"Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them"

Why benevolent sexism hurts us all.

Posted Jan 04, 2020

Psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske introduced the idea of ambivalent sexism to point out that sexism can be both “hostile” and “benevolent.” [1] Ambivalent sexism arises because some men continue to have (or continue to want to maintain) greater authority and status than women while at the same time being interdependent on them (particularly if they are heterosexual).  

Voila! It is this dynamic—a group of people (men) who want to keep their authority and status yet are intimately interdependent on a subordinated group (women)—that creates men’s ambivalence toward women. Glick and Fiske argue that the need to maintain authority and status leads to “hostile sexism” (misogyny), while the wish to maintain intimate interdependence with women leads to ”benevolent sexism.”

A Brief Note on “Hostile Sexism”

We know “hostile sexism”—it’s misogyny. Examples of the modern version of hostile sexism are: “Feminists are demanding too much of men”; “Women complain too much about things at work”; “Women use sex to manipulate men and gain power over them.” [2] Hostile sexism is often about women conniving and competing with men in ways that aren’t fair.

Can It Be "Sexism" If It Seems Positive? 

Views about women that support a benevolent sexist attitude may not appear harmful to women at first glance. Yet such attitudes tend to reinforce the status quo by restricting gender equity, which limits women’s personal, professional, political, and social opportunities. The table below shows a few typical benevolent attitudes and the stereotypical ideas on which they are based.

Catherine E. Aponte, Psy.D.
Benevolent Sexist Attitudes
Source: Catherine E. Aponte, Psy.D.

Many people—men in particular—don’t often identify “benevolent sexism” as a form of gender-based prejudice. [3] It may be difficult to distinguish between kindness, tradition, and benevolent sexism—when a man insists on holding a door open for a woman, for instance, or compliments her on her looks in an inappropriate setting. 

Complimenting a woman on her looks may just be a compliment—in some circumstances. But complimenting an author on her appearance rather than on the content of her writing—or mentioning how surprising it is that she is a woman since her field is mostly filled with men—is a different story. Calling attention to a woman’s looks in this context often causes a feeling of unease. Trying to address this unease can cause a blowback—e.g., “Don’t be so sensitive. I am just being nice.”

Benevolent Sexism Has Consequences

While it is tempting to brush off a woman's reaction to such misplaced “compliments” as an overreaction or a misunderstanding of benign intent, benevolent sexism is real and has consequences for both men and women. Here are some research findings that identify such consequences: [4]

  • Hostile and benevolent sexism tend to be correlated, and this occurs across cultures. People who agreed to benevolent sexist statements were likely to admit that they also held explicit, hostile attitudes towards women.
  • In a study of 19 countries, benevolent sexism is a significant predictor of national gender inequality, separately from the effects of hostile sexism.
  • When women were exposed to statements illustrating benevolent sexism, they were less willing to engage in anti-sexist activism (e.g., signing a petition, participating in a rally).
  • Women are also more likely to engage in justification of the status quo—i.e., believing that there are no longer problems facing disadvantaged groups, including women. 
Catherine E. Aponte
Benevolent Sexism--An Example
Source: Catherine E. Aponte

Other research has presented men and women with expressions of both negative beliefs about women and positive, but sexist, thoughts about women for the purpose of making them more aware of both kinds of sexism. [6] The results showed that women were more likely to deem sexist behavior as less acceptable, while men continued to endorse sexist behavior.

When asked to empathize with the females in the examples, the men were less likely to endorse blatant (or hostile) sexism. However, when it came to benevolent sexism, men’s attitudes did not change regardless of the encouragement to reflect on such attitudes. They continued to consider statements such as “a good woman should be put on a pedestal” as examples of kindness, tradition, and/or positive ideas.

Benevolent Sexism in the Workplace

Glick and Fiske found that in the workplace, benevolent sexism is related to things like not giving women challenging assignments—it may be too stressful to them, too demanding. [7] Unfortunately, challenging assignments are often how women (and men) get promoted.

Women often get softer feedback as well, such as being told they are “wonderful” or “clients love you because you’re so warm and nurturing." [8] This sounds great. But when promotions and ratings are given out, women end up lower on the scales than men. In the workplace, everyone needs straightforward, honest, and critical feedback.

It is worth noting that the corporate culture of modern America was developed for the post-WWII economy, which assumed male workers were the primary breadwinners who had stay-at-home wives who were helpmates. Such helpmates were encouraged not to demonstrate “masculine” traits like ambition or assertiveness. [9]

Women Endorse Benevolent Sexism

Women today are less likely to endorse attitudes and action that reflects hostile sexism. [10] In fact, facing such hostility may encourage women to seek gender equality. However, they are susceptible to buying into benevolent sexism. Why? 

One idea is that a disadvantaged group in society will adopt the view of the dominant group. This may be the case for women who adopt sexist positions. Sexism provides justification for the social inequalities between men and women, which is accepted by the disadvantaged group. 

Women may also internalize benevolent sexism as perceived protection against more hostile reactions to them. Plus, women may see men who practice benevolent sexism positively in comparison to those who are hostilely sexist.

The Antidote to Sexism Is Equality

Ambivalent sexism poses a challenge to men. An alternative to men who rely on benevolent sexism to maintain both their status and their intimacy with women is to explore more equal relationships with the women with whom they interact, in both public and private spaces.  

Men do not always recognize benevolent sexism. There are many resources for men who want to begin an exploration of ambivalent sexism. A few good online resources are The Good Men Project: The Conversations No One Else is Having, Fatherly: Dad Advice for Parenting, and Rolereboot: Life, Off Script.

Women also do not always recognize benevolent sexism. I hope this post will help them identify benevolent sexism. Here a couple of websites that have suggestions about how to deal with benevolent sexist comments: “7 Ways To Respond To Benevolent Sexism At Work” and “5 Ways To Respond To Benevolent Sexism, Because It's Still Sexism No Matter How Nicely You Dress It Up.” Also check out Bustle for several ideas on how to respond to benevolent sexism in a number of different situations.

Takeaways

  • Ambivalent sexism results in two forms of sexism: hostile and benevolent.
  • Two forms arise because of the dilemma some men face in which they want to have both authority over and a relationship with the women in their lives.
  • Hostile sexism is often easily recognized.
  • Benevolent sexism is harder to identify—it may sound good, but is based on stereotypical ideas about the goodness and purity of women.
  • Women do not always recognize benevolently sexist comments.
  • Benevolent sexism has negative consequences for both women and men.
  • The antidote for sexism is equality.

References

1. Dixit, Jay.  Your Brain at Work. “The Science of How ‘Benevolent Sexism’ Undermines Women":  A Summit Q&A with Peter Glick. 

2. Dixit

3. Tannenbaum, Melanie.  Scientific American Blog. April 2, 2013. “The Problem When Sexism Just Sounds So Darn Friendly.” 

4. Dixit

5. Tannenbaum

6. Stampler, Laura.   “Men Don’t Recognize ‘Benevolent’ Sexism": Study.  June 27, 2011. HuffPost.

7. Dixit

8. Marcus, Bonnie.  “The Good, Bad and Ugly Ways Benevolent Sexism Plays Out in the Workplace” Forbes. April 16, 2016.

9. Dixit

10. Wikipedia contributors. “Ambivalent Sexism.”  Wikipedia.