Despite progress, gender discrimination remains a persistent issue worldwide. Examples abound: Women are paid less per hour than men, even when doing the same jobs while holding the same level of education (e.g., up to 7% less in Germany). Women face challenges advancing in their careers, indicated by only a third of leadership positions globally held by women. College women in the U.S. endure everyday sexism about one to two times per week in the form of prejudiced statements about their appearance and abilities.

Women respond to discrimination in various ways: Some try to ignore it, some seek social support or take legal action, and some directly confront the person who discriminated against them, saying, "This was not okay!"

Confrontation can reduce prejudice and support the struggle for gender equality.  We were interested in why women confront discrimination and how other women feel about these motives.

Women's Motives to Confront Sexist Discrimination

Women who confront gender discrimination can have different goals. Some women want to improve their own situation, reflecting an individual motive. For example, they may want an apology or for their own unfair treatment to be remedied. Other women want to improve the situation for all women, reflecting a group motive. For example, they may defend women's equality or educate the perpetrator about sexism.  Still, other women want to differentiate themselves from the typical woman, reflecting a distancing motive.  For example, they may explain how they are different from other women. 

We wondered how other women react to these different responses to gender discrimination, because their feelings might motivate support for the victim of discrimination as well as further engagement in collective efforts against sexism.  Do the goals of the victim, reflecting individual, group, or distancing motives, affect how other women feel about them? 

We proposed that each type of motive has meaning for other women that might shape how they feel about her. We expected that women would have positive feelings about the woman with the individual motive, because she stands up for herself without putting other women down. We expected that women would also have positive feelings about the woman with group motive, because she expresses solidarity with other women. In contrast, we expected that women would dislike the woman with distancing motives, because her reaction suggests devaluation of the typical woman.

In three studies involving more than 1400 German-speaking participants, we examined how much other women like women with these different confrontation motives. We asked female participants to read a short text about a woman who spoke to her supervisor after receiving a lower salary than her male colleague. In all the texts, the supervisor responded, "Women do not deserve to make as much money as men," revealing a sexist attitude. We created four versions, each describing a different reaction to the supervisor's statement:1) "I want my work to be paid appropriately and get paid as much as my colleague," (individual motive), 2) "Women deserve to get paid as much as men," (group motive), 3) "I am different from most women, and I don't want to be pigeonholed as a woman," (distancing motive), or 4) "Okay, I have to accept this then," (no opposition).  After reading the text, participants indicated how much they liked the woman.

Confrontation Motives and Liking

As we expected, female participants who read about a woman who confronted with a distancing motive liked the woman less than the participants who read the version where she confronted with an individual or group motive. They even disliked her as much as the participants who read the version in which she did not confront. Women do not prefer another women's distancing confrontation over her staying silent. 

However, not all women disliked the distancing confronter equally. Women who considered their female gender or a feminist identity an essential aspect of their self-image disliked the distancing confronter even more. For these women, distancing confrontation had a more negative meaning because the confronter devalued an important part of their identity or violated their feminist values.


It takes courage to stand up to discrimination.  Women might confront discrimination for a variety of reasons, and their responses can reflect individual, group, or distancing motives. Our research suggests that there are costs for women who respond with distancing, claiming to be different from other women. Their response implies that they feel superior or that they derogate other women, and can make other women feel devalued or betrayed.  Unsurprisingly, other women don't like people who have this response, especially other women who consider themselves feminists or are strongly identified with their gender.

Our findings underscore the importance of unity and solidarity in combating sexism. Responding with distancing attitudes or accepting the status quo can perpetuate division among women and undermine collective efforts for change. Instead, women can amplify their voices and advocate for a more inclusive and equitable society through mutual support and collaboration.

For Further Reading

Munder, A. K., Becker, J. C., Ruiz, N. S., & Christ, O. (2023). At least she is doing something? Women do not prefer a woman who confronts gender-based discrimination with a distancing motive over a nonconfronter. Psychology of Women Quarterly, Advance online publication.

Munder, A. K., Becker, J. C., & Christ, O. (2020). Standing up for whom? Targets' different goals in the confrontation of discrimination. European Journal of Social Psychology50(7), 1443-1462.

Anja Munder is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Psychology at the FernUniversität in Hagen (Hagen University) in Germany. She is interested in how people perceive and react to different forms of discrimination.