A male Walmart supervisor harassed female employees, publicly remarking that “Women are good for nothing.” Yet, when one of his female employees sued, the court concluded that no gender discrimination had occurred.

What happened?

An insidious bias came into play, according to Darden Professors Peter Belmi and Gabrielle Adams, whose new research highlights an underrecognized way that sexism slides under people’s radars.

In Dotel v. Walmart Stores Inc., 2016, the court found that because the Walmart supervisor was rude to both men and women, he was an “equal opportunity jerk,” and hence his actions weren’t sexist.

Sexism and Rudeness: Not Mutually Exclusive

“Sexism is not just about treating men and women differently. Sexism is also about holding attitudes that endorse and promote negative stereotypes about women,” says Belmi. “Men who hold negative stereotypes about women can be — and often are — rude toward other men. Sexism and rudeness are not mutually exclusive.”

When a man makes sexist comments to women, people recognize sexism immediately. But when that same man also behaves rudely to other men, people have a hard time recognizing he is sexist. Rudeness “obscures the recognition of sexism by creating the perception that the sexist perpetrator does not notice or pay attention to gender,” Belmi, Adams and colleague Sora Jun of the University of Texas write in “The ‘Equal-Opportunity Jerk’ Defense: Rudeness Can Obfuscate Gender Bias,” published in Psychological Science. This false perception allows the sexism to persist in an organization’s culture.

Perceptions of Gender Blindness vs. Gender Bias

To examine the question of how rudeness to men blunts the perception of sexism, the researchers first asked 2,100 participants to read tweets written by former President Donald Trump.

When participants saw Trump berating women with sexist comments, they concluded Trump was sexist. But when they also saw Trump berating other men on Twitter, the perception softened. “The more frequently participants saw Trump berating men, the more they thought he was gender blind. Perceptions of gender blindness were associated with perceptions of less sexism,” the researchers observe.

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The team also studied the interplay between rudeness and perceived sexism in organizations. In one study, they had participants read about a manager who asked a female employee whether she “left her brain at the salon.” When participants only saw his interchange with the woman, participants thought this manager was sexist. But when they also read that the manager made rude remarks toward other men, they did not perceive him as sexist.

Plausible Deniability and a Critical Barrier to Addressing Sexism

“To address sexism, people must first recognize it,” Belmi, Adams and Jun write.

In their final study, the research team asked MBA students how they would handle an “equal-opportunity jerk.” When participants considered examples of managers being rude to men alongside of examples of sexist behavior, they were less likely to say it was very important for those managers to receive gender-bias training. “Participants thought what those managers needed was anger-management training. But gender-bias training? Not so much,” Belmi says.

“These findings show that rudeness creates a critical barrier to addressing sexism. It discourages observers from recommending gender-bias training for sexist perpetrators,” the paper reads.

Belmi believes this bias is widespread. “Some lawyers use it to defend against Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuits,” he says. “Treating everyone poorly can offer plausible deniability. Rudeness toward men can serve as a convenient mask for bias against women and protect misogynistic bosses.”

Being victimized by an “equal-opportunity jerk” may also undermine women’s confidence in speaking up about mistreatment, an issue Belmi and team are exploring in further research.

As for managers: “Don’t fall for the equal-opportunity-jerk defense,” Belmi advises. “Point out that sexism is about holding certain stereotypes about women. It is not just about treating men and women differently.”

Peter Belmi co-authored “The Equal-Opportunity Jerk Defense: Rudeness Can Obfuscate Gender Bias,” which appeared in Psychological Science, with Sora Jun of the University of Texas at Dallas Naveen Jindal School of Management, and Gabrielle S. Adams of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and Frank Batten School of Leadership & Public Policy.

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