People don’t always think about the repercussions of checking someone out. But according to a new study conducted by St. Thomas graduate Sarah Gervais, women should pay special attention to the so-called harmless act.
During the study, participants were ogled or checked out during an interview by a trained research assistant of the opposite sex. They were then given 10 minutes to complete a 12-problem math test. The researchers found that women who were ogled during their interview got less than five out of 12 problems correct, while those who weren’t ogled correctly answered six problems. For men, there was no significant difference between the test scores of those who were ogled and those who weren’t.
The article, which was authored by Gervais and a team of researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Penn State University, was published in the March issue of “Psychology of Women Quarterly.”
“We were interested in how sexual objectification influenced women in stereotypically masculine domains, for example science, technology, engineering, math, etc.,” said Gervais, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
She said gender differences still emerge in those areas of study.
“We wanted to examine situational factors, like the objectifying gaze, that may explain some of these gender differences,” Gervais said.
Some St. Thomas students said they could see how being checked out would affect their concentration.
“I guess if I was being checked out, I would probably [lose concentration] when I go to take my test. I would still probably keep reflecting on [having been checked out],” junior Kalia Vang said. “I would probably do worse on my test because I’m thinking, ‘Why is this person checking me out?’”
Junior Ying Yang said she would react differently.
“I would probably just ignore it and get my work done,” Yang said.
Psychology professor Greg Robinson-Riegler had his own thoughts on the study.
“The results kind of indicate that being checked out has more of a negative effect on women than men,” he said. “I think it’s unclear exactly what the mechanism is.”
One possible answer is stereotype threat.
“[Stereotype threat] accentuates to the woman that she’s a woman and that women aren’t as good at math,” Robinson-Riegler said. “It is kind of highlighting that stereotype.”
Another potential explanation relates to cultural differences.
“Guys I don’t think are the subject of [objectification] nearly as much [as women],” Robinson-Riegler said. “How you look is not as important to guys, so it wouldn’t be of concern to them, whereas it is emphasized for women how they look.”
Gervais explained her results in a similar way.
“Being ‘checked out’ is a relatively novel experience for men and probably does not convey to men that their appearance is being regarded as more important than their other features,” she said.
A second finding from the study was that women who received the objectifying gaze wanted to interact more with the interviewer.
Gervais offered a few explanations in her study for why this might be, including that the women enjoyed the flattery or had taken the gaze as a sign of attraction and wanted to reciprocate. She also said the women may have wanted to spend more time with the interviewer in order to prove they were not sex objects.
Vang said she would react in a different way.
“Maybe it’s because they like the attention, but I’d probably be freaked out and would want to leave, because that’s just how I am,” she said.
Robinson-Riegler said, “I hope it’s because they are like ‘This jerk is checking me out, so I’m going to talk to him and make him see that I am not just something to be ogled.’”
Follow-up research is required to further test these findings, Gervais said.
“Regarding the flattery question, we could conduct a follow-up study in which we manipulate the objectification to be flattering (e.g., involving an appearance compliment) or not,” Gervais said. “If flattery is driving the effects, we would expect the effects to emerge in the flattering condition.”
But both Gervais and Robinson-Riegler said there is no doubt that being checked out has some kind of effect on women.
“Something about being checked out distracts you or gives you distracting thoughts, and so the question is what is at the root of those distracting thoughts,” Robinson-Riegler said.
Colleen Schreier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.