Online sexism ‘really just a form of bullying’

Ben Parfitt
Online sexism ‘really just a form of bullying’

A new study has said the hostility inflicted on women in many online environments is little more than a form of bullying.

‘Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour' by Michael Kasumovic and Jeffrey Kuznekoff found that women receive up to ten times as many negative comments as men in chatrooms and receive three times as much negativity in online multiplayer environments.

This gender-driven bullying is particularly harsh in the gaming environment, the report speculates, due to the sexist imagery and macho posturing so prevent in many games. However, this is counteracted by the fact that the digital appearance of masculinity and strength actually counts for nothing in a competitive environment. Instead, superiority is determined by skill – leading to some male players feeling threatened by the chance that they could quite easily be bettered by women.

Halo 3 was used to test these presumptions, with recorded male and female voices used in chat and other players' responses to them recorded.

As you might expect, the male voice received far more positive comments than the female voice. In both instances the respective positive and negative feedback from team mates increased when said team mates were performing poorly.

On the flip side, more skilled male players were likely to be supportive of female team mates.

This suggests that men behaved according to a social hierarchy. When they were performing poorly – i.e. they were lower status – they did not challenge a male-voiced teammate, but they did challenge a female-voiced one,” a summary said, as spotted by Game Politics.

This was supported by our results exploring skill level –- our proxy for an individual's position in the hierarchy. Skill level didn't affect how men behaved towards another man, but men lower in skill were less positive in the female-voiced treatment.

The negative and sexist comments expressed by some men are really just a form of bullying, motivated by the fact that they are perceived as being lower in the pecking order. The take-home seems to be that, just like bullies, the men most likely to have their position in a hierarchy usurped by a woman turned out to be meaner.

When you look at this situation from an evolutionary perspective, some of the reasoning becomes more clear. Since a man's mating chances are better determined by his status than his looks, if a woman is usurping a man's status by outperforming him, it means that he is less likely to be attractive to a potential mate, especially one that is higher than him in the hierarchy.

Although it's unlikely that men are thinking about mate attraction when playing Halo 3, we think the increased negativity directed towards higher status women by some men is an unconscious response to having their masculinity challenged by a woman. "Losing to a girl" is still deemed unacceptable by many men as it can reduce their status in the eyes of others – both men and women.

The hostile aspects of gaming culture could thus be explained as the search for, and maintenance of, status. One way to ensure that a man doesn't lose to a woman is to keep women from competing by making them feel unwanted in that environment.

Perhaps this perspective may also help explain the misogyny we see when women enter some male-dominated fields. The aggression may come from lower status men that are trying to keep women out by employing sexist bullying in order to ensure they don't lose status in the presence of their male colleagues.”

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