Sexism Disguised as Flattery
This week I’m going to talk about benevolent sexism. Benevolent sexism is (very basically) sexism disguised as care or consideration. It usually takes the form of men wanting to protect women's "delicate" or "fragile" sensibilities. And it is particular harmful and dangerous because most men don’t realize they’re being sexist, and many women probably don’t see it either!
Hostile sexism is easy to spot. It is flagrant comments and beliefs that women are less capable and qualified than men. Benevolent sexism, although well intentioned, is equally harmful, possibly even more harmful because women don’t readily recognize it as sexist. If a man were to tell a woman outright that he didn’t think she could do a certain task or job that might rightly make the woman angry and/or resentful. However, if a man’s actions or words are conducted in such a way as to make it seem that he wants to protect a woman, a woman is likely to be flattered.
An important point here is that benevolent sexism enforces traditional gender roles that reinforce men’s power and thus promotes inequality between men and women.
Consider this example from my own life: I was at a Philadelphia Eagles football game with my uncle. If anyone knows anything about the Eagles it’s that the fans are known to be rowdy, rude, and aggressive (we are notorious for booing Santa Claus, although my sources who were at the game say that incident was misinterpreted). After a bad play, my section erupted in loud jeering and cursing. My uncle screamed out "Hey! Watch the language! There's a lady here!" His intention was to have everyone be polite and well behaved around me so as to not offend or upset me. However, the implication is that I am offended by or can't handle foul language. (And anyone who knows me knows I have a pretty foul mouth myself and can jeer with the best of them at football games.)
Another example from the public sector is when Paul Ryan said that "Women should be championed and revered. Not objectified." While this statement was made in response to Trump's "groping" comments that came out in 2016 and its intentions are to protect women, the sentiment is that women need to be put on some type of pedestal and treated differently than men.
This topic has been extensively studied in numerous countries. Both types of sexism are associated with support of more traditional gender roles. Cross-cultural comparisons found that countries that exhibit the most benevolent sexism have the least gender equality (e.g., women politicians, woman business leaders).
I hear you. Wait a second, Annette, does that mean that a man acting like a gentleman and opening the door for me or paying for my meal is actually trying to oppress me? No, not necessarily. But we do get into a slippery slope here. Many people do see men opening doors for women or refusing to split the bill as forms of benevolent sexism. To me you have to look at the whole picture, not isolated events. I personally very much appreciate when someone opens the door for me, male or female, and I do the same for people of all genders. I love when my husband opens the door for me and pays for dinner. However, my husband also stays home and takes care of our daughter while I work a relatively demanding job that I absolutely love.
Take the Paul Ryan example above. If his record showed unwavering support for women’s issues and gender equality we could probably take his benevolently sexist comment in stride. However, Ryan has voted against paid family leave, is staunchly against abortion, voted against an equal pay bill, and has supported efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. Taken together, it is clear how Ryan’s words maintain the status quo of keeping men in power and disempowering women.
So why am I on my soapbox about this issue. A lot of this is cultural and societal and beyond the control of any single individual. However, being more aware of what benevolent sexism is and its negative effects can encourage both genders to call it out when they see it and disrupt the systemic sexism that is all around us.
Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2018). The ambivalent sexism inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. In Social Cognition (pp. 116-160). Routledge.