Assessments for Identifying Overt Sexism (Case Study 1)

One Way to Address Overt Sexism and Improve Women’s Retention in IT

One important step toward minimizing the occurrence of overt sexist behavior is identifying the extent to which it occurs in an organization, because it is often hidden. To improve awareness and track progress, both researchers and lawyers recommend conducting periodic surveys, focus groups, and audits of any complaints filed. The information gained from surveys can inform efforts to improve conditions and measure the effects of remedial actions.

Several survey tools measure the incidence of sexist behavior in different settings, although care should be taken in their use. Sexism surveys have the potential to increase women’s feelings of not belonging or concern about negative gender stereotypes. To minimize or head off unintended harmful effects, be certain to preface any survey or focus group by expressing the value your department puts on all its members. If possible, also remind participants about a positive identity they have achieved, e.g., student admitted to an elite university or employee of a quality-focused corporation.

For undergraduate programs, NCWIT offers the free Student Experience of the Major (SEM) Survey-in-a-Box and provides support from the NCWIT Extension Services. The SEM contains questions about numerous aspects of the undergraduate experience, including collaborative learning, relevant/meaningful assignments, pace and workload, and racism. It also asks about the nature of student-student and student-faculty interactions, and specifically about sexism. In particular, the SEM asks about the frequency of the following explicitly sexist behaviors:

  • Some students in my computing classes or labs are treated better than others because of their gender.

  • Some students in my computing classes or labs are treated worse than others because of their gender.

  • Students in computing class, lab, or discussion tell negative jokes about men or women.



The 28-item Perceived Chilly Climate Scale focuses more specifically on the prevalence of sexist behavior in an academic department than does the SEM. Janz and Pyke (2000) developed an instrument that measures five factors of chilly climate — climate students hear about, sexist attitudes and treatment, climate students experience personally, classroom climate/course materials, and safety. This instrument would be useful for a more complete and nuanced assessment of sexism than the SEM provides. Along similar lines, Riger, et al. (1997) developed a 35-item instrument for measuring sexism faculty experience in their academic departments.

For business settings, Stokes, Riger, & Sullivan developed a survey called “Working Environment for Women in Corporate Settings.” Their questions measure dual standards and opportunities, sexist attitudes and comments, informal socializing, balancing work and personal obligations, and remediation policies and practices. Likewise, in her book, Giving Notice, Freada Kapor Klein suggests asking all employees questions related to their observations or experiences of “bias, including ridicule, teasing, insults, stereotypes, derogatory names, or pejorative language” in addition to other issues related to hidden barriers (2008).

More instruments for measuring sexism are available from the Department of Health and Human Services in the publication, A Compendium of Measures of Discrimination, Harassment and Work-family Issues.


Carefully Track Sexism in Your Department


  • Janz, T. A., & Pyke, S. W. (2000). A scale to assess student perceptions of academic climates. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 30(1), 89–122.
  • Bond, M. et al. (2007). “Expanding our Understanding of the Psychosocial Work Environment: A Compendium of Measures of Discrimination, Harassment and Work-Family Issues.” Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Kapor Klein, F. (2008). Giving Notice. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.

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Authors: J. McGrath Cohoon