue. The research question was: Do male and female upper-level college students’ perceptions of sexism in their lives differ in a statistically significant way? The specific hypotheses were:
H1: Female students perceive a different degree of sexism in their lives than male students do.
The null hypothesis is thus:
H0: There is no difference in the degree of sexism male and female students perceive in their lives.
The dependent variable in this study is the degree of sexism reported by the participants as measured by their responses to a survey. The independent variable is the participant gender.
This section details the specific procedure used to collect the survey data in this study. The participants are described, followed by the materials used and the participants in the study.
Participants in this study were chosen in a convenience sample. A total of 279 individuals were included in the study, 187 women and 92 men. The participants were all either junior or seniors in an urban Toronto university, between 21 and 26 years old. The location of the study was at the campus library. The participants were chosen by a convenience sample derived merely by asking if they would like to participate in the study. Exclusion factors were not being either seniors or juniors or not being students at the university.
The measurement instrument used in this study was the MCSS survey. A copy of the survey is provided in Appendix A of this report. The 12 items in the survey all used a 5-level Likert scale response that ranged from a score of 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). A typical item from the survey asked questions such as:
When I am in a setting where I am the only individual or one of a few individuals of my gender, I tend to feel people would prefer that I not be around.
The participants’ responses indicated their degree of agreement whether that statement applied to them personally.
The researcher went to the campus library and selected individuals who were agreeable to participate in the survey. They were first asked what level they were in (i.e., freshman through senior). If they said they were either a junior or a senior, they were given a consent form that explained the purpose of the survey. Only those who were either juniors or seniors and who also agreed to take the survey after receiving that consent form were counted as participants. Once individuals agreed to participate in the survey, they were handed a copy of the survey to fill out. When they completed the survey, they were given a thank-you note, thanking them for their time and participation.
Table 1 summarizes the results of a two-tailed t-test to determine if there is a statistical significance between male and female responses to the survey. In this case, the higher the score on the survey, the more instances and greater perceived levels of sexism the participants reported. Females scored an average of 8.27 (s.d. = 2.94), while males scored an average of 5.83 (s.d. =2.14). The independent t-test result of t=14.27 (df = 268). This result means that women had a statistically significant greater perception of sexism in their lives than men, with a p-value of 0.000.
This study found that there existed a statistically significant difference in the perceived sexism in the lives of female and male upper-level university students. Females were significantly more likely to report either experiencing or perceiving sexist behaviors than males were.
The study results in part from its use of undergraduate student participants, in a location (i.e., on campus) where the participants would be aware of sexism more than they might in day-to-day lives. In addition, the survey was clearly about sexism and this might have played a part in having participants respond more positively about seeing or experiencing sexist behaviors. Even with that, constraint, this study, as small as it was, provided a confirmation of earlier work, such as that by Whisenant et al. (2015) and Zell et al. (2016) that also showed distinct differences in perceptions of sexism between women and men. While some of these earlier studies also indicated other factors than gender of the perceiver impacted the perception of sexism, the current study provides more support for gender as being a contributor to the same results.
The key limitation of this study was its small size and the limited degree of statistical analysis conducted. The use of a convenience sample of undergraduates also limits the generalizability of the study.
More complex and larger studies in this area that tests other factors in the perceptions of sexism would expand this study and make it more than a mere confirmation of earlier work. In particular, it would be interesting to consider the gender identity of participants to determine if LGBQT participants had similar responses to women and whether each of those subgroups had similar responses. One of the prior studies, Cameron (2001), found that the gender the individual related to impacted their perception of sexism. It would be interesting to consider then more thoroughly given today’s complex gender identities.
In conclusion, it is clear that despite decades of efforts to create a more gender-neutral society, women and men still perceive different levels of sexist behaviors and different prevalence of sexism in their lives. Whether this is due to greater sensitivity on the part of females or greater obliviousness on the part of males, or both, is a question that still remains to be answered.
- Leaper, C. & Brown, C. S. (2008). Perceived experiences with sexism among adolescent girls. Child Development, 79(3), 685-704. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624-2008.01151.x
- Riemer, A., Chaudoir, S., & Earnshaw, V. (2014). What looks like sexism and why? The effect of comment type and perpetrator type on women’s perceptions of sexism. The Journal of General Psychology, 141(3), 263-279. DOI: 10.1080/00221309.2014.907769
- Sibley, C., Overall, N., Duckitt, J., Perry, R., Milfont, T., Khan, S., Fischer, R., & Robertson, A. (2009). Your sexism predicts my sexism: Perceptions of men’s (but not women’s) sexism affects one’s own sexism over Ttime. Sex Roles, 60(9), 682-693. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-008-9554-8
- Stahlman, S., Javanbakht, M., Cochran, S., Hamilton, A., Shoptaw, S., & Gorbach, P. (2015). Mental health and substance use factors associated with unwanted sexual contact among U.S. active duty service women. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 28(3), 167-173. DOI: 10.1002/jts.22009
- Whisenant, W., Lee, D., & Dees, W. (2015). Role congruity theory: Perceptions of fairness and sexism in sport management. Public Organization Review, 15(4), 475-485. DOI: 10.1007/s11115-014-0281-z
- Zell, E., Strickhouser, J., Lane, T., & Teeter, S. (2016). Mars, Venus, or Earth? Sexism and the exaggeration of psychological gender differences. Sex Roles, 75(8), 287-300. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-016-0622-1