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Hostile and Benevolent Sexism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

"Play by the rules, and I’ll take care of you."

Key points

  • Benevolent sexism is a “gentler” form of sexist behavior that appears to edify women but actually limits them.
  • Benevolent sexism is reserved for women who conform to gender stereotypes, not for those who don’t.
  • All forms of sexism are harmful, so calling one brand “benevolent” may be a misnomer.

Have you ever had an encounter with a man who was kind, patient, and chivalrous, only to walk away with a weird feeling that he didn’t actually like you that much? Like maybe just behind all that charm was a bit of contempt or disdain you can’t put your finger on?

You might have experienced something called benevolent sexism.

What Is Benevolent Sexism?

While hostile sexism is overt, aggressive, and easy to spot, benevolent sexism is covert and confusing. Men with benevolently sexist attitudes tend to hold stereotypical views of gender and see men as natural providers and protectors of women (Glick & Fisk, 2001; Glick et al., 2000). They may therefore portray women as soft, genteel, and vulnerable and see their role as men to be ensuring that women are kept under the umbrella of their care. While benevolent sexism may have a veneer of kindness and positivity toward women, it is a tactic (whether conscious or unconscious) of shaping women’s behavior, rewarding them for “playing by the rules,” and putting a glass ceiling over their heads. It is, as some researchers have called it, a powerful weapon of social control (Glick & Fisk, 2001; Jackman, 1994).

It is easy for women to be confused by this behavior. After all, practically from birth, we are bombarded with imagery of the chivalrous male protectors and providers who are the epitome of romantic love (Barretto & Ellemers 2005; Connelley & Heesacker 2012; Jones, Stewart, et al. 2014). We first saw this scene play out in the Disney movies we watched as children and continue to see it in the blockbuster films we see as adults. When we enter our careers, our friendships, and our romantic relationships, we find ourselves constantly surrounded by men who fit this trope. At work, they want to protect us from the scorn of the team leader. In our friendships, they strive to protect our honor and reputation with other men. In our romantic relationships, they offer to rescue us from a life of futility and strife by being our primary provider and protector. And, honestly? Sometimes that sounds nice.

However, the research tells us these behaviors are often not the gift they appear to be on the surface. Indeed, many of the men who ascribe to these views of gender dynamics tend to hold latent and deep-seated sexism toward women. While this form of sexism appears softer and gentler than hostile sexism, it can be just as harmful.

In fact, more than 20 years of scientific study have suggested that benevolent sexism and hostile sexism are two sides of the same coin. Men who hold sexist beliefs don’t tend to behave exclusively one way or the other. Instead, they evoke different types of sexism based on who they are around. These men bestow benevolent sexism upon the “right kind of women” who ascribe to stereotypical gender roles and relationship dynamics (Forbes et al., 2004; Glick et al., 2000) To these women, they provide gender differentiation (e.g., Since women are naturally less capable than men, it’s my job to provide for you) and paternalistic protection (e.g., Since women are naturally weaker and more gullible than men, it’s my job to protect you).

But this type of sexism is not reserved for women who reject such ideas about their identity. To the women who view themselves as equals to men and agents of their own destiny, these men typically display hostile sexism. Indeed, these men use the fact that such women have abandoned their “natural-born role” in the gender hierarchy as justification for treating them with hostility.

When “Benevolent” Isn’t so Benevolent

There are many problems here, in addition to the obvious one: that any form of sexism toward women is wrong and uncalled for.

First, we know too well that the same men who want women to play by the rules will also be the first to shame and criticize women for doing exactly that. The men who buy into patriarchal ideas that the “right kind of woman” can succeed in our patriarchal system if they secure a high-status mate will also call those women hypergamous gold diggers if they get too close to reaching the same wealth, status, or power as men.

These men’s protection and provision are contingent upon women playing by the rules and never actually winning. For women, it is a zero-sum game.

Second, men who display benevolent sexism will instantly switch to hostile sexism if the “right kind of woman” suddenly becomes the wrong kind. If a submissive wife becomes conscious of her oppression and desires equality with her husband, or if a female employee decides she no longer wants to put up with a co-worker's sexual advances in exchange for his “protection” at work, the benevolent veneer will crumble and hostile sexism will bare its teeth.

Benevolent sexism is a misnomer: There is nothing kind, gentle, or soft about it at all. It is precarious and potentially deadly. It is contingent only upon women playing by the right rules, the right way, and with the right men. As we come to better understand the fact that benevolent sexism and hostile sexism are just two sides of the same coin, is it even appropriate to call it benevolent? It seems that any act of sexism that serves to subvert, control, or oppress women is disqualified from that label, no matter how it appears on the surface.


Barreto, M., Ellemers, N., Piebinga, L. and Moya, M. (2010), “How nice of us and how dumb of me: the effect of exposure to benevolent sexism on women’s task and relational self-descriptions,” Sex Roles, 62, 532–554.

Connelly, K. and Heesacker, M. (2012), “Why is benevolent sexism appealing? Associations with system justification and life satisfaction”, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36, 432–443.

Forbes G. B., Doroszewicz K., Card K., Adams-Curtis L. (2004). Association of the thin body ideal, ambivalent sexism, and self-esteem with body acceptance and the preferred body size of college women in Poland and the United States. Sex Roles, 50, 331–345.

Glick P., Fiske S. T. (2001). An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications for gender inequality. American Psychologist, 56, 109–118.

Glick P., Fiske S. T., Mladinic A., Saiz J. L., Abrams D., Masser B., et al. (2000). Beyond prejudice as simple antipathy: Hostile and benevolent sexism across cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 763–775.

Jackman M. R. (1994). The Velvet Glove: Paternalism and Conflict in Gender, Class, and Race Relations. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Jones, K., Stewart, K., King, E., Botsford Morgan, W., Gilrane, V., & Hylton, K. (2014). Negative consequence of benevolent sexism on efficacy and performance. Gender in Management: An International Journal, 29(3), 171–189.

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