Getting the once-over from a man causes women to score lower on a math test, a new study finds.
Despite this drop in performance, women were more motivated to interact with men who ogled them, perhaps because they were trying to boost their sense of belonging, psychologists report in the February issue of the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.
"It creates this vicious cycle for women in which they're underperforming in math or work domains, but they're continuing to want to interact with the person who is making them underperform in the first place," study researcher Sarah Gervais, a psychologist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, told LiveScience.
The objectifying gaze
According to researchers, objectification happens when a person is judged on body parts or sexual function without regard to other aspects of their personality. Previous studies have found that women experience objectification frequently: One to two times a week, according to a 2001 study of U.S. college students that was published in the Journal of Social Issues. [Negative Stereotypes Have a Lasting Effect]
But although people have come to regard blatant sexual harassment as a problem, the consequences of subtle objectification are less well understood, Gervais said. She and her colleagues decided to investigate whether "sneaking a peek" at an opposite-sex workmate might affect that person's job performance.
To do so, Gervais and her colleagues trained research assistants to do a quick up-and-down look at a person's body and to train their gaze at the other person's chest for a consistent period of a few seconds during conversations. It was harder than it sounds, Gervais said.
"For people that are doing this — even the men who are presumably doing this pretty frequently — actually having to slow down and do it is pretty hard," Gervais said. It was also somewhat awkward, she added.
After the assistants had undergone close to 30 hours of gaze-training apiece, the researchers asked 67 women and 83 men, all college students, to come to the lab. The volunteers were told the study was about teamwork. After this briefing, each volunteer was assigned to an opposite-sex partner — actually a trained research assistant posing as another volunteer.
The research assistants then gave the real volunteers a five-question interview, ostensibly as part of the teamwork exercise. In some cases, the assistant started the interview by gazing from the volunteer's head to waist and back again, and then stared at the volunteer's chest for a few seconds between some questions. (Although the chest is a more sensitive area for women, men are becoming increasingly self-conscious about chest muscularity, the researchers explained.) In other cases, the assistant simply made eye contact. The volunteers then had 10 minutes to complete 12 math problems.
My eyes are up here
The results revealed that men’s scores were not affected whether or not they got an objectifying glance from a woman before the math test. But women whose male partners objectified them scored lower than those whose partners didn't gaze at their bodies. The non-objectified women scored an average of 6 out of 12 questions correct, while objectified women scored an average of just under 5.
Studies have shown that when you remind people of a stereotype about their group — "Girls are bad at math" — their performance at that task actually does drop because of their anxiety over the stereotype. This phenomenon, called stereotype threat, likely played a role in the lowered math scores, Gervais said. The women who got the objectifying look were aware of it on some level, as they reported that their partner was more preoccupied with their looks than the women who weren't ogled.
Bad math scores notwithstanding, the ogled women were more likely than the non-ogled women to say they wanted to interact with their partners more. There are a few possible explanations for this seemingly self-defeating desire, Gervais said. Women could be wishing for a chance to show the men they're not a sex object. They might have seen the flirtatious look as a sign he was attracted and returned that attraction. They may have felt flattered at being checked out. Or they may be trying to fit in, Gervais said.
"People that are being stereotyped [become] very, very concerned about their social connections and whether they belong," Gervais said. Further interaction may reduce that anxiety, she said.
The researchers are now investigating whether woman-on-woman or man-on-man gazing has any effect on performance. They're also interested in whether licentious glances could become as taboo as butt-slaps under sexual harassment law.
"When it comes to something subtle like this, it's very difficult to combat," Gervais said. "It's sort of expected that men are going to do this to women and that really it's just not that harmful."
But if research shows that sexualized gazes consistently interfere with work performance, it's time to take rubbernecking more seriously, Gervais said.
"Even though it is just a look,” she added, “it has meaningful consequences for women."
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You can follow LiveScience Senior Writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.