Good Manners Often Mask Sexism — And They’re Restricting Women’s Agency
I met a friend recently, and I told him I am a writer, which he thought was “bold.” But when he found out my boyfriend is a corporate lawyer, he exclaimed that I had nothing to worry about. I smiled then, but on my way home, I started thinking about what had just happened. Why did my friend assume that my boyfriend was financially supporting me? Did he, in a way, think that I was dating this man because he was rich? It made me uncomfortable.
I realized later why it left me uneasy: It was sexist. His reaction might, at first glance, seem harmless, even sympathetic. You might wonder, can someone be sexist when it seems they are only being nice? Well, that is exactly how benevolent sexism works. In 1996, Peter Glick and Susan Fiske developed a theoretical framework of sexism, dividing it into two sub-components: ‘hostile sexism’ and ‘benevolent sexism.’ While the former is reflected in blatantly negative gender stereotyping, benevolent sexism represents an attitude toward gender and gender roles that appears innocuous, but in reality, is damaging to all genders and curbs attempts to achieve gender equality. It is bigotry that doesn’t appear to be harmful on the surface, but in truth, plays a critical part in reinforcing traditional gender roles. It attempts to preserve patriarchal social structures that place men above women. Research suggests that benevolent sexism should not be overlooked since it can have a long-lasting negative impact: Women who allow benevolent sexism tend to be increasingly dependent on men for help. They are ready to let men decide what they can and cannot do. They are less ambitious, and don’t perform as well at work and on cognitive tests.
The idea that women are weaker, incompetent, and inferior to men falls under hostile sexism. It is barefaced, and therefore, easily identifiable. On the contrary, beliefs that women need to be protected by men is benevolent sexism, which seems so friendly that even a feminist could miss it.
When you start being vigilant, however, you will notice that benevolent sexism is ubiquitous. While men are complimented for cooking meals, women are obligated and often required to do so; while fathers are lauded for being on “baby duty,” mothers are expected to provide child care; and, while men are mostly praised for their abilities and performance at work, for women, praise is directed almost always toward their personalities and appearances. In fact, even in obituaries, the accomplishments of famous women are often overshadowed by sexist overtones. Who can forget the first sentence of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill’s obituary that heralded her for making “a mean beef stroganoff” and being a devoted wife and mother? Following heavy criticism, the first paragraph was later edited by the New York Times.
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Benevolent sexism not only informs gender roles, but also the ways in which we deal with sexual assault and harassment. We would observe that people exhibiting hostile sexism are more likely to commit sexually violent crimes, such as rapes, domestic abuse, stalking, and acid attacks, or openly support the offenders. Benevolent sexism, on the contrary, condemns these heinous crimes, but is likely to blame the victims. Those ascribing to or practicing benevolent sexism can be expected to raise questions about the victim’s clothes, their background, or why they were out so late on their own. When I was discussing with my aunt how it is unfair to blame rape victims’ clothes for their sexual assault, she responded, “I know, dear. I am a woman myself and all for gender equality, but there are lunatics around, and it is best to stay safe by not being too adventurous with your clothes, especially when you are not accompanied by a man.”
Let us unpack this statement, which of course was made out of concern, but signals the cognitive dissonance of my aunt. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort you feel by acting in a way that contradicts your belief. It is often at the heart of benevolent sexism. In this case, my aunt says that she believes in gender equality, but her attitude suggests otherwise. To make sense of her own inconsistency, she then suggests that there are sexual predators around and the only way to stay safe is for women to adhere to society’s perception of decent clothing. This automatically puts the entire onus of being safe on the woman, without acknowledging or tackling any of the underlying issues. Or, when my aunt says that a woman needs to be accompanied by a man she is acquainted with, she completely turns a blind eye to cases of sexual assault faced by women at home. Also, the age-old notion that women are weak, and need to be protected from men by men, is implicit in her comment.
Only by laying this seemingly nice comment bare do we notice how dangerous it is. I believe that my aunt genuinely considers herself an advocate of women’s equality, and therefore, has never considered looking into her own, as benevolent as it might be, sexism. This is apparent in Harvard’s implicit bias tests, which shows that one does not have to have explicitly negative beliefs about others to be prejudiced toward them. Our implicit beliefs can lead us to behave in a biased manner while also enabling us to claim that we are being fair.
Benevolent sexism is therefore difficult to identify, but once it is recognized, it is even more difficult to eliminate. Here’s the paradox: Researchers reveal that women prefer men who exhibit signs of benevolent sexism over those who don’t.
In the research, 700 women, ages between 18 and 73, were given profiles of men who expressed attitudes that can be described as benevolently sexist, such as offering help to carry heavy boxes, giving their coat to a woman who’s cold, paying for food on the first date, etc. The participants were then asked to rate the man’s attractiveness. The findings showed that women do believe men who exhibit benevolent sexism are more patronizing, and can be expected to undermine their partners — but, inconsistently, the women also considered these men more attractive. According to them, these behaviors signal that a man is “willing to invest by being protective, providing, and committed.”
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This preference goes to show how women are conditioned to expect certain things from men, while men are taught to provide those things. Men are conditioned from childhood to act as protectors of their mothers and sisters. When dating, they are expected to behave ‘chivalrously.’ Once married, stereotypes require them to financially provide for the family. Earning less than the wife still raises eyebrows, and so the man has to maintain a hierarchy in which the wife comes below him.
As a result, both men and women are acclimatized to look at acts of benevolent sexism not as prejudice, but as signs of caring. Women find it easier to justify benevolently sexist behavior because it is disguised with what society calls personal benefits, such as protection from men. Women, therefore, find benevolent sexism attractive and fair because it adheres to society’s idea of what an ideal man should be like. But this further diminishes their effort to transform the unfair patriarchal system. In turn, women resort to what is called system justification, a cognitive process that arises as a response to a system threat, that is, an attack on the individual’s values and traditions. In this case, the women, to counter the unpleasant feelings that the statements or behavior associated with benevolent sexism provoke, actively endorse the very stereotypes that legitimize patriarchy even though it is against their personal interest; they justify the social systems that are disadvantageous to them. By doing this, the women adjust to the society, and thus reduce the emotional distress of being oppressed.
Reducing the negative effects of benevolent sexism requires us to understand these nuances. Just because benevolent sexism looks benign, we shouldn’t forget that it is, after all, sexism, and its effects can be enduring.