Sex Roles

, Volume 75, Issue 5–6, pp 272–284 | Cite as

What Did He Mean by that? Humor Decreases Attributions of Sexism and Confrontation of Sexist Jokes

  • Robyn K. MallettEmail author
  • Thomas E. Ford
  • Julie A. Woodzicka
Original Article


Sexist humor may be more difficult to confront than serious expressions of sexism because humor disguises the biased nature of the remark. The present research investigated whether delivering a sexist remark as a joke, compared to a serious statement, tempered perceptions that the speaker was sexist which, in turn, made women less likely to confront. Using a computer-mediated instant messaging paradigm, women were randomly assigned to receive the same sexist remark phrased either in a serious manner or as a joke. We recorded how women actually responded to the sexist remark and coded for confrontation. In Experiments 1 (195 women) and 2 (134 women) we found that humor decreased perceptions that the speaker was sexist. Furthermore, as perceptions that the perpetrator was sexist decreased, women’s confronting also decreased. Experiment 2 demonstrated an additional consequence of reducing the perceived sexism of the perpetrator—it increased tolerance of sexist behavior perpetrated against an individual woman and sexual harassment more generally. Interestingly, the indirect effects only appeared when women at least moderately endorsed hostile sexism. For hostile sexists, failure to identify sexism reduced confrontation and increased tolerance for sexual harassment and sexist behavior. Contrary to popular belief, humor can actually make sexist messages more dangerous and difficult to confront than serious remarks.


Disparagement humor Sexism Confrontation Hostile sexism 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robyn K. Mallett
    • 1
    Email author
  • Thomas E. Ford
    • 2
  • Julie A. Woodzicka
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyLoyola University ChicagoChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyWestern Carolina UniversityCullowheeUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyWashington & Lee UniversityLexingtonUSA

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