How Does Combating Overt Sexism Affect Women’s Retention?

Sexism systematically disadvantages women through sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, overt discrimination, or other expressions of unconscious or conscious bias or stereotypes about women. In addition to the individual harm sexism causes, legal and social implications make addressing sexism important. Studies in a range of settings, including computer science, show that sexism leads to impaired performance and attrition. For example, recent research shows that women doctoral students are likely to leave computing as a result of sexist incidents [see callout box].

In academic settings, sexist behavior is often described as the “chilly classroom.” It includes sexually offensive behaviors ranging from suggestive humor and discussion of sexual matters to inappropriate physical contact, stereotyping, dismissing or demeaning women’s accomplishments, as well as giving more attention or positive feedback to men.

Industry settings typically focus on the type of intentional sexist behavior that constitutes sexual harassment — defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as unwelcome sexual advances or conduct that affects hiring and performance or creates an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

Sexist behaviors can be reduced. Research indicates that the following strategies reduce sexual harassment:

  • Visible high-level intolerance of these behaviors. Harassment most often occurs in environments where leaders ignore it or discourage complaints. In contrast, highly visible and proactive leadership improves conditions and helps retain women.

  • Credible policies and procedures for dealing with incidents. Clarifying what constitutes harassment and what to do if it happens decreases the incidence of sexual comments and images displayed. To be effective, these practices should be “concerted, multifaceted, organization-wide” efforts to change organizational climate (Gruber, 1998). For example, the military achieved positive results with their “zero tolerance” program. Likewise, Gruber’s study of approximately 2000 Canadian women confirmed that taken together, sexual harassment policies, complaint procedures, and training reduce sexist behavior. Finally, research suggests the importance of communicating that women are valued and able members of the department.

  • Effective training. Effective training is almost always recommended as a key ingredient for preventing intentional sexism. Training, however, also has a down side. Women are less likely to confront or report perpetrators when training emphasizes that reporting sexism could result in retaliation and alienation. On the up side, training seems to reduce harassing behavior.

  • Assessment to uncover prevalence and track outcomes of interventions. Assessment can identify the prevalence and types of sexist behavior. The results indicate whether action should be taken, with which groups, and with what content.Assessment also documents reduction in sexist behavior that results from leadership, policies, and training. In these ways, assessment can guide efforts to eradicate sexist behavior and its harmful effects.




Within the first four years of their Doctoral programs, almost one quarter of 236 women in the CRA-W Graduate Cohort (see info below) reported experiencing or observing sexism in their academic department. For example, the women describe faculty members making jokes about female abilities, male students discussing women and their sex lives, “animation posted on course website of a naked woman’s silhouette,” and a faculty member saying “that women with children should ‘choose’ between a family and an education.” Experiences like these lead women to consider leaving without their PhDs.

According to two studies sponsored by NCWIT and the Computing Research Association, more than half of the women in computer science or computer engineering (CSE) doctoral programs think about leaving before the end of their second year. In contrast, only 35% of their male classmates think about leaving. Compared with other reasons, the odds of actual departure are at least 10 times greater for women who think of leaving because they observed or experienced sexism.

In the workforce, sexual and gender harassment are associated with reduced job satisfaction and health conditions. Research from business and the military shows that when organizations fail to take sexual harassment seriously, more harassment is likely to occur, resulting in productivity and turnover problems for organizations. Even witnessing harassment has significant negative consequences. The loss of investment is substantial.


  • Paludi, M. & Paludi, C., Jr. (Eds.) (2003). Academic and workplace sexual harassment: A handbook of cultural, social science, management, and legal perspectives. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  • Grossman, J. (2003). The culture of compliance: The final triumph of form over substance in sexual harassment law. The Harvard Women’s Law Journal, 26, 3-75.
  • Gruber, J. E. (1998). The impact of male work environments and organizational policies on women’s experiences of sexual harassment. Gender and Society, 12(3), 301-320.
  • The Computing Research Association’s Committee on Women (CRA-W) offers the Graduate Cohort Program, which is a support, networking, mentoring and role model program for women in CSE graduate programs across the United States and Canada.

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Authors: J. McGrath Cohoon