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New study shows that being rude to everyone can mask sexism

A Darden professor’s research reveals that hostility toward both men and women creates the illusion of gender blindness

Can being rude to all your workplace colleagues make it easier to get away with gender discrimination? That’s what Darden School associate professor Peter Belmi and fellow researchers Gabrielle S. Adams in the Batten School and Sora Jun at the University of Texas at Dallas argue in a recent paper, “The ‘Equal-Opportunity Jerk’ Defense,” published in the journal Psychological Science.

Defining sexism as promoting, reflecting or fostering “negative or pejorative stereotypes about women,” the researchers conducted studies to examine whether rudeness toward men creates the illusion of gender blindness. In the first, a survey of men who have jobs, they found that general rudeness toward both male and female colleagues and sexist attitudes toward women specifically were not mutually exclusive. In a second experiment using derogatory tweets from former President Donald Trump, participants were more likely to see Trump as sexist when tweets aimed only at women were presented, and less likely when hostile tweets aimed both at men and women were presented. In additional studies, involving both workplace scenarios and a fictionalized news article, observers were less likely to view a manager as sexist or gender-biased if he was rude to both male and female subordinates, even if his comments to the women suggested sexist attitudes.

Belmi, lead author of the paper, notes that while being rude to employees isn’t illegal, gender discrimination in the workplace is. However, he points out, these findings suggest that “rudeness can serve as a convenient mask of bias against women,” making it more difficult for organizations to identify and root out gender discrimination.