What would you do?

You have applied for a job and the interviewer asks you a question that lands like a bombshell: do you have a boyfriend? Then another: do people find you desirable? And a third: do you think it is important for women to wear bras to work? If you are a woman you probably know what you would do. Perhaps you would refuse to answer, complain or walk out. You would certainly be furious.

This is how 197 female American undergraduates, asked to imagine such an interview, said they would react. But they—and probably you—were wrong. The psychologists who asked them, Marianne LaFrance and Julie Woodzicka, orchestrated a real-life version of this ordeal, by advertising for a research assistant and arranging for male accomplices to interview the first 50 women who applied.

Half were randomly chosen to be asked those three questions. Not one refused to answer, let alone complained or walked out. When they were asked afterwards (and offered the chance to apply for a real job), they said they had felt not anger, but fear.

Videos of the interviews showed how much this supposedly minor sexual harassment threw the women off their stride. They plastered on fake smiles.

In a final twist, the researchers showed clips of the videos to male MBA students. Fake smiles are fairly easy to tell from real ones: they involve fewer facial muscles and do not crinkle the corners of the eyes. But many of the men saw the women as amused, even flirtatious.

The Economist