The Latest on Sexism and How Compassion Makes it Even Worse

New research questions the value of compassion in helping women succeed

Posted Dec 17, 2016

We tend to think of compassion as a good thing, but new research shows the surprising ways that it can hold women back. It's all related to sexism, and how it affects your attitudes toward women's success. It's not the obvious, hostile type that's the problem. If you’ve been the target of hostile sexism, you know it for sure: Someone makes a derogatory remark about your gender and you feel attacked and belittled. You may not, however, be as able to identify treatment that qualifies as “benevolent” sexism. It may be a joke that bases its punch line on the stereotyped portrayal of a woman.  Even less obviously, it may be exposure to someone (probably a man) whose behavior suggests that women should be protected, idealized, and treated as special because they’re women.

When faced with benevolent sexism, women are placed in the awkward spot of seeming ungrateful or not able to take a joke. What’s worse, constant exposure to benevolent sexism can make a woman think less of herself as she internalizes these unfavorable attitudes. Research by Ivona Hideg of Wilfrid Laurier University and D. Lance Harris of Pennsylvania State University (2016) shows just how detrimental benevolent sexism can be when it’s expressed in the workplace.

Citing the relatively low proportion of women in top spots of major corporations around the world, Hideg and Harris note that gender-based Employment Equity (EE) policies were intended to fix the problem. However, in designing such legislation, policy makers ran into an unexpected bump in the road by virtue of the fact that employees tend to have negative attitudes toward EE. As the researchers state, “These negative reactions are problematic for governments and organizations that implement EE policies because negative reactions undermine the success of EE policies in promoting gender diversity and equality in the workplace” (p. 706). According to the authors, there may be pockets of people who do support EE policies. They propose that “EE policies may be particularly likely to evoke a sense of compassion in benevolent sexists, or a sympathetic emotional reaction that arises when seeing others that are vulnerable and need help” (p. 707).

Interestingly, although we associate sexist attitudes with men, there are many women whose attitudes would fit this definition. For them, as for their male counterparts, benevolent sexism may seem preferable to nonsexist attitudes and behaviors. They don’t realize, however, how much this seemingly innocuous desire to be treated as special actually undermines their ability to succeed at their goals. Because EE policies imply that women need “protection” from discrimination, Hideg and Harris propose that they could feed right into the notion of benevolent sexism. However, to the extent that people holding benevolent sexist attitudes toward women feel compassion for them, they should regard EE policies with favor as a way to help women in “improving their lot in life” (p. 709).

To investigate the roles of compassion and sexism in support for EE policies, Hideg and Harris asked undergraduates in business programs in the U.S. and Canada to complete a series of questionnaires, leading the researchers to derive a model predicting pro-EE attitudes and behaviors from sexism and compassion. In just looking at the results based on correlations, the authors were able to support a model in which benevolent sexism predicted both behaviors and attitudes favorable toward gender-based quality. Compassion, in these models, was a significant intermediary factor. People who held benevolent sexist attitudes were more compassionate and, in turn, more in favor of EE.

The next test of the compassion theory involved an experimental manipulation in which participants were primed with benevolent sexist attitudes by being asked to memorize six statements expressing these views from a standardized scale, such as “Women should be cherished and protected by men.” In the gender-neutral condition, participants learned statements such as “As compared to men, women are more reliable” (such statements were rated in a separate sub-study to actually be gender-neutral). Compared to the control condition, people in the benevolent sexism condition were triggered by the manipulation to feel a stronger sense of compassion which, in turn, predicted pro-EE behavioral intentions, meaning that they stated they would be more likely to support such actions.

Hideg and Harris wondered whether support for EE policies would vary by the nature of the type of position and whether it was traditionally “masculine” or “feminine.” Returning to the question of the heads of a corporation, would people high in compassion also believe that women should have equal opportunities in these traditional male areas of dominance? Comparing the attitudes of undergraduates in the two areas of human resource management (“feminine”) vs. finance (“masculine”), the findings suggested that men high in benevolent sexism favored women.

In the final iteration of the study, using actual employees, another wrinkle became added to the equation in which men and women were compared. Men high in benevolent sexism endorsed EE-favorable policies but only for feminine occupations. Thus, in the words of the authors, “seemingly positive reactions of benevolent sexists to women and gender issues are due to the experience of compassion but that benevolent sexists only experience compassion if the EE policy places women in traditional gender roles.”

This is the crux of the problem for women in the workplace when confronted with benevolent sexists: The compassion only goes so far and only serves to keep women in their place. By encouraging women to stay in this place, these well-meaning sexists limit the extent to which women will be challenged to expand and enlarge their aspirations.

There’s a take-home message for you if you’re someone faced with benevolent sexism. Consider these attitudes to be a problem for the people who hold those attitudes, but not to be a limitation for your own ambitions. Don’t be fooled by what seems to be compassion. It’s preferable to be treated with compassion than with hostility, but you can be easily lured into complacency in the process. 

Fulfillment, by men and women, and in masculine and feminine pursuits, requires that everyone has a truly equal chance to succeed based on his or her talent rather than on the constraints brought about by discrimination. If you do reach those positions of higher power consider using your position to influence the attitudes of others to be more open-minded and accepting or, as the authors conclude, making “the psychological effects of power” not just good for the individual, but “good for the group” (p. 169). It's better for all of us when we are each given the chance to maximize our potential.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016


Hideg, I., & Ferris, D. L. (2016). The compassionate sexist? How benevolent sexism promotes and undermines gender equality in the workplace. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(5), 706-727. doi:10.1037/pspi0000072