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10 Depressing Experiments About Sex And Gender

by Karl Smallwood
fact checked by Jamie Frater

We’ve covered a lot of depressing experiments in the past, and because the world isn’t a nice place, we’ve found a lot more. Today, we’re talking about experiments conducted by scientists and even curious members of the public that reveal uncomfortable truths about sexism and how it rears its ugly head in everyday life.

10Being Blonde Instantly Changes How Women Are Treated By Men

The idea that we’re morally obligated to help other people when they’re in trouble is deeply ingrained in our society, though in practice, it rarely works out that way. Our inclination to help another person can be influenced by everything from whether we think people are watching to how busy we are.

In 2010, New Zealand Star reporter Celeste Gorrell Antiss performed an experiment to see if people would be more inclined to help a blonde or brunette stranger carry some heavy boxes or assist her with car trouble. Though her sample size was small, limited to only a few encounters over a few days, the results showed that as a blonde, Celeste received help four times as often as she did as a brunette.

In another social experiment, brunette student Elyssa Goodman found that when she donned a blonde wig, it only took about 30 minutes for someone to call her a whore to her face. Goodman was wearing exactly the same clothes she’d worn the previous week—the only change was her hair color.

These aren’t cherry-picked examples, either. The so-called “blonde effect”—that is, the phenomenon of men openly treating women differently based on hair color—has been noted by many female bloggers. It’s even been studied by scientists, who have observed that blonde women, along with being far more likely to receive help from men, are paid more than other women in the same positions.

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9Benevolent Sexism Is No Better Than Hostile Sexism

Benevolent sexism is defined as “a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure).” Though it seems less immediately problematic than overtly hateful sentiments, it has been called the “real barrier holding women back,” and numerous studies have shown that it has a profound negative effect on women.

For example, one study found that men who held benevolently sexist attitudes invariably chose to give women less-challenging tasks than men, robbing them of the chance to prove their competence. In 2007, another study found that women who were exposed to benevolent sexism prior to completing a series of logic puzzles performed worse than women exposed to both hostile sexism and no sexism at all. In 2011, researchers found that when women politely declined an offer to help set up a computer system by a colleague because the task was “too frustrating for a woman,” she was invariably seen as distant and cold. When the experiment was conducted with the genders reversed, the men weren’t viewed negatively at all for declining the offer.

8Sexist Jokes Make People More Sexist

Sexists jokes are annoyingly common in our culture, but they’re not hurting anyone, right? In actual fact, they may be a lot more harmful than they appear. In an experiment by psychologist Thomas Ford, it was observed that the simple act of telling a sexist joke could influence men’s attitudes toward women. After watching a sexist comedy skit, men were more inclined to agree with cutting funding to a women’s student organization. Even men who previously reported solidly progressive attitudes were more susceptible to sexist behavior after being exposed to sexist humor.

The researchers believe that this effect can be attributed to humor’s tendency to defang a subject and make certain behavior seem acceptable. “We believe this shows that humorous disparagement creates the perception of a shared standard of tolerance of discrimination that may guide behavior when people believe others feel the same way,” Ford concluded. You may think your sexist buddy’s joke is offensive, but it’s likely making you think more offensively.

7Yoga Pants And Homophobia


Women have a dilemma when it comes to comfortable clothes like leggings. While the less-restrictive fit is more practical for everyday life than rough denim or other fabrics, the clingy drape tends to highlight their assets. When YouTube prankster Youseff Saleh Erakat heard from one of his female friends that she couldn’t wear yoga pants without men staring at her, he decided to see how the other half lives. He donned some ladies’ sportswear and spent an afternoon bent over the trunk of his car in a parking lot, filming the reactions of male passersby.

The results were an eye-opening depiction of the current state of casual sexism in the world. Several men did indeed mistake Erakat for a woman and openly check him out, after which Erakat revealed himself and asked “Did you just look at my butt?” While many were happy to laugh at themselves, though, some reacted with outright anger. Upon revealing his identity, Erakat was greeted with everything from homophobic slurs to real threats of violence. It would seem that gay panic is alive and well in these supposedly progressive times.

