The Hidden Dangers of Benevolent Sexism
By Daisy Grewal, Ph.D., Psychology Today
January 07, 2009
When people think of sexism, they usually think about hostility towards women: overt discrimination, derogatory comments, and even rape and violence. In reality, views about women in popular culture and beyond are highly dichotomized - a phenomenon that is sometimes referred to as the Madonna-whore syndrome. In other words, archetypes of women are often sharply divided between the extremely good (e.g., the virgin) and the extremely bad (e.g., the temptress). Prejudice researchers use the term benevolent sexism to refer to forms of sexism that characterize women as extremely good. The benevolent sexist views women as bastions of purity who need to be protected, supported, and adored. Despite its overtly positive flavor, this idealization of women implies that women are weak, soft creatures that are best suited to traditional gender roles. As social psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske have written, "being on a pedestal is confining, yet the man who puts [a woman] there is likely to interpret this as cherishing."
The traditionalist may view benevolent sexism as feminist hogwash; however there is considerable evidence suggesting that benevolent sexism is real - and in fact, far from benevolent when viewed from a broader perspective. Researchers have developed a survey, the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, which assesses the degree to which individuals endorse both hostile and benevolently sexist views. Examples of survey items assessing benevolent sexism include, "A good woman should be put on a pedestal by her man," and "Many women have a quality of purity that few men possess." A study spanning 19 countries and including more than 15,000 participants found that hostile and benevolent sexism tend to go together - cultures that are higher in hostile sexism also tend to be higher in benevolent sexism. People who score high on both are thought to be ambivalent towards women. Ambivalent sexists reconcile their opposing views by sorting women into specific subtypes such as "housewives," "career women", or "babes." Hostile sexism may be elicited by women who are viewed as threatening, e.g. feminists or career women while benevolent sexism is directed towards women who reinforce traditional views about gender, such as housewives. Both perspectives fail to view women as multi-faceted equals to men.
You might be thinking, "If benevolent sexism is so bad, then why do some women like it-or even seem to prefer it?" Indeed, the more men endorse benevolent sexism in a culture, the more women in that culture tend to endorse it too. For women living in cultures that are oppressive towards women, there are numerous advantages to benevolent sexism. Chivalrous men who are willing to risk life and limb for their women may be quite desirable in societies where women are often preyed upon. However, as Glick and Fiske point out, the irony here is that women in such societies are forced to seek protection from the members of the group (men) who threaten them in the first place. In the US, endorsement of benevolent sexism has been linked to conservative ideology and religious beliefs. While some women may see benefits in being treated in paternalistic way, research suggests that costs for women overall may be high.
A set of experimental studies published in 2007 by three researchers at the University of Liege, serve as a sobering reminder that benevolent sexism can be harmful - and perhaps even more harmful than hostile sexism. Female participants were invited to participate in a study where they thought they were undergoing training for a job interview. They were introduced to a recruiter that expressed either hostile, benevolent, or nonsexist views about women's abilities to perform in the potential job. After hearing about the job, participants completed a test of their problem-solving abilities. Surprisingly, the women who were exposed to the benevolently sexist recruiter performed worse than women who were exposed to either the hostile sexist or the non-sexist recruiter. In an additional study, the researchers found that women in the benevolent sexism condition faltered on the exam because they suffered from intrusive thoughts about their ability to perform. The authors concluded that "benevolent sexism created a mindset of preoccupation, self-doubt, and decreased self-esteem. Such mental intrusions interfered with the task to be performed...On the contrary, hostile sexism was detected as prejudice and therefore left no ambiguity."
Most women do not respond well to hostile sexism, but at least open hostility can be openly fought. Benevolent sexism is insidious because on the surface many women may find it appealing or even desirable. To many women, benevolent sexism may not even appear to be sexism at all. However, its consequences run both far and deep across the globe.