Can this innovative intervention reduce sexism among male undergraduates?

Sexist behaviour is a way some men use to signal they are “one of the lads”, mistakenly assuming that the lads are more sexist than they really are. Encouraging men to take a visible stand against sexism might help break this cycle, and a new study road-tests an intervention that uses this approach to change sexist attitudes in male undergrad students. The data show the intervention met some goals – specifically a decrease in overall sexist attitudes – but fell short of others, illustrating the difficulties of attitude change.

The intervention group, 23 men in total, were seated in groups of around four and presented with sexist statements via audio and text that they were to imagine were being spoken by a male figure seated on a chair at the end of the room. These experimenter-created statements covered benevolent sexism (“I can’t believe it when guys let their girlfriends go to parties by themselves…It is every man’s responsibility to take care of and defend the pretty little things”); hostile sexism (“The only reason they let women into college now is to keep men entertained”); and some particularly nasty rape-supportive statements, the mildest excerpt being: “I don’t understand how so many women get away with playing the ‘rape card’…”. Participants experienced all three types of statements and in each case, were asked to challenge the imagined speaker on their attitude, taking turns to give their retort.

Such confrontation of sexism was expected to provoke personal attitude change. The situation encourages an automatic attempt to reduce “cognitive dissonance” (the uncomfortable state of holding incompatible thoughts or beliefs): “if I can ridicule these sort of ideas uttered by another person,” the participants might think to themselves, “then surely I wouldn’t hold any such myself”. Additionally, hearing the other participants speak out against sexism could correct assumptions about the ubiquity of sexism within men. The intervention also involved a piece of homework – composing a confrontational letter to a sexist peer – which participants handed in two weeks later at the close of the study.

When comparing against a control condition (men in this group went through the same process but with the sexism theme swapped out for assertiveness training), the intervention group did show a significant decrease in overall sexism, measured by questionnaire scores taken pre- and post-study. However, the effect was not large, and when examined separately in its two sub-scales of benevolent sexism and hostile sexism, neither difference reached significance. Furthermore, the intervention had no effect on the men’s endorsement of rape-supportive attitudes. Thankfully support for these views were pretty low to begin with, but they didn’t begin at rock bottom – we know this because support for them did drop significantly, but by the same amount for both the intervention and the control group.

Lastly, the study was expected to change people’s assumptions about other men’s sexism, also measured pre- and post-study. Pre-study, participants on average rated other men as more sexist than themselves – suggesting some men may indeed act with (or fail to act against) sexism due to a false sense of sexist social norms – but the intervention didn’t shift these assumptions.

Overall then, this intervention had some success, but the disappointing caveats perhaps go to show just how hard attitude change can be. It may be that a more intensive version of the current programme is needed for changing attitudes towards rape, and that other methods are required to re-calibrate those dangerously inaccurate assumptions about sexism’s hold on male minds. But let’s not be too downbeat about the current results: they do at least show that the experience of being called on to challenge casual sexism is effective in helping some men begin to address their own attitudes.


Kilmartin, C., Semelsberger, R., Dye, S., Boggs, E., & Kolar, D. (2015). A Behavior Intervention to Reduce Sexism in College Men Gender Issues, 32 (2), 97-110 DOI: 10.1007/s12147-014-9130-1

further reading
Is sexism in science really over?
Benevolent sexism puts women off asking for help
Queen Bees are the consequence not the cause of sexist work-places
Men who are ashamed of their bodies are more prone to sexual aggression against women – US study
Intervention helps reduce homophobia

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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