Sexist language is an example of subtle sexism in that it consists of speech that reinforces and perpetuates gender stereotypes and status differences between women and men (Banaji & Hardin, 1996; Crawford, 2001; Gay, 1997; Maass & Arcuri, 1996; McConnell & Fazio, 1996). Sexist language is learned at an early age (Hyde, 1984) and can be considered a linguistic habit (Lips, 1997). People may use sexist language for a variety of reasons. They may do so because it is traditional, it is ingrained in current written and spoken language and can be difficult to change, people lack knowledge about what constitutes sexist language, people do not believe that such language is sexist, or people are attempting to protect established social hierarchies (Parks & Roberton, 1998; Ruscher, 2001).
The purpose of the present research was to understand better people’s awareness of and engagement in subtle sexist behavior by way of understanding their awareness of and use of sexist language. We were specifically interested in testing whether Modern Sexist beliefs predicted detection of sexist language. Unlike old-fashioned sexists who explicitly support gender inequality and endorse traditional gender roles, Modern (or Neo) Sexists express beliefs that indirectly condone the unequal treatment of women and men (Swim, Aikin, Hall, & Hunter, 1995; Tougas, Brown, Beaton, & Joly, 1995). Indirectly condoning unequal treatment of women and men may be a result of people’s lack of awareness of subtle sexism.
Subtle sexism might go unnoticed if certain subtle behaviors are not defined as sexist and subtle sexism might not be perceived to be problematic if it is not noticed. There is evidence that Modern Sexist beliefs are associated with a lower likelihood of defining some behaviors as sexist. Endorsement of Modern Sexist beliefs was associated with being less likely to label beliefs from several sexism scales and everyday sexist behaviors as sexist (Swim, Mallet, Russo-Devosa, & Stangor, in press) and with being less likely to label particular types of sexual encounters as sexual harassment (Swim & Cohen, 1997). These findings suggest that Modern Sexists have a relatively restricted definition of what constitutes sexism. In Study 1, we examined individuals’ ability to detect the occurrence of subtle sexism in language and tested whether the inability to do so was particularly likely for those who endorse Modern Sexist beliefs.
People who are relatively unaware of subtle sexist behaviors, either because they do not notice them or do not consider them to be sexist, could be the ones who are most likely to engage in such behavior. That is, they may be less concerned about engaging in subtle sexist behaviors because they do not see the behaviors as problematic. Study 2 was designed to test whether Modern Sexism predicts the tendency to engage in a particular type of subtle sexist behavior–the use of sexist language.
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