Date of Award

Spring 5-2022

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Shannon McCoy

Second Committee Member

Emily Haigh

Third Committee Member

Mollie Ruben


When women experience sexism, it may at first be subtle and difficult to label only becoming clearer over time. Sexism is often ambiguous in nature and experienced over an extended period; therefore, studying sexism as it occurs in daily life is crucial to extending our understanding of how women cope with discrimination. Past research has shown that women may experience maladaptive physiological responses when exposed to various forms of sexism. The current study investigated women’s cardiovascular reactivity and recovery responses to prolonged, increasingly obvious sexism. Women evaluated resumes in a mock search committee meeting with two male confederates whose statements about the female candidate increased in the clarity of sexism throughout the discussion period. Heart Rate (HR) and Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA) reactivity, recovery, self-reported anger and anxiety, group identification, and perceived sexism were measured in the study.

Results demonstrated that women’s physiological reactivity changed throughout the discussion period in response to the increasingly clarity of sexism. When exposed to sexism, women’s heart rate reactivity systematically increased and respiratory sinus arrhythmia reactivity systematically decreased (RSA suppression) as sexism increased from not expressed, to ambiguous, to clear. In contrast, women in the comparison condition (i.e., not exposed to the sexist committee members) did not display increasing physiological reactivity as the clarity of sexism increased. These patterns of physiological reactivity and their correlations with anger, anxiety, gender identification, and perceived sexism are discussed and provide insight into potential motivational and emotional states of participants throughout the study. Results supported the approach of examining physiological reactivity over time and provided strong justification for further investigation into other cardiovascular markers (e.g., cardiac output, total peripheral resistance).