The Collateral Damage of Ambient Sexism: Observing Sexism
Impacts Bystander Self-Esteem and Career Aspirations
Jill C. Bradley-Geist
Susan D. Geringer
Published online: 8 July 2015
Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015
Abstract Prior research demonstrates detrimental effects of
sexism on female targets’ well-being and career outcomes.
Extending research on those targeted by sexism, the current
study explored the collateral damage of ambient sexism on
bystanders observing sexism directed at others. An experi-
ment with 218 U.S. undergraduates at a large West-coast pub-
lic university assessed how ambient sexism directed at a fe-
male job applicant impacted male and female bystanders’ self-
esteem and career aspirations. Results generally supported
theoretical predictions regarding the moderating impact of by-
stander gender on the relationship between ambient sexism
and bystander well-being. As hypothesized, ambient hostile
sexism more negatively impacted female bystanders than
male bystanders with regard to performance-based state self-
esteem. Performance-based self-esteem in turn predicted ca-
reer aspirations such that lower performance-based state self-
esteem predicted lower career aspirations: gender moderated
this mediated relationship such that the indirect effect was
more negative for female bystanders than male bystanders.
Gender also moderated the relationship between ambient be-
nevolent sexism and appearance-based state self-esteem.
Women observing benevolent sexism tended to report en-
hanced appearance-based esteem relative to women in the
hostile sexism and control conditions, whereas men observing
benevolent sexism reported significantly lower appearance
esteem than men in the hostile sexism and control conditions.
In sum, the current study suggests that women and men
bystanders are impacted differently by ambient benevolent
and hostile sexism.
Keywords Ambivalent sexism
There is no shortage of research demonstrating the prevalence
of sexism in the U.S. workplace (e.g., Huffman et al. 2010;
Leslie et al. 2008; Lips 2013) or the detrimental impact of
sexism and harassment on the well-being and career outcomes
of female targets both in the U.S. (e.g., Fitzgerald et al. 1997)
and cross-culturally (e.g., Glick et al. 2000). Less research,
however, has addressed the question of how ambient sexism
impacts both male and female bystanders who witness sexist
behavior directed at other women. Unlike direct sexism expe-
rienced by targets, ambient exposure to sexism is experienced
indirectly through observing sexism against others (see
Glomb et al. 1997).
The current study expands on existing literature by explor-
ing ambient sexism through the lens of Ambivalent Sexism
Theory (Glick and Fiske 1996). Utilizing a sample of U.S.
undergraduates, we predicted that ambient sexism would in-
flict collateral damage on bystanders. Thus, the current study
shifts away from the traditional research emphasis on female
targets’ experiences (see Cortina et al. 2002) and instead fo-
cuses on the experiences of bystanders-both women and men
who observe sexism against a female target. Given our U.S.-
based sample, theoretical arguments and past empirical re-
search discussed in this article can be assumed to pertain to
U.S. culture and U.S. participants unless otherwise specified.
Building on prior research and theory, we argue that a general
* Jill C. Bradley-Geist
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, School of Business:
1420 Austin Bluffs Pkwy, Colorado Springs, CO 80918, USA
California State University, Fresno, CA, USA
Sex Roles (2015) 73:29–42