‘Objectifying Gaze’ Subtracts From Women’s Math Abilities

When a man looks at a woman in that way, her math skills suffer, according to a study that will be published in the March issue of the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and Pennsylvania State University at University Park asked 150 undergraduates at a large university in the Midwest — 67 women and 83 men — to participate in what they were told was a study of how people work together in teams. Instead, says Sarah J. Gervais, the lead author, the study examined how being visually “checked out” by a member of the opposite sex affected each student’s performance on math problems.

“We found that the objectifying gaze caused decreased math performance for women, but somewhat ironically we also found that the same women that were objectified also wanted more interaction with the person that had objectified them,” Ms. Gervais says in a videotaped interview with the editor of the journal. “This is ironic because those people that are causing them to underperform, they’re also wanting to interact with them more in the future.”

Asked to describe the “objectifying gaze,” Ms. Gervais laughs. “In the laboratory, as you might imagine, it’s relatively difficult to get people to gaze at other people,” she says. “So what we did in this study is we trained confederates — those are people that are sort of in on this study — we trained them to visually scan women’s bodies and then to stare at their chests when they were interviewing them, and … we did this also to men.”

The men appeared to be unfazed when their female interviewers stared at the men’s chests before and after asking the first, third, and fifth interview questions, Ms. Gervais says.

“This is a subtle gaze,” she explains. “It’s not that they’re looking there for 10 seconds. They’re briefly gazing before and after asking those questions.”

The paper — “When What You See Is What You Get: The Consequences of the Objectifying Gaze for Women and Men” — quotes from Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” in its introduction. It has been recognized as the journal’s best paper of 2011.

—Don Troop

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