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(Not so) subtle effects of sexism and gender stereotypes and forms of resistance

Posted by Patricio Saavedra Morales •

By Dr. Soledad de Lemus (University of Granada, Spain)

Sexism and gender stereotypes constitute a threat to women’s identity to the extent that they promote subordination of their group to male dominance. Partly, these oppressing gender ideologies are expressed through subtle ways in an insidious manner (cf. “the velvet glove”; Jackman, 1994). The sugar-coating mask of sexism operates in the form of benevolence (such as in benevolent sexism; Glick & Fiske, 1996), paternalistic behaviour (e.g., praise; Vescio, Gervais, Snyder, & Hoover 2005) or non-verbal cues (e.g., smiling; de Lemus, Spears, & Moya, 2012). These forms of sexism tend to be associated with warmth and friendliness, which make sexism seem less obvious and even desirable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women perceive benevolent sexist men as more attractive than non-sexist men (Bohner, Ahlborn, & Steiner, 2010; Montañés, de Lemus, Moya, Bohner, & Megías, 2013). However, the negative impact of sexism on women’s lives is clear. Specifically, evidence has shown that benevolent sexism and paternalistic behavior influence women’s decisions and performance (Dardenne, Bollier, & Dumont 2007; Moya, Glick, Expósito, de Lemus, & Hart 2007; Vescio et al., 2005), making them seek dependence rather than autonomy (Shnabel, Bar-Anan, Kende, Bareket, & Lazar 2016). Despite its indulging tone, benevolent sexism imposes prescriptive roles on women from an early age, negatively influencing their career aspirations and, indirectly, their academic performance (Montañés, de Lemus, Bohner, Megías, Moya, & García-Retamero, 2012). At the non-verbal level, we found that male physical and verbal dominance is complemented by women (becoming more submissive) when it is coupled with a smile (de Lemus et al., 2012). That is, an affiliative facial expression (i.e., smiling) triggered postural submissiveness in women interacting with a dominant sexist man. We argue that such behavioural complementarity helps to perpetuate the cycle of sexism1.

The question is then what coping strategies do women use to deal with sexism as a constant threat to their agency and perhaps value as a group (see de Lemus, Spears, van Breen, & Telga, 2017 for a more detailed discussion of threats to group value vs. agency). The ways in which women respond to such threats may vary from more spontaneous individual actions, such as individually confronting a sexist comment, to more organised collective ones, such as social protests (cf. de Lemus & Stroebe, 2015).


In a recent program of research, we have argued that such spontaneous resistance responses may already begin to play a role at an automatic or implicit level. Logically, it is more difficult to resist something people are not aware of, or which they do not have under conscious or intentional control (Barreto & Ellemers, 2005). For instance, benevolent sexism undermines collective action whereas hostile sexism motivates it (Becker & Wright, 2011). Similarly, in the case of gender stereotypes, research has demonstrated that women react against gender stereotypes in a negotiation context when these are activated explicitly, but they show a worse performance than men when they are implicitly activated (Kray Thompson, & Galinsky, 2001). Still, even in these unfavourable conditions the motivation to protect the identity of the group may prevail and trigger resistance responses in women, if only at the implicit level (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Spears, Greenwood, de Lemus, & Sweetman, 2010; Spears, Jetten, & Doosje, 2001).  


In line with this argumentation described above, we found that women reversed automatic stereotype associations in response to extensive exposure to traditional gender roles. In order to manipulate gender roles, we used an associative task using pictures as targets in which participants had to categorize the gender of the target-person. Results showed that in the stereotypical condition, where 90% of the trials portrayed a woman in a kitchen and a man in an office, women implicitly associated their in-group with more competence-related traits in a subsequent word categorization task. That is, after exposure to stereotypic gender roles, women implicitly associated the in-group with more counter-stereotypical attributes. Further, this effect was predicted by participants’ own attitudes towards affirmative policies, targeted at compensating the imbalance of gender roles in society (de Lemus, Spears, Bukowski, Moya, & Lupiáñez, 2013). We interpret these results in terms of a motivated response to identity threatening conditions (i.e., traditional stereotypes).


Similarly, after exposure to stereotypic roles, we found activation of automatic ingroup bias in women (de Lemus, Spears, Lupiáñez, Bukowski, & Moya, 2016). That is, women categorized faster positive traits when they were primed with women vs. men. Moreover, this implicit in-group bias was positively related to negative emotions (e.g., anger, humiliation) and to persistence in a stereotypically threatening task (solving a bogus spatial intelligence test) in the threatened condition (stereotypical exposure). The same pattern of results was found when the threat itself was manipulated implicitly (subliminally). Under those conditions, participants who highly identified with feminists but not with women showed implicit ingroup bias after stereotypical exposure and more persistence in a math test (van Breen, Spears, Kuppens, de Lemus; 2016). We argue that implicit in-group bias may serve to counteract the threat, reaffirm positive in-group identity, and thus restore a sense of agency at the group level. In sum, it can be argued that gender stereotypes and sexism may also be resisted through implicit strategies. Resistance at the implicit level might be the only available option when reality constraints the use of other forms resistance at the explicit level.


In summary, the described findings suggest that gender stereotypes and sexism are quite effective in upholding men’s dominance in society. However, women do not remain apathetic to threats to their group identity. They are able to resist these, at least at the implicit level. This motivation to resist prepares the ground for developing more explicit and organized forms of resistance to challenge the subordination of women in society.


The author would like to thank Patricio Saavedra Morales and Tina Keil for their insightful feedback on this blog entry.


1 Read more about this research here:


About the author



DR. SOLEDAD DE LEMUS is an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Granada (Spain). Her main research interests are social psychology of gender, prejudice and intergroup relations more broadly. She has been recently awarded a grant by the Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad for the project "Coping with identity and control threats: Explicit and  implicit routes to resistance" (grant number PSI2016-79971-P).



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