Does "Benevolent Sexism" Cause Harm?
So-called benevolent sexism can be deceptive because it comes with a smile.
Posted Jan 15, 2020
A recent study of “benevolent sexism” (BS) concludes that it can have immediate and long-term negative consequences for women.1 BS occurs when someone (usually a man) says something that seems supportive and positive, but is based on traditional gender stereotypes. It is unique in that, unlike hostile sexism or other overt forms of discrimination, it is often deployed with consciously good intentions, and often seen by the recipient in that light.
For example, Karen and Ben have been eagerly awaiting their annual performance reviews from their manager. While Karen’s review praises her for being a likable team player that people enjoy working with, Ben’s review focuses on his efficacy as a team leader and tough negotiation skills. Although both of these reviews are positive, Karen’s review focuses on her likeability, while Ben’s focuses on leadership and toughness.
BS can be disorienting to women because it may appear supportive while simultaneously reinforcing and extolling the virtues of traditional gender roles, responsibilities, and capabilities. BS maintains gender inequality through the idealization of subordinate qualities in women such as neatness or nurturing. By focusing on qualities that hold less social power and capital, BS affords men the means of seeming to offer support to women, while still maintaining traditional gender hierarchies.
Many women who are on the receiving end of BS support experience a double bind. The faux complimentary tone of BS means that perpetrators are often seen in a positive light and are unlikely to be labeled as sexist. Conversely, women who reject BS support are judged negatively as cold or having a chip on their shoulder. Hence, the nature of BS means that it often goes unnoticed or unchallenged.
The methodology in this study was unique because the authors did not rely on anecdotal accounts or questionnaires, but rather cardiovascular indicators of challenged or threatened psychological states while women worked on a verbal reasoning task after receiving BS feedback. This made it possible to tap into a person’s psychological state (conscious or unconscious) while they were actively engaged in a task.
The researchers found that just like hostile sexism, BS negatively influences women’s success and well-being. For example, women got fewer questions right on a problem-solving test when the tester expressed BS attitudes towards them and their impaired performance created self-doubt about their competence. The negative consequences of BS can persist into subsequent situations, extending the consequences of a single sexist encounter into new experiences and tasks.
The findings suggest that if women are receiving BS feedback, even if it is consciously well-intentioned, they may nonetheless feel as though they cannot meet the demands of the field. Sian Beilock, the President of Barnard College, has written about ways that women can respond to BS so that they do not succumb to it.2 Women who received BS feedback felt less skilled afterward than women who did not. Those feelings could become the difference between a young woman walking out of a math exam with an 80% grade believing she is not cut out for a STEM career and signing up for the next level course.
The gender disparity in salary is often explained by saying that women “choose” jobs or careers that pay less than the jobs and careers that men choose. Sociologists have shown that women are often excluded from high-paying jobs and relegated to lower-paying ones; and female-dominated professions are lower-status and lower paid than male-dominated professions. Also, as long as we do not have universal child care, many women will “choose” lower paying jobs that give them the flexibility they need to care for their children.
But this research has potentially far-reaching implications for the gender disparity debate because it explains another element in women’s so-called “choices.” Women are subject to BS their whole lives and it probably has a lot to do with their underrepresentation in high-paying STEM careers and their overrepresentation in the lowest paying specialties of law and medicine.
1. Veronica M. Lamarch, Mark D. Seery, Cheryl L. Kondrak, Thomas L. Saltsman, and Lindsey Streamer, “Clever girl: Benevolent sexism and Cardiovascular Threat,” Biological Psychology, Volume 149, January 2020.