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6Scientists Offer Qualified Women Less Money And Fewer Jobs

The last few years have seen a huge push to get women into the world of science, and it certainly needs them. In the UK, only 9 percent of hard science academics are women, and the numbers are similar in most developed countries. However, the reason women are in such short supply may not be their fault. A 2012 study showed that female scientists and researchers with the exact same qualifications as their male peers are consistently offered lower salaries and fewer jobs in the world of science.

In this study, several dozen resumes were sent to professors across the country. The resumes were identical except for the name. In almost every case, applicants with female names were seen as less competent, and the professor was less likely to offer them a job. When they did, they offered the female applicants lower salaries. Every professor, “old and young, male and female alike” showed a preference for male applicants.

5Women Are Given Less Money To Fight Disease

Without research grants, scientists and researchers would be incapable of doing their jobs, and scientific progress would grind to a halt. With that in mind, you’d hope that when it comes to deciding which scientists get money to study something important, like a highly infectious disease, the decision is influenced by more relevant factors than their gender.

Unfortunately, in a study published in late 2013, analyses of 6,000 grant applications in the field of epidemiology found that women were massively less likely to receive funding than men. When they did, the amount awarded was almost always less than that awarded to a male with a similar proposal. These were scientists studying some of the deadliest diseases on Earth, and it’s nothing less than a tragedy that their progress toward kicking those diseases to death was needlessly impeded by something as trivial as gender.

4Feminine Usernames Instantly Increase Harassment

It is almost a statistical guarantee that if you are a woman, you have been harassed online purely because of your gender. Researchers at the University of Maryland who set up fake online profiles with conspicuously male and female usernames found that the female accounts received around 163 malicious or sexually explicit messages per day, 25 times more than male accounts did. They even determined that these messages didn’t come from “bots” but real men who specifically targeted women online.

A less reliable but equally telling experiment was conducted by female members of Reddit. These women reported that instances of abuse, harassment, and just plain unpleasantness plummeted if they used a gender-neutral username.

3Discrimination Against Women In Classical Music

Like the world of science, classical music has struggled with deeply ingrained sexism. A study by economist Cecilia Rouse found that auditioning from behind a screen increased a female musician’s chance of being hired by a professional orchestra by as much as 50 percent.

Since blind auditions have become more commonplace, the number of women in symphony orchestras has increased from just 10 percent to around 35 percent. As late as the 1980s, it wasn’t uncommon for a performer to walk to the stage wearing no shoes, just in case the people behind the screen heard her high heels and realized that she was a woman.

2University Faculty Show Overwhelming Preference To White Men

In early 2014, a group of researchers conducted an experiment to discern whether university faculty showed preference toward students of different races and genders. They sent 6,500 emails to professors at some of the finest schools in America. With the exception of the name at the bottom of each email, they were all identical, containing a simple message asking to meet with the professor to discuss their chosen field.

It was found that in almost every case, white male students were far more likely to receive a reply than any other group. Even professors from the same background were less likely to respond to a minority student than the same email from a white male student. Even more worryingly, faculty in more lucrative fields, such as business and the natural sciences, were especially likely to discriminate against minorities.

1Entitled Equals Sexism

In a recent study by researchers from Case Western Reserve University and San Diego State University, a link between entitlement and sexism was observed in subjects of both genders. To evaluate attitudes of entitlement, the participants were asked to review a series of statements like “If I were on the Titanic, I would deserve to be on the first lifeboat” and rate how much they agreed with each one. These responses were then compared to responses to sexist statements like “Women seek to gain power by getting control over men” and “Women should be cherished and protected by men.”

In general, entitled men tended to display high levels of hostile sexism, which manifested as a highly critical view of women as manipulative and dangerous. Entitled women, on the other hand, displayed higher levels of benevolent sexism, which invariably manifested as an idealization of their gender bordering on narcissistic. Hopefully, those two sets of people find each other, fight it out, and leave the rest of us alone.

Karl Smallwood is a freelance writer just trying to make his way in the world by writing stupid things online. The people who invariably want to yell at him for writing this article can do so via Twitter and Tumblr.

fact checked by Jamie Frater