Why Are Women Attracted to Benevolently Sexist Men?
Benevolent sexism signals willingness to invest in relationships.
Posted Aug 07, 2018
New research reveals that the reason why many women like benevolently sexist men is that these women interpret the men’s paternalistic and chivalrous attitude as indication of their willingness to commit and invest in a potential relationship.1
Before reviewing this study in more detail, I would like to discuss different kinds of sexism, and then quickly review other potential reasons why women show interest in benevolently sexist men.
In their 1996 paper,2 Glick and Fiske ask a rather strange question: “Is sexism a form of prejudice?” Of course it is, you might reply. But as the authors remind the reader, prejudice is associated with antipathy (based on rigid and wrong generalization); sexism, on the other hand, is not always hostile.
Glick and Fiske propose that sexism encompasses two varieties: hostile and benevolent.
Hostile sexism refers to classic prejudice, and is associated with hostile and contemptuous attitudes and behaviors toward women.
Benevolent sexism, however, is defined as a subjectively positive but nevertheless stereotypical view of women. Namely, benevolently sexist men adore women, and yet also believe that women need help and protection and are best suited to traditional gender roles (e.g., men as providers and women as their dependents).2
Previous research has shown that women appear to like benevolently sexist men. For instance, a 2010 German study found that female undergraduate students considered benevolently sexist men as most likable, and hostile sexist men as least likable. Men who were nonsexist were liked more than the hostile sexist men, but still less than the benevolently sexist men.3
Why do women like benevolently sexist men?
Benevolent sexism is associated with numerous negative consequences for women. These include self-objectification, approval of imposed restrictions by men, lower cognitive performance, reduced support for gender equality, feeling less competent in work situations.1
So the question is, why are many woman attracted to it?
According to one theory, women are allured by the positive aspects of benevolent sexism (e.g., men cherishing women), and are unaware of its insidious effects.
Another view, the “protection racket” theory, proposes that women prefer benevolently sexist men because these men help women manage the threat of the other type of prejudiced men (the hostile sexist individuals).
The third hypothesis, the one advanced by the current authors, is called “benevolence as a mate-preference,” and concerns gender differences in investment in marital relationships and parenting.
In general, compared with women, men are much less invested as parents; nevertheless, a man’s contributions (i.e. providing food and protection) can significantly increase the chances of the offspring’s survival. Therefore, women prefer men who are more likely to invest in the relationship.
Women prefer men who are not only capable of investing in the relationship (e.g., hard-working and financially dependable) but are also willing to invest (e.g., do not spend their resources on other potential mates).
The “benevolence as a mate-preference” theory concludes that the reason benevolently sexist men are considered likable and attractive is that their behaviors signal commitment, desire to invest in the relationship, and willingness to provide for and protect the woman and her offspring (if that should be required).
To test their theory, Gul and Kupfer conducted three related studies, as I will describe below.
The studies’ samples consisted of heterosexual female participants.
The results of the first two studies showed that benevolently sexist men were perceived as more likely to commit, provide, and protect their mates; they were also seen as more attractive.
In addition, the data revealed that female participants were well aware of the negative characteristics of the benevolently sexist men (e.g., being patronizing and undermining), but still found them likable.
The results of the third study ruled out the protection racket explanation considered earlier; in other words, attractiveness could not be explained by the extent of hostile sexism in the participants’ daily lives.
A surprising finding was that even participants who scored high on a feminist belief measure found benevolently sexist men likable.
The researchers offered two possible explanations for this finding.
According to one interpretation (as reviewed earlier), from an evolutionary perspective, all heterosexual women (i.e. feminist and non-feminist) would be expected to be more attracted to men who show willingness to invest in a relationship.
According to a second account, given that in our current society the division of labor and access to financial resources still favors men, it makes sense that even feminists would like a man who shows willingness to act as the provider.
The authors cautiously provide the following recommendation:
Given that having a kind and caring partner results in increased relationship satisfaction, and considering that having fulfilling relationships are important for well-being and happiness, then “it might not always be desirable to discourage women from preferring mates with benevolent gender attitudes.”1
1. Gul, P., & Kupfer, T. R. (in press). Benevolent sexism and mate preferences: Why do women prefer benevolent men despite recognizing that they can be undermining? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Doi:10.1177/0146167218781000
2. Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 491-512.
3. Bohner, G., Ahlborn, K., & Steiner, R. (2010). How sexy are sexist men? Women’s perception of male response profiles in the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory. Sex Roles, 62, 568-582.