The University Record, February 7, 1994

Women acknowledge presence of workplace discrimination; rarely believe it applies to them

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

Women know that sexual discrimination exists in the work place, but rarely believe it applies to them. The working woman’s “not me” attitude is an example of the “denial of personal disadvantage” phenomenon, according to psychologists at the U-M and Smith College.

Diana I. Cordova of the Institute for Social Research and Faye Crosby and Karen Jaskar of Smith College analyze the prevalence and roots of the “not me” stance in a chapter of a new book, Group Motivation: Social Psychological Perspectives.

While conducting their research, they heard a classic “not me” illustration. During World War II, a dozen women attended Smith College and then went on to train as engineers at Harvard Uni-versity. But they ran into a problem. Harvard provided no restrooms for them.

The women, however, never considered that as sexual discrimination—not even when they reminisced about their experiences more than 40 years later.

“This small anecdote illustrates not only the existence of sex discrimination over time, but also the extent of self-delusion,” the researchers say.

Were the Smith alumnae simply the product of an earlier, less feminist era or was their denial more typical than that? The researchers describe numerous studies conducted over the past 20 years—including studies of Black activists, French Canadians, gay men, and minority M.B.A.s—that suggest that denial of personal disadvantage is widespread.

Two studies led by Crosby in the 1980s show how powerful the pattern of denial is in women. The study included 182 men and 163 women of comparable age, education, training and occupational level. Even though the women earned significantly less on average than their male counterparts, and even though most acknowledged sex discrimination as a serious social problem, only 13 felt that they and all women were shortchanged, and “were able to see their work place experiences in relation to women as a whole,” the researchers write. The rest felt “personally exempt.”

Whether women feel they personally are being discriminated against depends on several factors:

  • Women who compare themselves with sub-groups where men predominate, such as a firm of male lawyers, will feel discriminated against. Those who compare themselves with other women in the field feel satisfied.

  • If they identify themselves strongly as employed women or career women, they are more likely to spot discrimination against them.

    “This tendency is consistent with social identity theory,” the researchers note, which argues that when social characteristics (“I am a career woman”) become more salient than individual ones (“I play tennis”), the woman begins to think and act like a member of a group—in this case, a working woman who is concerned about salary.

  • The format in which the sex discrimination information is presented affects what they see. One instance of discrimination, no matter how blatant, won’t do it.

    “For instance, in several studies, students were presented with a hypothetical company where sex discrimination was rife across all 10 departments,” the researchers say.

    One-half of the students received the sex, performance and salary data for the departments in a single large table. The other one-half saw the data one department at a time, in sequence. Those who saw the data in the large table were much more likely to spot sex discrimination.

    “Clearly the cognitive or information processing component is important,” the researchers say.

    They add that basic emotional factors also trigger denial:

  • All of us need to believe we live in a just, predictable world where we are rewarded for our efforts. Thinking otherwise is threatening because it means we might “fall victim to unexpected and undeserved misfortune.” Discrimination is unjust, so women find it literally unthinkable.

  • Everyone is distressed to think that “co-workers and supervisors are anything less than totally admirable,” so women avoid the discriminatory evidence before them.

  • People need to see themselves as “special, as unaffected by the law of averages and outside the march of history.” They need to believe that their unique attributes will help them achieve good outcomes and avoid bad ones. Acknowledging sex discrimination means they are not different than others.