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If a Boss Is Rude to Everyone, Can They Still Be Sexist?

New research shows being rude to everyone can hide sexism.

Key points

  • New research shows that a generally obnoxious demeanor can make specifically sexist behaviors harder for others to identify.
  • A man can be rude to other men and also engage in sexist behavior in the workplace—including behaviors that may be illegal.
  • Broad-spectrum rudeness may be a technique used to hide bias against women.
Anna Shvets/Pexels
Source: Anna Shvets/Pexels

The internet is replete with collections of tweets and other first-person narratives calling out sexism in the workplace. Women in a wide variety of industries have shared stories of being asked to bake treats for male colleagues or clean up after them; of being accused of being “premenstrual” simply for having a strong opinion; or having contributions to a discussion ignored but then praised when they’re repeated by a man. But if your boss also berates and belittles male employees, is he sexist or just a jerk? A new series of studies published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that when bosses are rude to everyone, we have a hard time accurately identifying their sexist comments or behaviors.

Led by researchers from the University of Virginia and University of Texas at Dallas, these new studies considered whether someone being an “equal opportunity jerk” can make others hesitant to identify sexism when they see it. The authors defined sexism as “attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors that reflect, foster, or promote negative or pejorative stereotypes about women.” On the other hand, rudeness was defined to include behaviors that are widely regarded as inconsiderate or antisocial—but don’t target any particular group. If your boss seems like they’re rude to everyone, that can create the impression that they have no particular antipathy toward women. A generally obnoxious demeanor might give others the sense that you’re impartial, or “gender-blind” in your rude behavior or insulting attitudes.

This new research (which included several separate studies) was conducted using online survey platforms. Participants were over 5,000 U.S. adults (both men and women). In a pre-test, the authors asked a large sample of employed men to report how often they are rude to female colleagues and how often they are rude to male colleagues. Rude behaviors included things like putting coworkers down, behaving in a condescending manner, and making demeaning remarks. In a separate study session, these men also completed several common measures of sexism. These measures include items like, “Women are generally not as smart as men.” The results were clear: Men who scored high on sexism engaged in more rude behaviors in the workplace and rude men tended to be rude to both men and women. As the authors of this research put it, these men are equal opportunity jerks.

The authors then began a series of tests of whether people have a harder time recognizing sexism from these types of men. In one study, participants (men and women) were randomly assigned to read a selection of tweets from former President Donald Trump. Everyone read two tweets that were identified in pre-testing as being viewed as sexist. For example, in one, Trump indicated that actress Sarah Jessica Parker was the “unsexiest woman alive.” Some participants also read tweets in which Trump was rude to men (between one and six tweets targeting a man, depending on condition). For example, in one tweet, Trump described Kentucky senator Rand Paul as “a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain.” All participants then rated a series of statements designed to assess whether they thought Trump was sexist (e.g., “Donald Trump is prejudiced against women”) and whether they believed Trump was gender-blind in his dealings with others (e.g., “Donald Trump is the type of person who believes that all people are basically the same regardless of their gender.”). When participants viewed only Trump’s sexist tweets, they rated him as highly sexist and did not believe he was gender-blind. But the more male-targeted tweets participants read, the more they thought he was gender-blind—and believing Trump was gender-blind was linked with believing he was less sexist.

Mikhail Nilov/Pexels
Source: Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

The authors noted a significant limitation of this particular study—lots of people (especially liberals) already think Trump is sexist. So they designed another study that asked participants to consider a fictionalized, neutral workplace. In this study, participants read a short piece about a manager who targeted a sexist remark at a female intern, saying he did not understand “why the firm keeps hiring women like you.” Some participants also learned that the boss was rude to male interns, calling one a “f------ moron” and another a “f------ douchebag.” Similar to the results of the Trump tweets study, participants in this study thought the manager was less sexist if he also made rude remarks to male interns, because they interpreted his behavior as gender-blind.

An additional study in which participants read a fictionalized article about what it is like to work at Amazon found the same effect. Those who read about a manager’s sexist behavior (in this case, saying, “ … did you leave your brain at the salon, or am I being too technical for you?” to a female employee) saw the manager as less sexist and more gender-blind if the manager also berated a male employee. In a final study, the authors demonstrated that in cases of “equal opportunity jerks,” participants saw less need for a manager to receive training around gender bias, instead thinking he needed more neutral “anger-management training.”

Yan Krukov/Pexels
Source: Yan Krukov/Pexels

As the study authors put it, these research findings are important because “sexism and rudeness toward men are not mutually exclusive.” In other words, you can be rude to men and also engage in sexist behavior in the workplace, including behaviors that may be illegal. Broad-spectrum rudeness may be a technique used to hide more specific bias against women. Indeed, in a recent legal case in which a Walmart manager was accused of sexual harassment, the court ruled in favor of the manager based on the “equal opportunity jerk” defense. Even though the manager made gender-based comments to female employees (e.g., saying that women were “good for nothing”), he was also apparently an all-around jerk. This made it difficult to prove that the manager created a sex-based hostile work environment. It should go without saying that workplaces should be free of all types of harassment and rude behavior. But given how unlikely that is, this new research is a reminder that being a generally terrible human being does not mean you don’t also engage in specific behavior that targets women on the basis of their gender.

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